As we put the final touches on this year’s Toy Fair issue, I started to reminisce about my favorite childhood toys, and I realized that they all share one common characteristic: the ability to captivate me for long periods of time. I remember spending hours trying to line up the color-coded sides of my Rubik’s Cube. (Never one to take a shortcut, I refused to give in to the temptation to simply switch around the stickers.) And each new environment I traversed with my beloved Slinky posed a whole new set of descension challenges that had to be explored. Play-Doh, Lego, Lite Brite – the list of retro playthings that consistently amused my generation just goes on and on.
And then I started thinking about my five-year-old niece and the way she played with the Cut ‘n Style Barbie I gave her for Christmas. That doll was out of the package and loaded with one of the foot-long hair extensions in about two minutes, and 10 minutes later she was tugging on my leg to reload it with extension number two. Another 10 minutes and she had completely moved on to a game of hide-and-seek with her brother, leaving a whole whack of strawberry blond hair strands and a mohawked Barbie in her wake. US$17.99 for 22 minutes of play. Nice.
Now granted, my niece is a couple years younger than I was when Rubik’s Cube rocked my world, but the incredible speed with which she consumed and discarded the doll in favor of a more basic kid activity really stuck with me. Shouldn’t a toy hold a child’s attention for longer than 22 minutes? After all, this is a girl who will watch Barney videos for two hours and beg for more, so she’s not incapable of sustained fascination.
Maybe kids are just not getting enough face-time with different kinds of toys. I have no doubt that there is a wealth of really original and consuming products out there, but I think they often get eclipsed by the sheer marketing and retail might of established brands. Parents end up giving in to the nag factor and the overwhelming omnipresence of these franchises because they are easy, familiar and almost unavoidable. But do kids then end up getting shortchanged out of some really cool – albeit harder-to-find – playthings that might be more stimulating and engaging? Maybe.
I predict that a much greater focus on original toys is in the pipeline for the coming year. Mattel’s certainly making it a priority. The toyco has set up a 12-person creative think tank called Project Platypus to come up with new, out-of-the-box toy concepts. (Get the full scoop on Platypus’s first product and future plans in next month’s Retail section). And questions about the popularity of licensed toys based on entertainment brands elicited some pretty negative responses from the kid panelists that feed our monthly Reactorz Research column.
Could it be that Slinky days are on the horizon again? I sure hope so.