Toys become popular for a variety of reasons. We just got some mini ‘Furbies’ into the shop (they don’t do all the things that their big cousins do but they do sing) and it got me thinking about the way that some toys get popular. You get trash packs which were handed out as freebies in schools to kick start their popularity, and there’s moshi monsters which have lasted longer than any collectible I’ve seen in years (think they’ve been on the go for about 2 years now), their popularity seems to come from the online experience you get from using the ‘secret code’ you get in a pack of moshis. The main thing that seems to do it though is a peculiar mix of familiarity and unattainability, this typically comes from various forms of advertising combined either with ‘rare’ or ‘super rare’ items in a collectible series or good old fashioned restricted supply.
Years ago there was a ‘buzz’ about Buzz Lightyear toys, as parents scoured the country trying to track one down. The general story was that suppliers had underestimated demand, however many of us got our conspiracy theory caps on and noted that they were able to maintain that big price tag across the board and no one was complaining, they were so thankful to have Buzz that their criticism of price was dialled down (or absent). Fashionable toys don’t have to be overpriced, but in the case of restricted supply there’s always the option for people to drive up price to a level they know people will still pay happily.
When I was a kid I rarely, if ever, got hold of a fashionable toy. I dreamed of an Optimus prime transformer (you know the big one with the removable freight unit), of a game boy, I even begged for football stickers (I don’t even like football). My parents got me some stuff, if they could see its merits and it didn’t help that they both worked in retail and were acutely aware of what was being done to them as consumers.
We all know that fashionable toys can be expensive what I’m wondering is whether they really are better. You could advertise the life out of a lump of plastic and make it as rare as you like but is that enough? Does the toy need some ‘special spark’ to kick off a craze?
Let’s go back to Furbies, the originals were one of the most advanced technological soft toys anyone had seen (bar perhaps ‘Teddy Ruxpin’), they were responsive and what’s more they had their own language which made them seem instantly more exotic. It also probably didn’t hurt that they looked like ‘gremlins’ in their fuzzy state. The new ones have this going for them (though I doubt kids know what gremlins are now) plus they have an accompanying smart phone app which lets you ‘feed’ them, communicate, and interact with them in a way that you could never have dreamed of doing with the previous incarnation of Furbies. To be honest if I was a kid today I would want one, the thing just looks awesome. The funny thing is there have been forays into smart phone compatibility for toys before (too many to list here). The thing that really seems to have re-ignited the Furbies craze is kids’ awareness that they are joining in with a pre-existing culture around Furbies: they’re ‘retro’, they’re unique and the particularly interesting thing about Furbies this time round; their parents may have had one when they were younger, and so literally can’t say no without looking like a hypocrite.
I genuinely don’t have a problem with fashionable toys. Many provide a fantastic play experience and small swappable collectibles provide life experiences that you can’t get in a classroom (how to make a deal, understanding the potential finality of actions etc.). I do however find it odd to see which toys kick it into high-gear to become the ‘big toy’ of that year and which fall by the wayside or find themselves pegged as stable and dependable (viz. demand doesn’t shift from one year to the next, though that demand could of course be pretty high e.g. Lego). The ‘dependable’ toys, no matter how popular they might get, never quite seem to reach the dizzy heights of their ‘fashionable’ brethren, they are seen as constant, unending, a steady background feature of childhood, the fashionable toys on the other hand are special, fleeting and nearly unattainable (or at least rare). Perhaps that is at the heart of the appeal, human beings can’t help but get enamoured with the exotic, the fleeting and the rare, it makes us feel like we have somehow broken away from the every-day and had a taste of something truly unique, and this makes us feel more like individuals, more special and unique ourselves in light of this experience.
On a side note, there’s chatter in the industry that Meccano are in trouble financially, they were never a ‘fashionable’ toy when I was a kid so I had a bucket of the stuff. It was genuinely one of my favourite toys (possibly even above Lego) and I can’t even imagine a toy shop without it. I can’t do much as an individual either, my eldest son is still 3 years too young for the standard sets, they do produce a plastic version for his age but he always seems to get enamoured with some other type of toy just before birthdays and Christmas and I don’t get much of a chance to slip some Meccano in there surreptitiously. I hope it survives through so that I can get him some of the basic metal sets when he’s old enough, I really do.
Anyway back to fashionable toys. I’d welcome any comments about favourites of the past or ideas about what drives these toys to become toy celebrities. Again thanks for reading, look forward to seeing your comments.
Edit (22.02.13): Just wanted to add a picture of this moshi monster dress, apparently it was doing the rounds at London Fashion Week. Kind of a different take on the notion of ‘fashionable toys’. (image found at MindCandy)