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Toys for Saps

 

New York Times

September 16, 2007

THE chief executive of Mattel, Robert Eckert, has just apologized to America’s parents for allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made toys decorated with leaded paint or containing powerful magnets into the country, exposing children to danger. This is admirable, as is the recall of these toys and the toy industry’s request that Congress impose mandatory toy safety testing standards. But what Mr. Eckert and other major toy makers should also apologize for is the toys themselves and the way they are promoted.

When I looked at Mattel’s list of recently recalled toys, it became obvious that something more than our dependence on foreign goods or even the physical safety of children is at stake here. The problem is that the toys and the business model that creates them has so little to do with the needs of children and their parents.

On the list were 56 Polly Pocket sets (including a Lip Gloss Studio Playset), 11 Doggie Daycare toys, 4 Batman figures, 43 Sesame Street toys (not just Elmo Stacking Rings but Giggle Grabber Soccer Elmo and Grow Me Elmo Sprinkler), 10 Dora the Explorers and more than a score of assorted figures and cars. These are designed mostly for preschoolers; none encourage violence and many feature the cute and caring. But, a parent might ask, why 56 Polly Pocket sets? Wouldn’t a half-dozen meet the needs of any child? And why teach 4-year-olds the fine points of cosmetics?

Yet most of us are not shocked by this list. Indeed, a business model that sells endless additions to basic toys even when they have nothing to do with any recognized child-rearing ideal or even imaginative play seems natural.

This wasn’t always the case. In the early 1970s, child advocates like Action for Children’s Television recognized that television ads for toys had a magical power over children. They tried to ban these commercials to give parents, not toy companies, control over the desires of their offspring. In 1978, Michael Pertschuk, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, argued that ads appealing to young children were inherently “unfair.”

The toy and candy industries, which advertised directly to children, mobilized and accused the commission and child advocates of trying to restrict commercial-free speech and of wanting a nanny state. In 1980, Congress complied by prohibiting the commission from regulating ads aimed at children.

About the same time, toy makers noticed that their earnings from selling “Star Wars” characters were more profitable than the movies themselves and fully embraced character licensing. Aided by the early ’80s deregulation of ads, Mattel, Hasbro and others created cartoons that were essentially program-length commercials. These cartoons, like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” or “Care Bears,” promoted toy lines in their story plots and led to an endless wave of toys based on television and movie characters.

At the same time, American toy makers outsourced production, mostly to China, and concentrated on design and marketing, transforming a seasonal industry (mostly at Christmas) into wave after wave of movie-toy promotions. As a result, in 1987, 60 percent of toys sold in the United States were based on licensed characters, compared with about 10 percent in 1980. Toy sales increased from $6.1 billion in 1982 to $12.5 billion in 1986.

This was a superb model for business success, but it hasn’t been such a good way to raise children. Since 1973, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has set standards and recalled hazardous toys, protecting the physical safety of children. But government does nothing to protect children’s psychological needs. Sure, youngsters want this stuff (after all, they see it on television every day) and they find ways of playing with these toys, sometimes imaginatively abandoning the commercial back story of the characters.

But the problem is that the fun built into the toy is mostly in receiving the latest Polly Pocket and adding it to a collection, rather than playing with it. Additive — if not addictive — desire is created and satisfied by these toy lines. They serve little positive purpose other than to teach children to be good consumers and want all the Dora the Explorer toys.

Many people might associate this selling tactic with violent action figures or Barbie and Bratz dolls, but PBS Kids’ cartoon characters and Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) puppets have been licensed to the toy companies since 1971. How many toddlers do you know who are obsessed with anything having to do with Elmo and Thomas the Tank Engine toys?

Is it any surprise that children are running through their childhoods so quickly? Not only do many of these licensed toys introduce young people to fashion and consumerism before they have developed critical judgment, but we as parents give them the stuff too early. And so much of it is junk.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the decision to allow the unrestricted advertising and cartoon promotion of toy lines that has produced year-round marketing and piles of plastic toys, bought and soon discarded. After all, we ought to be just as concerned about the impact of character licensing and toy advertising on our children’s psyche as we are on protecting them from ingesting leaded paint and magnets.

Gary Cross, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, is the author of “Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood.”

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