To this day I remember being 10 and extracting my first Tazo from a bag of salt and vinegar chips. It came inside a plastic slip, which I licked heartily before opening to reveal a cardboard disk featuring Yosemite Sam playing drums against a cheese-yellow background. I held the Tazo up, enjoying its creamy colours and the weight of its plastic veneer. And in that moment I knew I was holding a platinum membership card for coolness—and I wanted more.
A lot of people have some version of this memory. From South America to Asia to Australia, millions of people built vast Tazo collections in official Tazo albums and plastic holsters. For many of us, Tazos were an obligatory part of childhood, and yet this collective experience was no accident. Someone out there, in some office, engineered this memory. Someone knew that kids in the 90s would respond to cardboard disks in the way earlier generations had responded to yo-yos and Cabbage Patch Dolls. For the longest time I’ve wanted to know who that was, and how they so precisely knew what kids wanted.
The answer is a guy named Pedro Padierna, who in 1994 was vice president of marketing at a Mexican snack foods company called Sabritas. He and his co-worker Fabian de la Paz had been reminiscing about their childhood collections of sports cards, which gave them an idea for a new campaign.
“I grew up collecting soccer cards,” explained Pedro over the phone from his home in Mexico City. “In the US it was baseball, but in Mexico we had soccer, and it was part of the way we all grew up.”
These cards, he told me, usually came in bags of chips, so it wasn’t a huge creative leap to imagine that some other collectable might be similarly successful. But the question was what?
Pedro and Fabian started bouncing ideas around. As Pedro explained, one of them would get an idea, only for the other to shut it down. This went on for a while until Fabian got wind of a case study from Hawaii. There, in the 1930s, a beverage company had turned their bottle lids into collectables by covering them in artwork and calling them “POGs.” These caps had been a huge hit with kids, who’d gamified POGs by stacking them in piles that they knocked over with a “slammer.” Whoever flipped the most POGs won, and these things were a big deal in Hawaiian school yards until the 1950s.
In the early 90s, management for the Canadian company who’d printed the original POGs decided to resurrect them, jump-starting a second craze. Then, seeing an opportunity to licence the campaign to other brands, their marketing head took POGs to a promotions expo in the US where they were seen by Fabian de la Paz. Impressed, he closed the deal and brought POGs back to Mexico.
The name “POG” was originally an acronym for pineapple, orange, and guava, but Pedro and Fabian figured they could do better. So they outsourced the naming process to an advertising agency which came up with a hundred options before hitting on the cheerfully irreverent moniker “Tazo.”
In Spanish the word taconazos translates to “heel of shoe,” which got shortened to “tazo.” This was a wink to another schoolyard game in Mexico that sees kids using shoe heels to remove bottle caps, competing to launch them the furthest.
“We knew the games were a part of what made promotional items so popular,” says Pedro. “It was so much more complex than just a collectable. It was an interactive game. You got people to talk to each other and that was the magic.”
Now, years later, I’ve always wondered why Tazos featured Looney Tunes, which were an antiquated TV series even by the 90s. Today that would be like releasing collectables adorned with characters from South Park. But Pedro explained that the Looney Tunes were just a product of business serendipity.
“You might remember a fashion trend of white shirts with embroidery,” he said. “Well I liked these shirts, and when I reached out to this company they told me they were launching a range of Tiny Tunes shirts. And I said, ‘well that’s a perfect match.’' We wanted characters that would attract the interest of both genders, and Tiny Tunes seemed right. We were the only ones able to secure the rights.”
They launched with Tiny Tunes—the ultra cutesy version of Looney Tunes—in the summer of 1995 and almost immediately knew they’d hit gold. Within just a few weeks Pedro recalls seeing kids in Mexico City hunched over sidewalks, stacking piles of Tazos and knocking them down. “We were just so happy to see our customers enjoying the game,” he says.
It wasn’t long before management at PepsiCo, the parent company of Sabritas, wanted to take Tazos beyond Mexico and into North America, Europe, and Asia. And that’s how in early 1996 a Mexican promotional campaign arrived at my own school yard in Melbourne, Australia.
Personally this meant spending all my pocket money ($2 a week) on chips, just for the Tazos, which were then swapped at school for more Tazos. I never actually played the Tazo game, but to me Tazos weren’t a game: they were about trade. Tazos were a product designed to be coveted, and thereby give millions of pre-teens a first taste of free market economics. And while today I’m not great at collecting money, I used to be pretty amazing at collecting Tazos.
Pedro wouldn’t tell me how successful Tazos were in terms of global sales (he signed a non-disclosure agreement when he retired from PepsiCo) but he admits they were the most memorable marketing campaign of his career. Not only were they launched everywhere PepsiCo sold chips, but they’ve been manufactured ever since. Since 1995 countless generations of Tazos have sported artwork from The Simpsons to Star Wars spanning a period of almost 25 years. And it’s this seemingly infinite appeal that brought me to the most important question of the interview: how did Pedro know Tazos would be so popular?
“I didn’t,” he told me without hesitation. “I can tell you that I’ve seen things and gone ‘meh’ only to see other things become a big hit. But with Tazos—we were lucky. I’ve had more failures than successes but Tazos had something special. I don’t know if we could do it again though. I’d be a billionaire if I had the right answer every time.”
In this way, Pedro described the birth of Tazos as a lucky strike. He’s a believer in the motto “fail fast and often,” but like others who’ve engineered a culture-shifting craze, he says it ultimately didn’t mean much in the long run.
“The older I get,” he says, “the more I start to think about my legacy and the more I’m clear about what’s important and what’s not. And what’s important is to really develop people to their best. I’m very proud of the people I have developed in their own careers.”
Then he paused and offered this final thought: “Legacy isn’t selling things to the next generation. It’s developing the next generation.”