The Rise And Fall Of Big Mouth Billy Bass, The Kitschy Singing Wall-Fish That Ruled The Year 2000
Big Mouth Billy Bass, which became known by many as the perfect novelty gag gift for dad, originally started out as something of a cultural icon, taking up highly coveted wall space in the residences of everyone from President Bill Clinton to Queen Elizabeth. But what was it about Big Mouth Billy Bass the singing wall-fish that led to its leaving such a lasting mark on American culture?
Making its first appearance at a gift convention in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2000, Something Fishy Big Mouth Billy Bass (which originally sold for around $29.95) soon took on an animatronic life of its own, with sales skyrocketing to unforeseen volumes valued at nearly $100 million by the end of that year. Popular stores such as Spencer Gifts and Cracker Barrel sold them so fast, they couldn't keep their shelves stocked. This left Billy's small-town Texas manufacturer, Gemmy Industries, struggling to keep up with demand. But just as quickly as the wall-fish swam into consumers’ hearts, it fell from favor, becoming yet another relic of 2000s consumer culture.
- Photo: Rusty Clark / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, And Queen Elizabeth All Owned A Big Mouth Billy Bass
As soon as Billy Bass made its first modest appearance at an Atlanta gift convention in January 2000, rumors of the singing wall-mounted fish began to spread. Billy instantly earned consumers’ attention, not only because of the catchy tunes it sang (including “Take Me To The River” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”), but because of its unique animatronic abilities. The ingenuity of Billy's motion sensor, combined with the surprise of his songs, led to Billy becoming quite the conversation piece.
Demand for the singing fish was so widespread that President Bill Clinton was said to have even gifted one to Al Gore. The craze even jumped overseas with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth reportedly owning their own fish plaques. Stores couldn't keep up with demand and soon Gemmy found themselves with back orders that would take them months to fill.
A Single Retailer In Texas Sold 500 Billy Basses In One Hour
Gemmy Industries chose to rely exclusively on word of mouth to market Big Mouth Billy Bass - which, given the eye-catching ingenuity of the product, was a smart move. No sooner did consumers come into contact with this talking fish, it seemed, than they bought it. As a result, store stocks were depleted faster than anyone had anticipated. One Cracker Barrel store sold out its entire stock of 400 Billy Basses in three business days. This was typical.
The events and promotions manager at one Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Texas even explained how, after her store sold out of 500 fish in one hour, she “had friends calling [her] to ask if [she] could sneak them higher up on the waiting list.”
- Photo: Bass Pro Shops / Wikipedia / Fair Use
'What About A Singing Fish?' Is The Question That Gave Rise To Billy
The idea to create a novelty gift out of a singing fish mounted to a plaque didn’t come to its creator, Joe Pellettieri, overnight. Since Pellettieri first joined the Gemmy Industries team in 1998, he had already given new life to one of their primary products, a singing flower named Sunny, which landed him a promotion to vice president of product development. As a follow-up to this success, Pellettieri tried to dream up Gemmy's next big animatronic product.
It was on a trip with his wife Barbara at the end of 1998 that inspiration finally struck - but it struck Barbara, not Pellettieri. While driving, they happened upon a Bass Pro Shop Outlet to take a break. As they wandered through the store, Barbara asked the question that would change their, and Gemmy’s, lives: “How about a singing fish on a plaque?” Barbara, who herself had extensive design and marketing experience, had stumbled upon a gold mine. Pellettieri loved the idea; a fish singing “Take Me To The River” was too perfect to ignore.
- Photo: HBO
Billy Seeped Into Early 2000s Culture, Becoming A Running Plot Point On Season 3 Of 'The Sopranos'
The Billy Bass fad didn’t just make its way onto living room walls, but seeped into various other unexpected places in early 2000s subculture - particularly television. Not only did Billy Bass find itself playing a guilt-driving plot device for Tony at the end of Season 3 of The Sopranos, but it made numerous other memorable appearances as well.
Billy Bass graced the sets Hollywood Squares, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and various talk shows. It also made appearances on popular shows like The George Lopez Show and CSI as a comedic and informative plot device.
Designers Painstakingly Considered How The Fish Should Work
The road, or river, to success for Billy Bass was anything but easy. In fact, Joe Pellettieri’s idea was rejected numerous times before garnering the necessary approvals for production. Not only did Pellettieri have to painstakingly draft blueprint after blueprint to refine the design, but he struggled to nail down the fish’s "wow" factor, which is essential to the success of any novelty toy.
In his search for the perfect design, Pellettieri sought the help of experts outside his field. To ensure that the fish was as life-like and recognizable as possible, he recruited a taxidermist to determine the best breed and details, from gills to tail. Then, Pellettieri worked with mechanics to determine the exact motions the fish would make: exactly how the head would turn and how the tail would flip - the mechanics of which turned out to be far more difficult than anticipated. Along the way, Pellettieri and his collaborators stumbled on the idea of installing a motion sensor that would trigger the fish whenever someone passed by.
With this, Pellettieri had not only discovered his "wow" factor, but his surprise-factor too. The design was approved for production.
Gemmy Did Zero Advertising, Relying Entirely On Word Of Mouth And ‘Scarcity’ To Build Demand
The rapid increase in the popularity of Billy Bass led it to be considered, by today’s standards, a true viral sensation. Not only did sales for the product almost instantly skyrocket, but they did so without the help of traditional advertising.
Gemmy Industries relied exclusively on word of mouth to sell their newest product. Additionally, they purposefully produced only a limited number to ensure that they could properly anticipate demand while also boosting profits.
Once Billy Bass products hit shelves, they didn’t stay there for long. Store after store around the US sold out of the flopping fish faster than they could restock them. And because of Gemmy’s preference for manufacturing their products at a pace below the rate of sale, in hopes of maintaining their demand and positive profit margins (with each finished product costing $4.50-$6 to make), they soon found themselves with an influx of larger and larger orders. As they moved the product into more and more department stores, including Walmart and Target, they quickly realized that their production - which took between 45 and 50 days per item - needed to be scaled up, and fast.