Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The World Beyond Barbie;
New York's Toy Fair

By Bart Bull
From the Washington Post

NEW YORK—It’s only appropriate and ever-so-cute that the little darlings from “Children’s Express” will ask the first official question to be entertained at the opening press conference of the 1987 American International Toy Fair. “Children’s Express” is that TV show where kids hold microphones in front of a video camera and ask questions just as dopey as real reporters’ questions, and little Albert Lin stands right up and asks, "What’s the current trend in war toys?”

Since his company manufactures GI Joe ("A Real American Hero"), Alan Hassenfeld of Hasbro is selected to handle this hot potato. (Hasbro also produces Mr. Potato Head, incidentally, and in the wake of the Cabbage Patch proliferation, Potato Head Kids.) “We do not consider GI Joe a war toy,” Hassenfeld announced. “GI Joe as a product has been a defender of peace.” Since he is, after all, impersonating a TV news person, Albert doesn’t bother to question this, or even burst into hearty guffaws.

Besides, toys are too big not to be taken seriously. The stats stack up like so many cubic tons of Silly Putty. Nearly 450 million Barbie dolls have been sold since 1959. The toy industry produces more than 150 million cars per year. Thirty-five million Cabbage Patch adoption papers have been signed since June 1983. If all the Golden Classic dominoes sold in 1984 were laid end to end, it would take nearly seven hours to drive by them at 55 mph. If the 6 billion Lego bricks produced each year were snapped end to end (the publicity handouts never mention how many billions of man-hours all of this laying and snapping is going to take), they would stretch around the Earth almost five times. More than I billion feet of Golden Books Video has been sold since 1985, equaling 50,000 full-length film versions of ‘Gone With the Wind.” Put together all the rolling stock Lionel produces in one year and you’d get a toy train 150 miles long. More than half a billion Duncan yo-yos have been sold in the United States since 1929. With 20 million fashion items sold annually, Mattel Toys is the largest manufacturer in the world of petite women’s wear. Parker Bros., having constructed more than 2.5 billion little green Monopoly houses since 1935, is the largest housing developer in the world.

You get the picture. Toys are big.

And not just big, but expensive. And not just expensive, but obnoxious. Consider, moms and dads, the advent of roller skates in the shape of pickup trucks and Corvettes that roar when they roll and make horrific brake screeches when they stop. Consider, dear parents, purple and orange rock star wigs, ectoplasm in cans, Laser Erector sets, Furrever Friends and Fluppy Dogs and Michael’s Pets (“They’re the only animals on the shelf/ Cool enough for Michael Jackson himself!") and WingDings and Softies and BabyTalk and Razzcals. Consider, dear bags of loose loot, My Little Pony’s pink plastic Pleasure Estate.

And not just big and expensive and obnoxious, hut cynical. “Are you going to see Mr. Gameshow and Janice Pennington?” asked one of the lovely hostesses who escort lonely buyers from installation—display is too modest a word—to installation. Janice Pennington is one of the Vanna-ettes from “The Price Is Right,” and Mr. Gameshow is Galoob’s animatronic quiz master. “They make a perfect pair,” the hostess says venomously, “they’re both plastic.” Mr. Gameshow’s real name is Gus Glitz, and he has severe Max Headroom damage. “I just had my teeth capped,” he Sajaks. “How do you like ‘em?” He has his own commercials, his own nasty patter and his own theme song: ‘Let’s all play the game/Gameshow from Galoob/Don't be such a rube..."

Cynicism sells this season, but the big buzzwords are “pets” and “power” and “price points” and “interactive.” Mattel is banking big on Captain Power And the Soldiers of the Future, and hedging its bets by syndicating a live- action television series (guess the title) to be distributed by the industry leader’s new TV syndication division. Beverly Cannady, manager of Mattel’s licensing division, told one of the trade magazines she’s confident that ‘Power On!” will be next season’s prepubescent battle cry, but failed to mention whether parents will be charged each time little Jimmy uses it.

Force III, Tech Force, Centurions with Power XTreme—it’s a rough universe out there and it calls for power, force, and more power. ‘Now more power for the Centurions heros.” “Now more power for the villains!” ‘But wait! Here’s even more power for the Centurions!”
As Axion’s Tech Force characters battle evildoers in a television show, the idea goes, their toy counterparts will charge around the living room floor firing laser lights, in response to inaudible signals sent via the cartoon’s sound track. Nolan Bushnell, creator of Tech Force, envisions moving the vidoo game off the screen and making it three-dimensional. “3-D is not when you put silly glasses on,” he said, “it’s when something runs over your left foot.”

Action for Children’s Television, a TV watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission, asking the agency to stop the development of television-interactive toys, or to at least launch a public inquiry into the matter. Outside the Toy Fair, the War Resisters League waged a Stop War Toys Campaign, charging that such toys “desensitize” children to the “horrors” of war.

Frankly, it’s the male action figures who are responsible for the big power grab in today’s toy world (She-Ra, Princess of Power notwithstanding) and as little boys’ toys have gotten power hungry, little girls’ toys have achieved ur-wimpiness. The age of nonsexist toys is dead and buried. In booth after booth, sales reps can be heard assuring buyers, “Little girls love to comb and brush.”

If My Little Pony set standards for insipidity that made Care Bears seem profound, the cuddle-horses with silky plastic manes have just been left at the starting gate. The Fluppy Puppies have long hair, the Shimmers have long hair, the Fairy Tails have long hair, the Furrever Friends have long hair and Tail Topper attachable tail pieces. “I only hope I have a little boy,” said one nervous buyer.

Barbie has long hair too, of course, and so does her archrival, Jem. They’re both rockin’ like crazy these days, but Hasbro’s Jem has at least one innovative edge on her longer-lived nemesis: She has her own guitar. Her illustrations show her with microphone in hand just like Barbie the rocker. Each the very picture of the chick singer, just one step removed from retiring to the lounges of Las Vegas. But among the accessories to Jem's available accessories is the KJEM Rock On Guitar. Full-size, with built-in microphone and no strings at all, it’s actually an air guitar meant for posing in front of mirrors, but it’s a step. She-Ra would be proud, sort of.

Inadvertent or not, the grander installations seem perversely naive, It’s unnerving to come upon one designed to resemble some little tyke’s comfy, cozy bedroom and discover a full-scale adult woman model in jammies and booties cuddling Dozzzy, an interactive little nipper who’s murmuring “being in bed with you is better than having a birthday party.” Worse yet, a lot of spokesmodels who’ve been given interactive infants of one brand or another, and instructed to cuddle the dickens out of them, seem to have already moved past that stage and developed what can only be called an unhealthy affection.

In fact, so many toys on display can make any affection seem unhealthy. The hourly shows for Kenner’s Amazing Friends feature sweet, sweet little child actresses with pink ribbons in their hair who chat right along with toys Tricia & Tooner. “You’re my best friends,” they bubble. “I love you! Both of you!” And then they simulate a giggle.

Big Bird is chattering away with actual moving beak, and nearby a group of buyers and reps are settling down to debate the price of birdseed. ‘$49.99 for this item—this is ridiculous.” “Don’t matter,” the rep tells him. “You got no choice. You want the item, you got to pay the price.”
And behind him, soft and fuzzy and yellow and kind, Big Bird says, “I give the order and you do what I say.”

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