I have a confession to make: I’m seeing a toy consultant. We meet privately once a week. All our discussions are confidential. And I pay him by the hour. Though our relationship is purely professional, those of you who know me will appreciate just how scandalous these private meetings are. Here’s how they work: I show Mr. X early designs of my new characters and he tells me which ones will or will not work for the various toy companies and retailers with whom he does business. Mr. X has a deep, commanding voice and regularly uses words like “Walmart,” “Target,” “boy’s aisle” and “girl’s aisle” and, instead of criticizing his many opinions as being uncreative or overly commercial, I just listen quietly and attentively and bow my head like the little bald monk on Kung Fu and I say, “Master, I will never make fun of train shows again.”
What happened? Why the change? Wasn’t I the guy who used to rail against preschool shows that were just “Trojan horses for selling cheap products to preschoolers?” Well, yes, I was, but the rather Darwinian market forces of the kids’ television industry have left me no choice but to knock down the Berlin Wall in my mind that once separated “preschool shows” from “preschool toys.” And, if I’m going to embrace the dark side of the force, I figure I might as well do it right. Thus my dangerous liaisons with Mr. X.
I know that making preschool programs that are actually just epic toy commercials has been going on for years, but it’s relatively new to me. And, when I put aside the ethical dilemmas of marketing colorful plastic products to children who still believe in the Easter Bunny, it’s actually a rather interesting area to be learning about.
For example, just this morning Mr. X warned me that the adorable little milk truck in a new project of mine is a really bad idea since: 1) Nobody outside of the Baltic States gets their milk off a truck, and; 2) Even if they did, “No kid in his right mind will ever buy a toy milk truck.” This advice alone was worth his high hourly fee.
So, how do I feel about changing my core creative based on the speculative opinions of a man whose name I cannot reveal and who gets paid each week in small unmarked bills? I’m fine with it. In fact, I killed the little milk truck without any hesitation at all. And I don’t miss him.
I am nothing if not a pragmatist. And if I’ve learned anything from all my years in kid’s TV, it’s that life is not made up of absolutes but of gray areas, gray areas between the way you’d like the world to be and the way it actually is. Do I wish that great ratings were still enough to keep a great preschool brand alive? Absolutely. But, these days, if your show doesn’t move product and move it fast, it simply will not survive beyond season two.
And so, I now believe that understanding toy people (instead of ridiculing them) is absolutely necessary for the long-term viability of my business. And, besides, if some of the world’s top public broadcasters are okay with selling toys to young kids, why should it bother me?