Today in Tedium: The holiday season has long been built around commerce, of course, and the kickoff point has traditionally started right around the time you’re reading this. (Happy Black Friday, everyone!) Black Friday this year offers a new start for a beloved industry that’s often built around the whims of the holidays—the toy industry. The reason? Toys ‘R’ Us, after a period in the wilderness due to a high-profile bankruptcy, just opened up its first new store after emerging from bankruptcy and an ownership switch. With that in mind, today’s Tedium talks about toys, the cultural role they carry, and a hit Netflix show that is putting these cultural objects on the platter they deserve. — Ernie @ Tedium
The overall size of the U.S. toy industry in 2018, according to research from the Toy Association. This number was down by 2 percent that year, in large part because of the demise of Toys ‘R’ Us, which removed a significant source of retail space—a life and death matter for many toy brands.
A hit Netflix series shows just how much work goes into making a hit toy franchise
The average modern toy has a lot of elements that have to come together for its success, and even things that don’t seem like they should work somehow find the perfect formula to break through.
This is a key message of the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us, currently in its third season. The show, created by Brian Volk-Weiss, takes a deep dive into the world of plastic toys, with a strong lean on the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—following original franchises into the modern day.
Volk-Weiss, who is CEO of Comedy Dynamics (a firm that produces and distributes many specials by stand-up comedians, including some that have appeared on Netflix), noted that humor was a driving factor of the specials, which started as a passion project turned to reality.
“We treat the topic of toys in a fun way, and we use humor as much as we use pathos,“ Volk-Weiss explained. “Other docs that I’ve seen are soooooooo serious, and while I agree that that does work for most of those films, I wanted to embrace the fun and playful nature of our topic.”
But another key factor of the show’s success is research, which helps to paint in some of the details. To give you an idea: The very first episode, from 2017, was about Star Wars, was very much a brand juggernaut, and is loaded with footage and music from the different films in the series. For that episode, Kenner’s lead lawyer Jim Kipling brought Volk-Weiss a contract that showed that George Lucas only made 2.5 cents on the sale of every Star Wars toy—something that Volk-Weiss described as the “biggest surprise” in the more than 1,000 interviews he’s done over the years.
The show, with only a handful of exceptions, has managed to get an array of major figures on the screen, as well as the licensing of the songs, images, and other content that makes up the complex branding situations around a given toy.
“We are so thorough in how we produce the show as it relates to working with most of the brands directly, and on top of that we have two amazing law firms that vet every episode on top of the internal clearance work that we do before it even goes to them,” Volk-Weiss said.
Some facts uncovered by the show—the risqué roots of Barbie as Bild Lilli, a doll based on the main character of a German newspaper comic produced in the 1950s that was intended for adults—highlight just how far the inspirations can be from kid-friendly. But on the other hand, the series often shows just how much toys can be a great equalizer—crossing racial, gender, and economic lines more effectively than many other forms of entertainment. It’s only in recent years, he says, that toy manufacturers have taken steps to build toys with diversity in mind, citing examples such as Star Wars, where diversity has improved greatly in recent editions of the series—both on the screen and in the toy aisle.
Without diving into spoilers, I will note that the docu-series, which now totals 12 episodes, really shines when it focuses on the people responsible for actually making and marketing the toys, who often don’t get the front-line notice that their products do. Debates over who, exactly, invented a toy line are common; so, too, are flashbacks to repeated lines, even between episodes, that have the effect of highlighting the absurdity of some of the business conflicts at play.
The current season—with episodes on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, My Little Pony, and pro wrestling—is no exception. I was not into wrestling as a kid, but I found the episode on wrestling toys to be particularly entertaining for this reason, because of the way it played up the licensing conflicts that arose from a glut of available licenses and companies willing to pay for access to those licenses.
Even though the show plays with kids’ stuff, it very much trades in intrigue, as powerful players like longtime Power Rangers impresario Haim Saban score big through business moves even cannier than anything on Saturday mornings.
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Five key phenomena that have helped toys evolve into their modern form
- The rise of cheap plastic. Plastic was playing a key role in revolutionizing the manufacturing process starting in the 20th century, with use cases such as the comb, the straw, the milk crate, and the lemon squeeze bottle highlighting its sheer versatility. Plastic, for all its environmental faults, allowed toys to become cheaper, more creative, and more functional—with LEGO’s success a great example of the latter.
- Kenner’s decision to make the Star Wars action figures short. Prior to 1978, action figures were often fairly tall—the early-era G.I. Joe dolls, at 12 inches tall, were often more expensive to produce and tended to be a little less collectible as full sets. While Mego’s Pocket Heroes line first played with the 3.75-inch scale in 1970, Kenner’s move to make the Star Wars action figures a more portable size made it the de facto standard. However, Barbie dolls have continued to maintain the rough “playscale” size.
- The rise of cartoons created to sell toys. Starting in the late 1960s and continuing through the modern day, a number of popular animated franchises came about as a direct result of a push to sell toys. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, for example, only gained a coherent storyline for its toys as a result of a cartoon that was produced after the toy line was introduced. While there was widespread protest to this phenomenon, most notably by the advocacy group Action for Children’s Television, it nonetheless created a number of important franchises.
