December 7, 1998
|This holiday season, the hot toy flying off the shelves is an interactive stuffed animal named Furby. Phil Ponce takes a look at toy trends and what they mean.|
PHIL PONCE: It was a red carpet ceremony befitting the head of state or a Hollywood star when FAO Schwartz rolled out this year's must-have toy. And the hype wasn't just for the kids.
KIDS CHANTING: Furby! Furby!
PHIL PONCE: In the shopping days since Thanksgiving parents across the country have been scavenging through store after store trying to find one thing - a Furby.
MAN IN CROWD: Well, I was told by my daughters and my wife not to come back without some today. They just - it's the hottest new toy.
WOMAN IN CROWD: I was calling my sister-in-law to tell her that it's possible I may get two Furbys for her kids. And that's why we're here - the three of us - we left work today to come try and get some Furbys.
|Furry, interactive pet.|
PHIL PONCE: The toy known as "Furby" is a furry fully interactive pet able to interact with its environment. Using an on-board sound sensor, Furby can hear. The toy also has sensors that tell it when its surroundings or light or dark, when it's right side up or upside down, when it's being tickled or petted. It even has a sensor that allows it to talk to other Furbys. The maker of Furby, Tiger Electronics, a division of Hasbro, Inc., expects to sell more than 2 million Furbys by the time the holiday season ends. The company says it's producing Furbys as fast as it can, since demand is high and people are fighting to get their hands on one. It sells for $30. On the black market, though, it can fetch a lot more. But Furby is just the latest toy craze. Back in 1983, Cabbage Patch dolls sparked an even bigger hunt. In 1994, Power Rangers were kings of the toy hill, and two years later, everyone wanted to Tickle Elmo. But Elmo, like the others, belongs to Christmas Past.
MAN: A Tickle Me Elmo - the tickle's out of it. There's nothing - there's nothing funny left there at all.
PHIL PONCE: Still, some toys do manage to maintain their appeal, to be part of holidays past, present, and seemingly the future.
COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: It's a happy land, Candy Land -
PHIL PONCE: Since it came out in 1949, Candy Land has sold more than 20 million copies, and the game remains a top seller today. Yet, for many shoppers, times have changed.
JOAN McCOY, Holiday Shopper: We're just looking and reminiscing how things were in years gone by. You know, it used to be easy because you just got a doll and a bicycle. Now you have to get the latest software, or we wanted fingernail polish but not like fingernail polish we know. It has to glitter and it has to glow, and it's just different.
PHIL PONCE: And with the new pace, the pressures to get the latest thing are greater than ever. (Scene from "Jingle All The Way")
|The hot toys.|
PHIL PONCE: For more on toy trends and what they mean Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State University and the author of "Kids Stuff, Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood," and Chris Byrne, editor of Playthings Market Watch, a weekly newsletter on the toy industry. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Byrne, interactivity is a big theme this year. You have some other examples. What have you got?
CHRIS BYRNE, Editor, Playthings Market Watch: It's huge. These are three toys that are really hot this year. This is "Amazing Amy" from Playmates Toys. She's got - she wants -
PHIL PONCE: She's talking.
CHRIS BYRNE: She wants pizza. What she works on is she's got an interactive heart right here, where you can see, and it actually sets the time and she knows what time of day it is, so that now when I give her pizza, you can - and if I gave her juice or something, she wouldn't want that. So it really adds a level of nurturing play, reality to the nurturing play.
PHIL PONCE: And the second toy?
CHRIS BYRNE: This is a talking Teletubby. This is talking LaLa from Hasbro. It says four different things that appear on the show. It's really great for one-year-olds. They really love them, cuddling up to it. And then finally this is Bull Frog from Ohio Art. He's really great. He's a complete - he's a great friend. He's got - he's a frog with an attitude. He's kind of a fun playmate. He's got Ben sensor technology in him, which is the same thing being used in the automotive industry right now for telling a seat when to deploy an airbag. So it really gives him a nervous system. It's really great.
PHIL PONCE: So depending on where you touch that particular toy, it comes up with a different response.
CHRIS BYRNE: Comes up with a different response. So if I grab his tongue -
TOY TALKING: -- Let go. Let go.
CHRIS BYRNE: He wants me to let go of his tongue. So he's really funny. He says over 100 different things, and he really plays really well with the kids.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Cross, are these high-tech toys what you think of when you think of - when you think of a traditional toy?
GARY CROSS, Penn State University: Well, of course, toys until about a generation ago were really miniatures of adult life. They told a little girl what it would be like to be a mother when she had her Bylo Baby or what have you and it told a little boy what it would be like to be in a world of business and industry where there's an electric train or erector set.
PHIL PONCE: So that's -
GARY CROSS: They changed a lot.
|Simply to be a part of that fad.|
PHIL PONCE: Okay. What are these toys telling kids?
GARY CROSS: Well, they're listening to - they're telling children that they can play out the fantasy of the television shows that they see to some extent, they're telling children that - that machines or gadgets are fun.
PHIL PONCE: Why do think, Professor, these interactive toys are so popular?
GARY CROSS: Well, I think they're popular in part because they - they're hyped, in part. One of the real attractions of Tickle Me Elmo a few years ago or some of the other interactive toys like the Virtual Pets of last year was that they were part of a fad, and one of the real attractions is simply to be a part of that fad, to be the only kid on the block who has one, or for the - to be the parent who's able to get one.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Byrne, do you think that's it, that it's a fad, it becomes a hyped thing, and that's why everyone wants the same toy?
CHRIS BYRNE: Well, very often I think that you have to remember that the toy business is the fashion business with one season out of the year. So it's become fashionable to have a Furby. It was fashionable to have a Tickle Me Elmo. You can bet that all those Tickle Me Elmos did not go to two-year-olds. So that it's something that people want as a way of expressing themselves, just like they want a certain car or a certain brand of cereal.
