This week the International Toy Fair takes place in New York City. All the major and minor toy companies show off what they hope will be the hot toys that fly out of stores for the rest of the year. I’ve been writing about toys for over a decade, so this is a big deal for me, but there are a few things about Toy Fair that can very annoying.
The coverage by the mainstream media has never been particularly good, and has been getting worse every year. Rather than go to the convention center and actually investigate the toys — and give air time to the ones that they think are the best — most reporters just lazily report to the media desk. They are given a handler, who takes them around to the same group of toys by the same toy makers who have enough money to throw a few “product placement” dollars at the media handlers to make sure that the “right” toys get showcased.
Even after a major article in the New York Post exposed the fact that “Toy Consultant” Chris Byrne primarily consulted by taking payola from toy companies to steer reporters in the right direction, lazy reporters still use the guy and quote him liberally in their reports. They’ve allowed him to reposition himself as a parent’s advocate, even though he’s still working for the toy companies. The reporters don’t take the subject matter seriously enough to care.
That’s why, rather than seeing well-done reporting about real trends in the toy industry, we get the same giggling run-through with the same toys on every news program, and the same stock wire report where only the names are changed. How many years in a row are we going to have to read about how this is the year that toys go high-tech? How many more times are we going to get stories about Barbie’s love life, instead of reports about how the new Bratz figures have eaten away at Barbie’s market share? Why do the toys based on big-budget movies get so much air time on the major networks when the toys based on movies have largely been failures for years?
As a result of this kind of reporting, the smaller companies don’t really get much of a chance to get any exposure. The homogenous coverage has also prevented the emergence of another “breakout” hit, like Tickle Me Elmo a decade ago. Now that the coverage is money-driven, the major toy companies put their marketing muscle (and payola) behind toys that they feel “need” the extra push. They do this instead of promoting what may be their best toy, in favor of the toy that they think will be more profitable.
The toy business is not as much fun as a person might think. And that’s a shame, because it should be all about fun, and not maximizing shareholder value.
This year, since I have the platform of the PopCult blog, I’m going to do what I can to fix this. Each day this week, I’m going to bring you details about a new toy from a small company. These will be toys that you won’t see on the major news programs or cable news channels. Being me, of course, the toys may seem a little strange. But at least they’ll be different!