Visions of GoBots dancing in heads

Shona McKay December 3 1984

Visions of GoBots dancing in heads

Shona McKay December 3 1984

Visions of GoBots dancing in heads


Shona McKay

As the holiday season approaches, there are few dreams of sugarplums in the minds of children— but there are plenty of Autobots, otherwise known as GoBots or Dynabots. A flick of a small wrist can convert the robotic “transformers” from robots into cars, tractors and spaceships. For the less mechanical, there are soft, cuddly fantasy toys—and they are also selling well, led by the individual and adoptable Cabbage Patch dolls. But this year’s most popular toys have one thing in common: they owe much of their success to the marketing technique of licensing, which spreads original trade names to spin-off products throughout the children’s marketplace. Said Daniel Owens, vice-president of marketing for the Rhode Island-based Hasbro Industries Ltd.: “Licensing is the primary

mode for sales in the toy industry today.”

Through licensing, Montreal-based Coleco Canada Ltd.’s Cabbage Patch dolls now smile on Springmaid sheets and pillowcases, sing on Parker Brothers records and talk on Hasbro phones. Hasbro’s popular My Little Pony debuted in a syndicated television cartoon special this year, while the name of the company’s modernized Gl Joe doll appears on more than 50 other products, ranging from sunglasses to shoelaces. At the same time, millions of children follow the character’s adventures in Marvel comic books and on a weekly television show.

The influence of licensing is considerable. A recent informal sampling conducted by the 32-year-old* Ottawabased Canadian Toy Testing Council concluded that four out of every five letters to Santa Claus made requests for

heavily licensed toys including Cabbage Patch dolls, robotic transformers, My Little Pony and Mattel’s Masters of the Universe. Such exposure translates into profit. Said Ira Katzin, retail analyst with Bache Securities Inc. in Toronto: “In the [past] three years toy industry sales in Canada have gone from $650 million to almost $1 billion. There is little doubt that licensing has resulted in an increased profit margin.”

The astronomical success of transformer toys offers the best evidence of licensing’s power. First introduced in Japan 10 years ago by its largest toy manufacturer, Tokyo-based Bandai Inc., the mutable toy robots appeared in the United States in 1982. Leisure Dynamics Ltd. began distribution of Machine Men in Canada last year, but in spite of the toy council’s highest recommendation sales were sluggish. It was only this spring, when such manufac-

turers as Tonka, Hasbro and Tomy launched vigorous promotional campaigns for their own robots, including ones in comic books and TV cartoon shows, that the toys became undeniable successes.

In both The Transformers, a syndicated show that began in September, and a mini-series called The Challenge of the GoBots, producers banded together with advertisers to entice children with tales of the machine beings who existed millions of years ago on the planet Cybertron. According to one legend, the good Cybertronians waged a continuing battle through the ages to save their planet from evil forces.

While doing so, the metal men also staged a highly successful invasion of the consciousnesses of small Earthlings. Said Christopher Collins, manager of Dominion Play World in Dartmouth, N.S.: “It is the biggest thing ever.

If an order came in right now, I would be sold out by tomorrow.”

Tonka Toys of Canada Ltd. president Phil Harrison estimates that sales of his company’s GoBots and Hasbro’s Transformers will reach $18 million this year, $6 million more than Canadians spent on Coleco’s stunningly successful Cabbage Patch dolls last year. Said Harrison:

“In those terms, it looks like the GoBots have made coleslaw of the Cabbage Patch.”

But the Cabbage Patch phenomenon, now in its second year, has also gained momentum from the new marketing. Across Canada little girls entertain visions of themselves dressed in pink-and-white Cabbage Patch blanket robes, sitting in plush Cabbage Patch chairs and fondling Koosas, a Cabbage Patch pet. And even though Coleco has increased its Canadian production totals to two million from 300,000 and is shipping another 23 million dolls to the international market, the mania that developed last year as parents clawed to buy the scarce dolls, often paying inflated prices to Cabbage Patch scalpers, has not subsided. Gerry Tien, principal toy buyer for the Hudson’s Bay Co., said, “Sure, we are getting them in, but because we are filling previous cus-

tomer orders, the dolls are not even getting onto the stores’ shelves.”

For their part, many toy retailers say they are unhappy about the runaway effects of licensing practices. Said Nancy Ross, owner of the Creative Child Toy Store in Toronto: “Without licensing a toy is nowhere. Although many of the intensively marketed toys are good products, many other excellent toys that do not have the benefit of mass advertising or a TV show attached to their name are being ignored.” Added Julie Creighton, vice-chairman of publicity with the Canadian Toy Testing Council: “When a product is licensed, it

inundates the market. Through the media and the continuous hype, children and therefore parents are manoeuvred into purchasing these toys. I find it quite frightening.”

The bandwagon effect is not confined solely to licensed toys. The extraordinary popularity of Toronto-based Chieftain Products Inc.’s board game Trivial Pursuit has given rise to about 50, often bizarre, copies. It has also helped to revive the fortunes of many existing board games such as Clue, Sorry and Monopoly, according to David Davenport, group marketing manager of Parker Bros. Games. The com-

petitors of Trivial Pursuit have adopted themes ranging from rock ’n’ roll to soap operas. Biblical Trivia, a leading seller this year, poses such teasers as “How far is Bethany from Jerusalem?” (answer: two miles) and “Name the prophet who said to Hezekiah, ‘Do not be afraid.’ ” (answer: Isaiah). Said Davenport: “People have rediscovered the pleasure of interacting with other people in these games.”

At the same time, people have apparently forgotten the pleasure of interacting with electronic machines because the market for videogames, the rage of 1982, has levelled out. Henry Wittenberg, president of the Canadian Toy Manufacturers Association, credits the trend to the high cost of videogames and the falling costs of home computers. Added Ralph White of White Rock, B.C., who licensed the idea for a Scrabble-like game of mathematics that he co-invented, called S’math, to Irwin Toys Ltd. in 1982: “I got rid of my videogame this year in a garage sale. It just got so boring.”

Yet, to Canadian children looking forward to holiday gifts, the pressing adult issues of toy trends and seductive advertising have little relevance. At Kaboodles Toy Shop in midtown Vancouver, joyous youngsters meandered among Paddington bears and oldfashioned stuffed toys last week, apparently oblivious to the absence of either Cabbage Patch or GI Joe dolls. Kaboodles’ co-owner, former Vancouver alderman Darlene Marzari, has opted not to sell either product. Said Marzari: “The idea of making little people take on the role of real parents is obnoxious. And as for war toys, we even have big debates over water pistols.” Still, Marzari has been unable to ignore the current toy fashions and bowed to consumer demand in her decision to stock robotic transformers. Said Marzari: “Toys are first and foremost for children’s enjoyment. And a lot of kids relate to robots better than people. You can tell them what to do—and they always obey.”

With Sharon Doyle Driedger in Toronto and Kerry Banks in Vancouver.

Sharon Doyle Driedger

Kerry Banks