- The American International Toy Fair. The “Super Bowl” of the toy industry, this annual event (originally dating to 1903) has helped to drive many of the success stories of the modern toy industry. Like many trade shows, this is a place where many toy-industry deals are scored, and in the wake of the Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcy, it has taken on a more significant modern role. “Reality is starting to set in, in regards to how important Toys ‘R’ Us was to the industry,” noted Basic Fun CEO Jay Foreman, in comments to Bloomberg earlier this year. “It’s just hard to really replace that type of exposure.”
- Modern adult fandom. The trend of Bronies, or adult male fans of My Little Pony, only hints at a broader trend that has started to pick up in recent years, as collectors of classic toys have increasingly helped to boost interest in long-lasting brands. LEGO, for example, has found lasting success thanks in part to its AFOL (Adult Fans of LEGO) community.
“Patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood, so that the original soft object continues to be absolutely necessary at bedtime or at time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens.”
— A passage from Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, a seminal hypothesis first published by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1951. The essay discusses the importance of physical objects to very young children in the months after birth, as their world expands exclusively beyond their relationship with their mother. This relationship often gets associated with stuffed toys, or security blankets for children.
In a digital era, are toys losing their cultural influence? Maybe not
In an era when there are more entertainment options than ever, it might seem like we might be moving past a time when a small number of toys hold such dominance over popular culture.
But Volk-Weiss sees the opposite effect happening—the fact that there is so much more exposure to toys happening now than there was even during the days of Saturday-morning cartoons.
“While I would watch one or two cartoons a week in the 1980s, my kids are watching thousands of clips on YouTube, and then they want what they saw,” he explained.
This is something highlighted not just by the growing popularity of digital cartoons, but by the rise of unboxing channels, which have become incredibly popular in recent years as a way for kids to get a sneak preview of new toys.
To put this all another way, even though kids have these electronic devices in front of them that can do significantly more than regular toys, they still gravitate towards the simple physical objects. This is underlined by the fact that the toy industry only saw declines in 2018 because of the shutdown of the industry’s flagship chain. The biggest growth areas weren’t gadgets, per Toy Association data, but the bread-and-butter—action figures and dolls.
“I think the toy companies are very smart and well-run, and they have shifted their strategy to short form entertainment to a certain extent, and you can see in their quarterly reports that the toy business is more health than ever,” he notes.
With that success, however, has come some weird questions of ethics and exploitation along the lines of the very ones that the toy industry faced when creating cartoons based on its franchises.
A great example of this is Ryan’s World, a YouTube channel built around an 8-year-old Texas boy that reviews toys on his channel, to massive financial success for his parents. His profile is such that he recently appeared in his own video game and now appears in toys himself.
A recent Nintendo Life review pointedly questioned the trend of having actual kids play the mascot:
Not content with having all the internet money ever, Ryan’s parents have now taken to jamming their lad’s face onto various other products, from inevitable toy lines to stuff like toothbrushes and TV shows. Now it’s time for a Ryan video game, and what better way to do that than to make a karting game in which eight of the characters are Ryan? Actually, don’t answer that.
In recent weeks, it’s been rumored that YouTube will begin cracking down on violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which could have an impact on channel’s like Ryan’s. (Or, as is known to happen on YouTube, a fear that a general adpocalypse is coming.)
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that unboxing channels operated by kids are not the only form of digital entertainment out there, and many of the same questions about toys came about in the late 20th century—see the conflicts about war toys and the move towards putting commercial mascots in video games.
These battles evoke the same kinds of debates that led to the Children’s Television Act of 1990, a key law that affected the marketing of entertainment to children—though it did not kill it, something proven by the fact that one of the biggest success stories in The Toys That Made Us, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, was first released in the U.S. three years after the passage of that law.
In its own way, The Toys That Made Us plays with the influence of toys as well, though it’s a lot more transparent about it than other forms of digital entertainment might be. Even though it literally tells you how toy companies often invented new forms of entertainment specifically to help sell the toy brands they manufacture, it’s hard not to watch the show and not feel a tinge of nostalgia for these hunks of plastic.
The target audience of this show is clearly for adults (with some adult humor to boot), even as it covers things designed for kids. But still, you might find yourself headed to eBay or the comic book store after watching this series to buy these objects of your youth—a trend that the producers of the show have themselves noticed.
Just like back in the 1980s, a TV show is influencing people to buy toys—only this one tells you exactly how they did it.
When I asked Brian if he saw modern toys holding a similar place in the hearts of the next generation of kids as they grow up, he was very quick to say yes—because, in part, of the psychological impact that a memorable toy has on someone when they grow up.
“To a certain extent, it’s not really about the toy as much it is about the children and who they were before they came to be adults,” he says. “So as much as I love Star Wars toys, a big part of why I collect them still to this day is it reminds me of who I was 35+ years ago and how new and exciting the world was a 5-year-old version of myself.”
So will there be future seasons? Volk-Weiss is hoping for a renewal, though it’s not a sure thing as of yet. (“Season 3 needs to do really well before we get that hoped for green light!“) If it does do well, however, he still has some things he hopes to knock off his toy-related bucket list.
“My dream is to end the show with an episode called The Toys That Should Not Have Been Made, which would be an episode almost exclusively focused on LJN’s doomed Dune line,” he says.
The nostalgia bug is a heck of a drug, and it’s going to define our relationships with these objects for decades to come. If you feel a tinge when watching a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle on the screen, know that you’re far from alone.
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