Toy purveyors create a world divorced from reality


At Towson Town Center, the man at the toy store says Nintendo 64 is very big this year. He is speaking English, but it's English that doesn't connect with any English I have known, and I've been speaking English since I'm 30. For openers, what's a "nintendo"?

At Columbia mall, the toy store people mention "play stations," with names such as "Tomb Raider" and "Nuclear Strike." This is what we're giving in a season of peace? Later, will they sell me a game called "Fallout Shelter," so I can find a safe place to cringe when the kids are playing "Nuclear Strike" in the living room?

At Owings Mills mall, they talk about electronic games and "interactive toys" in language that might as well be Finlandic.

In my childhood, you could open your holiday gifts without immediately searching for an electric plug. The greatest presents were little plastic cowboys with little plastic horses, and you crawled into bed with them and turned the blankets into mountains and valleys and created Western adventures that could fill not only a Technicolor screen but your entire imagination.

Back then, "interactive" toys meant those you carried outside, where you found other kids in the neighborhood, and you "interacted" with them. Only we didn't call it "interacting." We were simpler souls using a simpler language. We called it "playing."

But this was another life ago, and things have changed. A new book called "Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood," by Gary Cross, explains some of it.

The toymakers have invented a world of their own, increasingly divorced from reality and connected to marketing devices unimagined by previous generations. My generation of boys went to the movies and saw westerns and World War II epics, so the toys not only reflected the big screen images but - maybe - psychologically prepared us for the real world and battles our generation would be expected to fight as we reached manhood.

Certainly, the girls' toys were their own vision of the future: not only dolls, but nurse's kits and miniature kitchens and entire doll houses.

Today, Cross tells us, the most popular toys are unconnected to the real world. They're futuristic electronic games. They're dinosaurs equipped with hidden rockets, and they're robots that turn into airplanes and cars, and even G.I. Joe has been updated. He's now got laser beams to fight off invaders from outer space.

He's also a lot more expensive. Last year, the toy industry spent $950 million on advertising. You spend that much just to tell people what you're offering, you've got to sell more than little plastic cowboys riding little plastic horses across sagebrush blankets.

In the 1980s, Cross writes, "Toys that evoked memories of real wars, western adventure or dreams of future space exploration gave way to action figures, combinations of cliches torn from any realistic context.

"The dolls and play sets that encouraged girls to act out their mothers' roles were replaced by Barbie's fantasies of personal consumption. Preschool play, once the realm of blocks, pull toys and teddy bears, now featured junior versions of fashion and action play. Education toys were increasingly marginalized. Even Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys were edged off store shelves by fantasy playthings."

What toymakers discovered long ago, and have since turned into an art form, is the ability to bypass parents altogether and make their sales pitches directly to the kids.

Before television, the kids discovered Shirley Temple and Tom Mix at the movies, and the toymakers discovered the kids discovering their movie role models. By the time of television, the toy folks were shaking hands with Roy Rogers ("King of the cowboys," remember? And who made him king? Just some guy with an eye for marketing), and with Walt Disney, and with Disney's Davy Crockett coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears.

Thus, the beauty of 1950s Disney wasn't just the programming, but the built-in advertising for products tied directly to the characters he was presenting every week on TV. From this, we evolved by the 1970s to entire shows invented with precisely equal intention to entertain kids and to market tie-in products.

"Program-length commercials," Cross calls them. They're cartoon shows - "Care Bears" and "Strawberry Shortcake" and the like - that tell a story but mainly pitch the product to kids who then make the pitch to parents.

By the fall of 1985, Cross writes, the top 10 best-selling toys all had their own cartoon tie-ins on TV.

Who needs to pitch to adults any more? The kids and their toymakers have their own world, with their own characters and their own language, and their own vehicles for talking to each other. And all of it is removed from any known world inhabited by grown-ups.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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