Where did the idea for the LiveStrong bracelet come from?

From Nike, which approached Texas cyclist Lance Armstrong, who has a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with the company, about selling yellow synthetic rubber bracelets to raise money for his Lance Armstrong Foundation. (Yellow is the color of the Tour de France winner’s jersey.) In May 2004 Nike produced an initial batch of five million, stamped them with the slogan “LiveStrong” (a brand created by Austin’s Milkshake Media), and began selling them for $1 on its Web site, donating all net proceeds to the LAF.

How many have been sold?

“I thought, at best, we’d sell maybe 500,000 of them,” Armstrong told espn.com last fall, when the bracelets became a full-blown cultural phenomenon. By then 12 million had sold—382,000 in one day alone in September. Since then sales have nearly tripled, reaching more than 32 million across fifty states and more than sixty countries at an average clip of between 100,000 and 150,000 per day.

Why the phenomenon?

The key to product penetration is reaching “influencers”—famous or otherwise visible people who have the clout to turn an idea into a fad. Armstrong gave the bracelet plenty of exposure during his record-breaking sixth Tour victory in July. But the yellow bands really started moving when his celebrity friends took over. Last summer Bono, Robin Williams, Jay Leno, and Ben Affleck were all seen wearing them; so were a couple of battling politicians (Senator John Kerry had a bracelet on during the Democratic convention, President Bush on the campaign trail). By season’s end, the bracelets were a must-have for teens and tweens returning to school, and sales shot into the stratosphere.

Has Nike kept up with demand?

Yes, though plenty would-be profiteers on eBay have tried to take advantage of a perceived shortage: Bands have reportedly sold on the auction site for as much as $15 a pop (none of which, the LAF points out on its Web site, goes to the foundation). Then there are the fakes. Some vendors sell counterfeit bands that come in sneakily similar packaging. A few are easy to identify, emblazoned with the words “Live Long” instead of “LiveStrong” and priced at more than a buck. The LAF is pursuing cease-and-desist orders for all of these vendors, but they’re leaving the for-charity copycats alone.

Such as?

Last October Target started selling pink bands to support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, but that was just the beginning. At the Web site for Choose Hope, a nonprofit that sells products to fund cancer research, you can buy a “Say It, Fight It, Cure It” bracelet in gray for brain cancer, teal for ovarian cancer, orange for leukemia—sit tight, we’re only getting started—white for lung cancer, black for melanoma, burgundy for multiple myeloma, and, for those who like alliteration with their alms, lime for lymphoma and kelly green for kidney cancer. If solids aren’t your style, you can find red-white-and-blue bands to support American troops or tie-dye ones to support world peace.

The money from those knockoffs is going to good causes, right?

Well, there are plenty of for-profit Web sites now selling bands as fashion accessories. And some critics raised eyebrows when 7-Eleven teamed with the United Service Organizations to sell camouflage-green “Support the Troops” bracelets for $2.99 but committed only $1 per bracelet to charity.

How does the LAF feel about all the other bands?

“We’re flattered by the copycats,” says spokesperson Michelle Milford, “as long as the organizations are raising money for good causes.” A smart stance, because the bands show no signs of disappearing: Supporters of the tsunami relief effort just started offering a $3 “Relieve, Recover, Rebuild” bracelet. Should Texas lose to Oklahoma next fall, can the sale of burnt-orange charity bands be far behind?