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

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.

Hula Hoop (Wham-O)

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.

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.”

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.

Hula Hoop (Wham-O)

Pink Lionel Trains (Lionel)
Introduced: 1956

Sometimes, a toy is too far ahead of its time. In the 1950s, when the Lionel model train company rolled out a line of pink pastel trains intended to appeal to girls, gender roles were still rigid and girls were a tough sell. But times and tastes have changed, and the company has re-released the line twice since then, in 1991 and 2004, with greater success.

The Most Wonderful Story (Ideal)
Introduced: 1958

Shortly after meeting the Pope in Italy, Ben Michtom, the president of Ideal Toy Company, was inspired to make a "Baby Jesus" doll, complete with a straw-filled manger bed. The toy flopped, however -- in part because Christians weren’t enthusiastic about a Jesus who could be undressed, dragged on the ground, and chewed by the family dog.

Flubber (Hasbro)
Introduced: 1963

As a promotion for the Walt Disney movie Son of Flubber, Hasbro turned out this rival to Silly Putty. But the company soon received reports that Flubber caused rashes for some users. Disposing of the recalled Flubber presented its own problems: Flubber would not burn, and refused to sink after it was cleared to be dumped in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. Hasbro CEO Merrill Hassenfeld ended up burying it all in his backyard, according to Sydney Ladensohn Stern and Ted Schoenhaus’ book Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry.

Ubi (Horn Abbot)
Introduced: 1984

On the heels of its unprecedented success with Trivial Pursuit, board game company Horn Abbot produced a Risk-like game, designed to test players’ knowledge of geography. But the design was hopelessly complicated: world domination entailed answering trivia, reading a series of maps, building a miniature pyramid, and throwing handfuls of poly-sided dice. The Illuminati also factored in somehow, possibly through the included “Rubicon Reticle,” a mystical cartography tool.

The New G.I. Joe
Introduced: 1977 & 2009

Hasbro pioneered the concept of the “action figure” in 1969 with its 11 ½-inch G.I. Joe, which sold very well in the early post-Vietnam years. But in an attempt to update his image, Hasbro made a few fateful changes in 1977: after shrinking Joe down to match competing toys, Hasbro stripped him of his military title and added an ill-conceived leotard. Sales lagged, and Joe was soon returned to G.I. duty. Thirty years later, toy-watchers anticipated a Transformers-level hit with tie-in toys for the G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra live-action film. But even with arm-mounted rocket launchers, Joe couldn’t touch the success of robots in disguise, says Annicelli.

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Shauna Miller is senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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