PHIL PONCE: Well, Mr. Byrne, how does one - how does the industry determine which toy is going to be it in a particular year, which toy is going to be a Cabbage Patch, which is going to be the Furby?
CHRIS BYRNE: Well, you can't predict it. You really can't predict it. A lot of people try to, but it really doesn't work. What has to happen, you have to start with a good toy. And I think Furby's a great toy, or Amazing Amy, because they really have an interactive play with the kid. Play doesn't change that much, but how kids relate to their toys, they live in a technological world, so it's natural their toys are going to talk back to them. It just enhances the play experience. When something catches the public imagination like a Furby, a Tickle Me Elmo, or a Cabbage Patch doll, then it's Katy By the Door. You just never know. You can't predict that kind of thing.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, what role did toys play in the past?
GARY CROSS: Well, one of the things that toys did was they, in effect, told children what their adult roles - what their adult life would be like, and they did it in a playful kind of way. One of the things that an erector set did was tell you about the mechanical world. A lot of toys were miniatures of real machines. And they introduced then children to the roles they would eventually play. And, of course, they also gave parents ways of telling their children that, well, you've reached a certain age, you're ready for an electric train, and that they also gave parents a way of sharing in the play with their children. This was particularly true when toys changed much more slowly than they do now, so a father could play with an electric train with his son and feel really part of the world of his child.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, do these interactive toys sort of interrupt that relationship between parent and child in your opinion?
GARY CROSS: Well, in some ways they're a substitute for that interaction. I mean, after all, a parent could sing to the child when it's ready for bed or read a story, instead of having an interactive toy do it. It's not to say that these toys are bad in and of themselves. They're great fun. But they really are in some ways a poor substitute for a parent or, for that matter, a real pet.
PHIL PONCE: Do you think, Mr. Byrne, that these toys are fulfilling the role of companion, as opposed to something that a child brings his or her imagination to, like an erector set or a tool kit?
CHRIS BYRNE: Well, nothing can replace the parental interaction. I think this can be enhanced by it. These are all toys that really aren't complete without the child, even though they do amazing technological things. Kids live in an amazing technological world. And toys and playthings reflect the world they live in very much. So, it's perfectly natural that toys are going to talk to them, and parents can share in teaching kids the nurturing process and realize that Amazing Amy wants her milk now, so that it's part of really dealing with a child. It just enhances the whole play. And it really is about the connectiveness, and I think that these do enhance that.
|A child's separate world.|
PHIL PONCE: Professor, you've been studying toys in history. What do toys tell us about the culture?
GARY CROSS: Well, they tell you a lot. They tell you in some ways where the child really lives. For example, back in the beginning of the century, again, the electric train was a toy that children could connect to because they saw trains all the time; they knew machinery or a playhouse, the same kind of way, or a baby doll. They had a lot of babies in their lives. But since the mid 1960's, toys have been increasingly about fantasy, maybe not so much these interactive toys, but I'm thinking of things like, oh, action figures or perhaps Barbie dolls that really are a break from the play of the past. And there the child in play participates in his own fantasy world, maybe built around TV shows or movies but very much a child's separate world -- quite distinct from the world of adults or the world of their parents.
PHIL PONCE: So, Professor, you're saying that in this fantasy world these toys come sort of with a pre-packaged fantasy world like Star Wars, that you tap into the Star Wars world, as opposed to creating one's own story line characters.
GARY CROSS: Well, sure. The Star Wars toys are really props; they're really miniatures of the characters and of the gadgets in the story. Millennium Falcon, or what have you. And they give a child a chance to play, admittedly quite often quite creatively, with these toys, but to play along the story line.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Byrne, do American kids get too many toys?
CHRIS BYRNE: Well, sometimes I think they do. I think it's really important -- that American kids get about 250 to 300 dollars' worth of toys each year on average - and it's really important - parents often overwhelm kids at Christmas time, and I've seen - observed families where kids go from toy to toy to toy, and they're just completely overwhelmed. And I think that one toy - especially like a doll or something that a child develops a relationship with - is really important, because, again, it's about relationship. It's about relationship to the toy and projecting that into the larger world.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, what's your reaction to the amount of toys that American kids seem to have available to them?
GARY CROSS: Well, I think one of the reasons why parents give so many toys to children is because each individual separate toy means very little to the parent as such. This is particularly true of what I call the fantasy toys, the action figures, perhaps some of the fashion dolls. In an age when toys really said something about the parent, it said that by golly, you've reached the stage in life where you need this toy, this is a toy that I played with, you could give one or two toys, and that would mean a lot, but today when the toys don't relate to the world of parents, very often the parent makes up for that by simply giving a whole lot of toys.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, Mr. Byrne, does the gift of a toy mean less than it used to?
CHRIS BYRNE: I think the gift of a toy really in a proper environment it means a lot. I think that parents need to understand that what they bring into their homes reflects their values, whether it's what they buy for themselves or what they give to their kids. So every time you're bringing a toy into the home it's teaching your child something. People always ask me, what's the best educational toy for my kid, and I always go, well, what's the child and what's the lesson, because every toy really can teach nurturing or socialization or fair play, and really it's about those values that you want to communicate through what you bring into the house.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, your advice to parents?
GARY CROSS: Well, my advice to parents is to think about what the toy says about them when they give the toy to the child and to think - and to think at least about giving some toys that they can relate to, as well as the child through the advertisements and the media, perhaps even some simple toys like yo-yos or marbles or those kinds of things, because I think a lot of children really want to have toys that they can share with their parents, as well as with each other and by themselves.
PHIL PONCE: Well, Professor, thank you very much. Mr. Byrne, thank you.
CHRIS BYRNE: Thank you.