Special Report: American International Toy Fair: Mattel clued in to fashion dolls

Some 1,600 exhibitors have their showrooms primed and ready with the latest toys as they wait for the more than 20,000 buyers who are expected to come to New York City for the 1997 American International Toy Fair. Increasingly, toy manufacturers...
February 1, 1997

Some 1,600 exhibitors have their showrooms primed and ready with the latest toys as they wait for the more than 20,000 buyers who are expected to come to New York City for the 1997 American International Toy Fair. Increasingly, toy manufacturers and film and television studios are teaming up to develop products based on licensed properties, which now make up as much as 50 percent of all toys. Our special report on Toy Fair looks at how the studios and toy companies are working their way through these collaborations.

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Taking a lesson from the stars of its Friday night series on ABC, Viacom Consumer Products is outfitting Clueless with the perfect accessory: a fashion doll line from Mattel, to launch at Toy Fair.

Viacom Consumer Products pictured fashion dolls and accessories such as clothing changes, vehicles, pets and play environments right from the beginning of the show’s production, says Debbi Petrasek, the division’s vice president of strategic property development.

That’s to be expected, considering that fashion is as central to the show as, for example, its main character, Cher. ‘We believe that Clueless has become synonymous with trend fashion,’ says Petrasek. On average, Cher appears in 10 different outfits per episode, while supporting characters such as Dionne and Amber change their attire six to eight times. Such an extensive wardrobe gives a toy manufacturer a lot to play with.

This kind of toy targeted mainly at girls age six to 11 also suits girls’ play patterns and encourages them to tune in to the show. ‘The way that little girls play with dolls is that they in essence become that character,’ says Petrasek. Therefore, girls will watch the program to learn the characters’ personalities and behaviors.

With a product idea in mind, Viacom Consumer Products wasted no time in looking for a master toy licensee. By last April, just a month into production, the division was reviewing pitches from the major toy companies, and a partner was named the next month.

Mattel came out the clear winner. The toy manufacturer put on a ‘dynamic presentation’ that demonstrated it had done its homework and had an understanding of the property. Mattel exhibited several outfits on each of the dolls, resembling fashions from the 1995 movie, and placed the dolls against appropriate backdrops, like palm trees and Cher’s jeep. ‘It was so easy to feel what this line would look like,’ says Petrasek.

Mattel’s track record with Barbie gave it the upper hand in designing this type of product. ‘Barbie is such an enormous and important line for Mattel that the resources they have on staff enabled them to come up with an incredible presentation for us.’

Mattel’s presentation convinced Viacom Consumer Products that the company could create the products more quickly than its competitors. Viacom aimed to have the first line in retail outlets by early 1997. ‘They [Mattel] were so far down the road already on what they were able to accomplish without any help from us that we felt this would shorten our development cycles.’

To assist Mattel in developing the toys, Viacom Consumer Products provided access to the show’s wardrobe and even to its stars. It printed stills of the actors in different outfits from videos of episodes. The actors also participated in a special photo shoot with the camera ‘inches away from their faces,’ says Petrasek, to provide close-up shots of their facial features from every angle.

But the product development process did not involve modifications to the series. While Petrasek concedes that creating a toy based on a television series can result in changes to the program to enhance the toy line, in this case, Mattel ‘was thrilled’ with the ample wardrobe and accessories already incorporated into the show. ‘So we didn’t have to infuse the show with any more design inspiration than it already had.’

The first Clueless line, consisting of Cher, Dionne and Amber dolls and Cher’s jeep, is rolling out at Toy Fair. ‘The likenesses are magnificent,’ says Petrasek, and the fashions are ‘spectacular, down to the colors, the patterns, the last details.’

Petrasek anticipates that the toys will be well received at Toy Fair based on the ‘great response’ from retailers to early prototypes at Mattel’s pre-Toy Fair show in Ph’enix, Arizona, last August. The toys are scheduled to hit store shelves next month.

Mattel plans to develop other characters and accessories, as well as CD-ROMs. In the works with other licensees are branded apparel, cosmetics, fragrances, costume jewelry, electronic games and a book series with Simon & Schuster.

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