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What makes a toy popular with boys

Why are some toys more popular than others among boys? The answer to this seemingly simple question involves two complex perspectives: the way we, as humans, organize random perception and feelings into meaning and the manner in which developmental traits and...
April 1, 1997

Why are some toys more popular than others among boys? The answer to this seemingly simple question involves two complex perspectives: the way we, as humans, organize random perception and feelings into meaning and the manner in which developmental traits and male behavior patterns influence this meaning.

Humans are unique in that we innately think and respond in terms of a mixed pattern of sensory and conceptual symbols. Without formal sequential logic, the human mind g’es from data to information to symbol to metaphor in the blink of an eye. This symbolic world becomes familiar to us at a very young age, and for this reason, we come to experience things, not so much as new, but as unfamiliar ways of looking at the already familiar. (Why else are analogies such a potent form of explanation?)

This fundamental interplay between the familiar and the unfamiliar also provides the core dynamic by which a boy makes a decision to play with an object. But, pattering a toy on a television series, book or a movie is not enough to make it familiar unless the product also reflects the same familiar/unfamiliar dynamic.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys are successful examples of this combination. The Turtles saga upon which these toys are based provides a compelling and unfamiliar way for boys to look at the familiar hero myth. This myth, as with all myths that deal with the conflict between emotions and intellect, consists basically of the following: First, a community is threatened, and a selfless superhero reluctantly emerges. The hero’s first attempt to protect and restore harmony and social justice to the community fails due to an inherent flaw in his or her character. The superhero moves out of the community to correct this flaw by connecting either with natural or supernatural forces. Aided by fate, the superhero returns to the community, and a decisive battle is fought in which the superhero, having corrected the flaw, restores harmony and social justice.

In the Turtles story, bits and pieces of American pop culture have been reassembled in new ways. Cultural references from comics, videos and films have been cleverly woven into the fabric of the mythic Turtles world. For example, the Turtles live in a New York sewer system reminiscent of the urban legend started by the 1970s movie Alligator. Here, however, the Turtles are not evil creatures, but good guys. Their transformation into good-guy mutants resembles the theme of cult films such as The Toxic Avengers, which similarly dealt with radioactive-type mutations. Also, much of the characters’ slang is a mix of 1960s California beach patois, 1990s street speak, 1950s beat speak and high brow.

All of these rearrangements and inversions of adult icons and culture have served not only to mock and satirize elders, but have proven to be incredibly appealing to boys who are still in the process of developing self and group identities, who are struggling through the process of assuming a more unemotional male identity, who live with feelings of being powerless, ineffectual and frustrated in the surrounding adult world, and who themselves also wish for a quick and dynamic transformation. The end result of this very clever interplay between the old and the new expresses for them a ritual-type experience, in which the present is re-energized through the celebration of a pop culture rooted in an older mass culture.

In developing a toy for boys, research should explore whether the toy effectively addresses this familiar/unfamiliar paradox; which developmental, cultural and sometimes linguistic skills the toy engages; and whether the toy creates a type of ritualistic experience in which the player reinvents himself each time he plays with the object.

The environment in which this testing is done should ensure that there is no right answer to any question; emotional responses the key factor in determining any purchase or influence response behavior are explored; and that the data is analyzed using a multi-disciplinary approach involving views from psychology, anthropology, consumer behavior and marketing.

Ric Lipman is a co-founder and principal of KID2KID, a kids and family market research firm, and ProtoBrand, a brand analysis and development company.

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