Pop-it: how a monkey unleashed the madness

It is the “essential” toy of the moment. Simple but irresistible.

They are small rubber bumps that can be pushed in and out and that produce a “pop” style sound and cause a very satisfying feeling.

Whether used as a game, a toy, or just as a relaxing way to calm down in these difficult times, pop-it supposedly popped out of nowhere last year in stores, markets, and online.

The impact of this successful product, which was actually invented more than 40 years ago, increased thanks to a video of a capuchin monkey in North Carolina, United States, playing with it.

How did the idea come about?

The original pop-it was the brainchild of two Israeli game designers: Theo and Ora Coster.

They invented more than 190 games. One of the most famous is “Guess Who?” (Translated as “Guess Who” or “Who’s Who?”), a face recognition game that was sold in multiple languages around the world.

Theo was born in Amsterdam in 1928 and was a classmate of Anne Frank, whose diary became one of the best-known accounts of the Nazi holocaust.

He survived the war by living with a non-Jewish family and changing his name – Morris Simon – because he sounded too Jewish.

Ora Coster with pop-it.

© BBC Ora Coster with pop-it.

In 1955, he drove to Israel on a motorcycle. There he chose to live and met his wife Ora, an art teacher.

They merged their names to form their company, Theora Design.

The couple started by producing things for companies to give away as gifts, including a very successful ice cream stick that also functioned as a construction toy.

That generated enough money and allowed them to concentrate on designing games.

The first pop-it toy had a tragic inspiration. When Ora’s sister, who was an artist, died of breast cancer in 1974, Ora came up with an idea in a dream.The couple invented the popular "Who's Who?"© BBC The couple invented the popular “Who’s Who?”

“She said, ‘Theo, imagine a big field of breasts, women’s breasts, that you can push the nipple.’ She was very open, she said what came to mind, to anyone,” says Boaz Coster, Theo and Ora’s son who runs the company with his brother Gideon.

“She said, ‘Make like a nipple mat that you can press back and forth. And he did exactly that,” she adds.

The pair produced some prototypes, but the idea didn’t come to fruition, in part because the silicone rubber that current pop-its are made of wasn’t available at the time.

Boosting social media

Pop-it can be found all over the world.© BBC Pop-it can be found all over the world.

A few years ago, the brothers dusted off their parents’ idea, which had been shelved since the 1970s, and struck a deal with Foxmind, the Montreal-based gaming company.

It was re-introduced as “Last One Lost”, a two-player game in which participants take turns pushing the bubbles and try to avoid pushing the last one.

Launched in 2014, it sold “a few thousand,” Boaz says. But in 2019 it began to be sold by the American retailer Target.

“They started selling a little bit more, but it still wasn’t a success, until someone created some videos and clips on TikTok and YouTube. And there was a specific one with a little monkey that presses from one side and then turns it and presses it from the other side,” he explains.

“It was the essence of the idea that our parents thought of and this generated 500 million visits,” says Boaz.

The name of the monkey “influencer” is Gaitlyn Rae and it is a female. She lives in Elizabeth City, North Carolina with her owners, Jessica Lacher, who owns a farm, and her husband, Paul, who runs an irrigation company.

“Someone sent her a pop-it for her birthday,” Jessica says. “That was the first time we saw him. I don’t know if it was original or not but then other brands started making it and their fans kept sending them. I mean, we have pop-its boxes and boxes,” he describes.

And so the madness was born.The video of the monkey went viral.© @GaitlynRae The video of the monkey went viral.

Fighting imitations

Now you can buy pop-it pineapples, dinosaurs, unicorns, guns, Apple logos, even the children’s TV character Peppa Pig, none of them licensed by Foxmind or Theora Design.

“The sales estimate is between 500 and 1 billion copies,” says Boaz.

“But 99.99% of them are imitations,” Gideon adds.

Most of those items are found in stores and on the Internet, but none are licensed, while official versions are hard to find.

Amazon says it is working with Foxmind to protect its intellectual property rights and official products are displayed more prominently on its U.S. platform.

The BBC contacted some of the companies selling pop-its without a licence, but none wanted to talk to us.

Meanwhile, Foxmind plans to regain some of that market with more innovative designs of its own. And they do what they can to legally fight the imitators.

Despite this, the brothers are delighted with the creativity that the family idea has unleashed.

Pop-its have been used to bake sweets and cakes, while others use them to help people with autism.

“We don’t complain,” Boaz says.

Ora passed away a few months ago, at the age of 90, happy that his invention had become a worldwide success after all these years.

She was buried in a cemetery in Tel Aviv next to her husband Theo, who had died 2 years earlier.

Their tombstones are designed with references to one of the couple’s most famous games: the “Who’s Who?” cards.

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