"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 December 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Toys for Naught



The holy trinity of television,

plastic, and divorce have

blessed the nation's toymakers

for the last 40 years, but as

audience fragmentation continues

to sap the evangelical power of

that list's first divinity,

apostate hand-wringers predict

dark days ahead for the

industry. Amongst the more

faithful, however, such notions

merely fuel their scorn.

According to them, TV is a more

powerful persuader than ever;

the declining fish-to-water

ratio of the traditional

Saturday morning barrel-shoot

simply means that underachieving

media buyers - after years of

fortuitous indolence - will

finally have to acquaint

themselves with some of the more

remote territories of the vast

cathode wasteland.



At first glance, the season's

surprise success, Tickle Me

Elmo, seems to suggest that TV

is still the toy industry's best

sales engine. How else to

explain the irrational appeal of

that barely evolved sock puppet,

except through the volatile

alchemy of astute product

placement? Already the tale of

the palsied plush toy's rise

from Sesame Street afterthought

to cultural phenomenon has

achieved the status of hallowed

PR Myth: a sycophantic gift to

Rosie O'Donnell's son led to a

retro-giveaway on Rosie's show,

which led to a cozy spot on

Bryant Gumbel's lap, which led

to eye-gouging, sucker-punching

retail hysteria.



Unfortunately for the dollpushers

and gadgetmongers who didn't see

the efficacy in sending their

junk to a spoiled celebrity

scion, such media daisy chains

are extremely hard to duplicate.

Even if Rosie decides to

challenge the industry-leading

Mia Farrow, how many kids can

she ultimately adopt? And how

often is the notoriously

unhumble Gumbel going to let a

swatch of fuzzy fabric upstage



Furthermore, if the Saturday

morning commercials are any

indication, it's not cable or

primetime, or even other media,

that's stealing kids' attention -

it's drugs. Indeed, almost as

frequent as the lavishly

produced hard sells for various

cheap-labor incarnations of

colorful plastic are the

thoroughly unconvincing public

service announcements that try

to bully kids into forgoing the

pot, crack, heroin, and other

pharmaceuticals that are

apparently robbing them of both

the money and the desire that's

necessary to maintain

museum-quality collections of

GI Joes and Barbies.


[Health Wise]

As any 12-step acolyte knows, the

only thing that can compete with

the mind-numbing allure of the

dummy pipe is a full-blown

Internet addiction. Recognizing

this fact, toy manufacturers and

retailers alike have been busy

as elves this past year setting

up shop on the web - a medium

where the goal is not to keep

advertising and entertainment

apart, but to mix them as

smoothly as gin and vermouth;

where the FCC has yet to focus

the full force of its meddlesome

attention in regard to

children's programming; where

the only necessary ingredient

for a quick sale is a purloined

parental credit card number.



Even better, oblivious moms and

dads have somehow gotten the

idea that the web's an

educational tool. And until

SurfWatch partners with Internet

Fast Forward, blocking out

commercial predators as well as

sexual ones, lecherous toymakers

may adopt the pleasantly

coercive syntax of the pedophile

in their effort to form a

one-to-one relationship with

their young friends. See, for

example, how the folks at LEGO

respond when you try to create a

customized homepage without

wholly succumbing to the

requisite info-grope:

Did you know, that your homepage  
can be better? You didn't answer  
all our questions on the          
previous page. By filling out     
some more things your homepage    
can be better: Don't you want     
additional information about      
LEGO products? By giving us your  
e-mail address we can mail info   
that you want.                    


The wide-open, decentralized web

may also help curb the

monopolistic tendencies of Toys

'R' Us, the dollhouse version of

Microsoft, which currently rakes

in over 20% of the toy

industry's $19 billion annual

revenue. While the aggressive

retailer was once seen as an

industry godsend, helping to

transform a six-week sales

season into a year-round

shopping spree, its increasingly

thuggish tactics have lately

drawn considerable resentment.

Most recently, several

manufacturers complained to the

FTC that the company was

engaging in price-fixing, by

insisting on exclusive deals for

certain toys in order to avoid

price wars with heavy

discounters like Wal-Mart and

Price-Costco. As the industry's

best customer, Toys 'R' Us has

enjoyed uniform - albeit

begrudging - compliance from its

suppliers, but that could change

quickly with the advent of the

worldwide flea market, where

anyone who's got something to

sell can become a retailer.

Already, vulturous toy scalpers

are staging amateur auctions in

the hope of chalking up

tulipomania-style profits on

hard-to-find Elmos and Holiday

Barbies. Why not manufacturers



[Not Pic]

Speaking of those auction-bought

trifles: They obviously aren't

for children. If you spend a

thousand bucks on a cheaply

constructed gewgaw, the last

thing you're going to do is hand

it over to some destructive

little kid. Like Halloween,

comic books, and so many of the

other traditional trappings of

childhood, toys are being taken

over by grubby-handed adults who

refuse to grow up. Grown women

who are allergic to cats, one

imagines, turn to Barbie to

compensate. Professional

collectors hoard Star Wars

action figures in order to drive

prices up to adults-only levels.

And, consequently, kids have

nothing left to play with.


Maybe it's time for a little role

reversal. Given the way that the

older generation's monopolizing

the kid toy market, you'd think

they'd be less guarded regarding

those playthings made

specifically for them. So why

all the "You must be over 18"

warnings on sites that sell such

merchandise? After all, isn't

Big John (with special realistic

penis) a kind of educational

tool too? At $36 a pop, he's

certainly more affordable to the

average kid than an

auction-block Elmo.

courtesy of St. Huck