You can blame it on global warming, or maybe it’s the uncertainty that an economy teetering on a recession breeds. Whatever the cause, many of the new toys companies exhibited recently at the 2001 American International Toy Fair displayed a much harder edge than in recent memory.
No toy pushed the envelope further than Spin Master’s Don’t Free Freddie, likely the world’s first bipolar talking plush. A seemingly friendly monster at the outset, Freddie comes in handcuffs and spouts numerous innocuous phrases like ‘We’re pals aren’t we?’ and ‘I promise to be good,’ all designed to trick his owner into setting him free. Once kids unlock his handcuffs, though, good Freddie turns bad: His eyebrows flare, his horns arch, and he starts spewing a stream of insults, which can be activated by pressing his stomach. Some of Freddie’s more colorful phrases include: ‘Smell my armpit. Oh man, smell that BO!’ and ‘(Fart sound) Man it’s windy.’ Kids can restore Freddie to his more docile nature by placing the cuffs back over his hands.
As the only obnoxious plush soon to be on the market, Freddie sits in stark contrast to other toys in the category, which is precisely why Spin Master implanted Freddie with his pull-my-finger antics.
‘We were trying to develop a funny plush item that would have wide appeal. And to do that, you have to draw one demographic, while offering elements for other groups at the same time,’ says Adam Beder, director of licensing at the Toronto-based toyco. Beder expects the toy’s toilet humor to grab younger kids ages six and up, while its sarcastic wit will likely appeal to older consumers in their early twenties.
But will Freddie and his foul-mouthed persona play at the Wal-Mart in Peoria? So far, the response from the trade has been positive but unequivocal, Beder says, with buyers either loving it or leaving it. But Beder doesn’t expect the monster (US$29.99) and his behavior to become a source of controversy when he’s released to the public in Q4 this year. ‘By no means does he need to be censored. He doesn’t swear. All we’re doing [with Freddie] is toy-izing parts of kid culture, like the whoopee cushion, that have been around forever,’ says Beder. With media attention likely to focus on Disney-Pixar’s CGI feature Monsters Inc., which is scheduled to creep into theaters this fall (and for which Spin Master is also creating product), there’s a good chance Freddie could ride a wave a monster mania to top plush sales-provided, that is, he can stay out of the courts (see ‘Freddie’s legal woes,’ on page 76).
Not to be out-grossed, Manley Toy Quest’s Electronic Stretch Screamers also dare to err on the side of bad taste. Ostensibly an updated version of Kenner’s classic Stretch Armstrong, the 12-inch figures (there are four in all, each fitted with a sensor and sound chip) scream louder the longer you stretch them. The dolls (Ghoul, Werewolf, Mummy and Frankenstein) also speak a variety of phrases like ‘Is that all you got?’ that taunt you to stretch them further. And then there’s the toy’s kicker: ‘We included a brain-gushing and an eye-popping feature, where the eyes or the brains of the doll will gush out. So there’s an additional pay-off there,’ says Brian Dubinsky, CEO of Manley Toy Quest.
Dubinksy is nonplussed by any possible fall-out that may occur due to Screamers’ more graphic elements. ‘Retailers are going to pick what little boys want. Kids know monsters don’t exist, and if they have a monster around, they’re going to make him pay. It’s not any more gruesome than Creepy Crawlers or some of the Dr. Dreadful toys, where you could pull out its brains,’ says Dubinsky. Early retailer feedback for Screamers (US$19.99), which Manley is targeting to kids ages three to eight, has been strong, and Dubinsky predicts the sell-in to be bigger than it was for Tekno: The Robotic Puppy, the company’s number one-selling toy from last Christmas. Dubinksy partially credits the strong retail support for Screamers to the shortage of blockbuster action flicks that will be out this year. ‘Other than Jurassic Park 3, there’s not much out there to drive boys action lines,’ says Dubinksy.
The toy’s unique properties have already caught the eye of one Hollywood studio, which has licensed Manley to create a special Screamer modeled after a character from one of its theatrical pics, an adaptation of a well-known kids publishing property, due out in 2002. Stretch Screamers are scheduled to hit retail in July, but will be available exclusively at Toys `R’ Us in June. Concurrent with the retail launch, Manley will provide a dedicated Screamers website and will follow up with a TV and print ad campaign in August.