Feel like I am being singled out so I will just explain myself. While I now generally agree with your take as an adult; as a kid, inserts were incredible. The improvement from Fleer to Fleer Ultra was also incredible. I loved everything about it - I loved that feeling I got hoping for the coolest insert, the rarest insert. Shaq and Jordan cards were cool and I was happy to have them, but when you are young, it's all about that shiny special card.
Packs went from $.50 per in 90-91 for Fleer and NBA Hoops to $3-$4 (and beyond) almost overnight. Corporations absolutely took advantage of kids/people like me and I ate it up. It's around the time of the all-insert packs that the market got saturated and I finally got my license that I started to lose some interest, but that will never take away my amazing childhood memories.
Ha, not singling you out at all, you just happen to specifically mentioned the things that eventually turned me off.
I'm right there with you. As a kid, pulling an insert was the greatest feeling in the world (especially if it was a big name like Shaq/Jordan, it was still pretty exciting to get an insert but of a not-so-great player, "Wow I pulled a Beam Team card, eh it's Jeff Malone, but wow I still got a Beam Team card!").
And you could ride that high for a while. Pull a card after school, brag to the hobby shop you bought the pack from, brag to your parents at dinner, brag to your friends at school the next day, brag to your cousins when you see them at grandma's on the weekend. Stare at it at night before you go to bed. Grab the latest Beckett every month to see it continually going up in value.
But that insert craze just quickly escalated to be too much though, for me at least. It went from feeling really lucky to pulling an insert card to every pack was guaranteed to have an insert card to insert only packs.
Combined with the multiplication of brands. At first You had 1-4 brands/companies depending on the year with only a few insert sets between them (if any), then they just started multiplying, where you'd had 4-5 different brands from one company, with 4-5 companies making cards, all with numerous insert sets.
Topps had Topps, Topps Finest, Topps Stadium Club, Topps Stadium Club Members Choice, etc.
Upper Deck had Upper Deck, Upper Deck Collector's Choice, Upper Deck SP, Upper Deck SP Championship
Fleer had Fleer, Fleer Ultra, Fleer Jam Session, Flair
That's what really helped turned me off, then grading kept me from ever wanting to get back in.
At first it was awesome though, pulling an insert was the best high a kid could get.