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Toy Fair is serious business

Among trends noticeable this year: Gender stereotypes are back

Saturday, February 19, 2000

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

NEW YORK -- Barbie has a new toned-down face and figure. G.I. Joe now talks in Navajo. Dr. Laura is introducing a game where players can "preach, teach and nag." Harry Potter plans to upstage Pokemon in the trading card world.

Gee-whiz interactive products are proliferating like Furbys, but old-fashioned wooden toys and board games are making a comeback, too. Gender stereotypes are back with a vengeance -- girls will raise babies; boys will squirt guns -- even as toy makers show a growing willingness to allow that vengeful video games and toy weapons might encourage violence among young people.

Yes, this was the week for Toy Fair in New York, the annual five-day extravaganza where more than 2,000 companies hawk their hottest new offerings to toy retailers from around the globe.

Toys are serious business at Toy Fair, so this is no place for fun and games -- so to speak. Children are strictly prohibited. There is too much at stake, so the acres of tantalizing displays compete for attention from thousands of grave men and women in suits.

In the United States alone, toys are a $20 billion-a-year industry. Billions of dollars in orders are placed or determined here, and a toy's popularity for the coming Christmas season can soar or plummet depending on how it is received by buyers at Toy Fair.

The bulk of exhibits this year were set up at the cavernous Javits Convention Center, where aisles appeared endless to buyers burdened by free samples and sore feet.

The two largest U.S. toymakers, Mattel and Hasbro, have their own buildings -- complete with display areas -- in another part of town. The big players offer elaborately decorated rooms, each designed to work with a particular toy line. Hundreds of actors and actresses are hired to dress up and hawk products.

At Mattel, trim young women wore dresses inspired by Barbie. Bandai had its temporary employees suited up as Power Rangers. Hasbro dressed an actor as Pikachu, the rotund yellow Pokemon, and an actress wearing pajamas and a terry cloth robe cuddled the lifelike, interactive infant doll called, "My Real Baby."

The hottest new toys are given an extra promotional boost with a "sizzle" -- a short, fast-paced video designed to inspire buyers to make large purchases. Many of the articles at Toy Fair are prototypes, with actual toys not available until fall.

Given the thousands of toys touted at Toy Fair, news media buzz focuses largely on the big companies and best-known brands.

There was great interest in the fact that Barbie's make-up has been toned down and her waist thickened to make her look more like a real teen-ager and to discourage young girls from undereating.

Much notice was taken of "G.I. Joe Navajo Code Talker," which features the voice of a World War II soldier speaking seven phrases in Navajo and English.

Mattel and Hasbro introduced action figures for boys with great fanfare. Mattel has "Max Steel" ("Take it to the Max"); Hasbro has "Action Man." Both offer cars, clothes, weapons and other accessories to "extend the play."

The new, very adult Dr. Laura game created by top-rated radio psychologist "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger attracted attention. As they play the game, players "wrestle with moral and ethical dilemmas" dealing with work, family, friends and love.

The biggest buzz surrounded the announcement that both Mattel and Hasbro have a piece of Harry Potter. Selected as the "worldwide master toy licensee," Mattel got the biggest chunk, including the right to make dolls, games and high-tech toys based on the best-selling books. Hasbro will market trading cards, hand-held electronic games and candy. Some Potter products may be offered late this year, but most will arrive at next year's Toy Fair.

Among the trends this year:

A clear tilt back towards toys that reinforce sex stereotypes, especially female ones. Some of the latest and most hyped toys geared to girls include Hasbro's lifelike "My Real Baby," Mattel's interactive talking teen "Diva Starz", a trading card game called "Boy Crazy" and even a new candy from Jelly Belly called "Karma Beans," designed to "enhance your mood."

There's growing concern by some toy company officials about the public perception that there is a link between toy violence and teen violence. For years, toy companies have refused to discuss the issue, saying it is up to parents to choose toys for their children.

During this Toy Fair, however, David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, expressed interest in creating "voluntary standards" to reduce violence in games and toys. Daphne White, founder of the Lion and Lamb Project, a nonprofit group that opposes violent toys, called Miller's statement a "tremendous first step forward."

Nevertheless, toy weapons remain popular. Bandai is now offering "Rescue Armor Power Rangers," while Larami has upgraded its popular "Super Soaker" water guns with the "Super Charger Monster XL," which features 11 different nozzles and can hold more than a gallon of water.

Following the phenomenal success of Furby, interactive toys are hot and getting hotter, so parents may want to stock up on batteries.

Toy Fair this year created a new pavilion solely for exhibitors of interactive toys.

New models range from Hasbro's "eSpecially My Barney," a plush version of the purple dinosaur that can be personalized through a Web site, to Bandai's "Deluxe Interactive Omega Megazord," which will download as many as seven key phrases or sounds from each episode of the "Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue."

Dogs are the interactive pets of choice. Tiger Electronics has produced two new canines, the palm-sized "Poo-Chi" and the larger "Spike," which can walk forward and backward, run, sit and lie down. Fisher-Price offers Robotic Puppy," which listens and responds to his owner's voice via voice recognition technology.

Even infants can join the interactive craze. Fisher-Price offers a "Sparkling Symphony Gym" that allows babies to lie on their backs and activate classical music and nursery rhymes as well as flashing lights by batting at a sun, moon or star dangling on a plastic bar above their heads.

Counter to the interactive trend, some companies are looking to the past for inspiration. Oddz-On will reintroduce the classic wooden Tinkertoy construction sets, which had been crafted of plastic for the past few years. And both Mattel and Hasbro are offering new board games, including adult games like "Th!nkblot" (Mattel) and "Zobmondo" (Hasbro).

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