Dispatch December 2009

Toy Wonders & Blunders

In the world of toy marketing, triumphs are measured in units moved, but toy failures, too, can become their own kind of legend. We spoke with toy experts Tim Walsh and Cliff Annicelli to gain insight into some of the toys from recent decades that have caused crazes—and others that in retrospect seem just plain crazy.

The first American toy was a doll woven from corn husks, popular with young girls in the late 1600s. Two centuries later, the doll was one of this country’s first mass-produced toys. Today, toys are a $22 billion industry in the United States. The average household with children under age 6 spends almost $500 per year on toys. And dolls still reign, with Barbie and Transformers topping the market in sales last year, followed closely by sleeper hit Webkinz.

With big bucks at stake, researchers are keen to understand what will sell and what won’t.

“A lot of people have spent a lot of money trying to figure that out,” says toy historian Tim Walsh. “Of course you’re dealing with the ficklest of all consumers: kids.”

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In the face of this uncertainty, a few rules do stand out:

First, a toy should be challenging. “The best toys invite you to solve a problem and somehow engage your higher sense,” says Scott Eberle, of New York’s Strong National Museum of Play. “Take a yo-yo: it costs $2, but it can take years to learn how to work it.” Thirty-plus years of Rubik’s Cube sales have been built on the deceptively simple toy’s 43 quintillion possible combinations.

Second, advertising matters. “Some things would not have taken off without [it],” says Eberle, citing Etch A Sketch as one of the first toys to launch a modern-day TV ad blitz. “It was a little more expensive, kind of complicated,” he explains. “You had to see it in action.” Today, “mommy bloggers” represent the new advertising model, characterized by peer-to-peer toy recommendations. “These parents were raised on the Internet,” explains Richard Gottlieb of

HITS
Hula Hoop (Wham-O)
Introduced: 1958

When Wham-O introduced a simple plastic hoop in the spring of 1958, it set off a worldwide craze, inspiring young and old alike to give them a twirl. Within a year, a hundred-million hoops had been sold. Never before—or since—has a toy taken off so quickly. One explanation for the fad? “This was the time of Elvis and his gyrating hips,” says toy historian and author Tim Walsh.

HITS
Hula Hoop (Wham-O)

HITS
Hula Hoop (Wham-O)
Rubik’s Cube (Ideal)
Introduced: 1980 (U.S.)

This deceptively simple-looking cube has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations--and only one correct solution. “For a toy to endure, there needs to be a certain difficulty level,” says Walsh. “People need to want to try to master it.” Since it went into U.S. production, more than 350 million cubes have been sold, and sales continue to climb.

HITS
Hula Hoop (Wham-O)
Cabbage Patch Kids (Coleco)
Introduced: 1983

When the Cabbage Patch Kids craze reached its peak around 1985, sales of these chubby-cheeked toddler dolls topped $600 million. “Part of the genius of their marketing was selling the idea that no two were alike,” says Walsh. “The machine put freckles on some, and not on others. They were ‘unique,’ yet mass-produced. It’s the same idea behind Beanie Babies.”

HITS
Hula Hoop (Wham-O)
Tickle Me Elmo (Tyco)
Introduced: 1996

For most of the ’90s, Elmo was just a mild-mannered Muppet living on Sesame Street. But in 1996, a Tyco designer equipped an Elmo doll with an internal motor and voice-box--and created a must-have holiday toy that sparked near-riots. A stampede in a Nebraska Wal-Mart left one clerk nearly pantsless and with a concussion and broken rib. “I was kicked with a white Adidas before I became unconscious,” he told People magazine. Black-market Elmos sold for hundreds of dollars above his $30 sticker price.

Presented by

Shauna Miller is senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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