Unlike many of its competitors on store shelves and in children’s hearts, the holiday toy that is most in demand this year has not starred in a feature-length cartoon, does not have a Saturday-morning television series and has not given its name to a breakfast cereal. But Wrinkles the puppet, a sad-faced puppy fashioned from acrylic plush, is the hottest-selling toy in Canada. In fact, the Canadian Toy Testing Council named the Canadian-designed Wrinkles “Toy of the Year” when it released its annual report last month—the first time the consumer organization had made such an award in its 33-yearhistory. As well, repeating a pattern set by the Cabbage Patch doll —last year’s hot item—Wrinkles’ manufacturer underestimated the selling power of an item designed for children three years and older.
Said Sam Ganz, president of Ganz Brothers Toys Ltd., of Woodbridge, Ont.: “We made 300,000 of them. That’s it.
We’ve got no more.”
Scarce: While parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles search for increasingly scarce Wrinkles hand puppets selling for $15 to $70, they might encounter the most expensive model from the 1985 litter—at five feet tall, it costs $500. At the same time, other requests on the wish lists of the under12s this season include an army of other-worldly characters: Princess of Power, Masters of the Universe, Voltron, Sectaurs such as Dargon, and the stillpopular Go Bots and Transformers—versatile metal and plastic toys, including Autobot, whose parts twist into shapes ranging from robots to insects. And while the Cabbage Patch Kids are last year’s fad, Hartford, Conn.-based manufacturer Coleco Industries Inc., is trying to maintain consumer interest by offering Cabbage Patch Twins and dolls dressed in ethnic costumes and such accessories as miniature cars.
Meanwhile, youthful sophisticates are eyeing plastic Swatch watches,
which sell for $45, and home computers which range in price from $89 for Radio Shack’s Coco 2 to $2,000 for a Commodore Amiga. And among trendconscious young adults such muscletoning equipment as $300 home rowing machines are popular items. Indeed,
Marina Wegner, the manager of Dotmar Athletics Ltd., a Toronto fitness equipment store, noted that husbands and wives often buy the devices to prod their spouses into getting in shape.
In past seasons items ranging from Hula Hoops (1958) to the Rubik’s Cube (1977) emerged from the rows of products backed by intensive market re-
search and slick advertising campaigns to become instant hits. For the past two years adopting a Cabbage Patch Kid has been the rage. In 1985 two domestic products—Wrinkles and the party game A Question of Scruples —have captured the nation’s imagination. Both items share a similar history: they had modest beginnings and, almost accidentally, are poised to achieve huge international sales.
Demand: Eight years ago Catherine Senitt, then 29, fashioned a wrinkled dog puppet —inspired by her hound dog, Old Morris—to amuse her three young children. At the time, the Fergus, Ont., resident was a successful painter whose works were shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. But shortly after she made the first puppets her friends and neighbors asked Senitt to make more for their children. To meet the growing demand less than a year later Senitt formed a cooperative with three friends who were former schoolteachers: Kari Siirala, 39, his sister Hanneli, 35, and Frances Ranshaw, 38. The requests continued to pour in, and the co-op regularly sold as many as 1,000 Wrinkles at local boutiques and craft shows in a year. Said Kari Siirala: “It appeals to all ages. Something in the face is universally appealing; it captures the essence of dogginess.” Agreement: In August, 1984, the co-op struck pay dirt at a Toronto craft show when toy manufacturer Jack Ganz noticed Wrinkles. The result: after a few weeks of negotiation the toy company and the co-op * reached a licensing agreement. The most significant term: in exchange for an undisclosed share of royalties the co-op granted Ganz Brothers worldwide rights to manufacture and sell Wrinkles. Clearly, a little toy puppy had become big business. And now, while employees at the Ganz plant in Woodbridge still stuff some models, most of the dog puppets are now manufacturered for Ganz Brothers in South Korea.
As Wrinkles’ popularity grew, the
co-op members and their families moved to two adjacent farms containing about 300 acres in the Haliburton Highlands of central Ontario. Said Ganz: “They have already paid off the mortgages on their farms. They are becoming very rich and they deserve it all.” But this year’s Christmas success story will continue after the season ends. After test-marketing Wrinkles in the United States, a company spokesman says that Wrinkles likely will be an overwhelming success there next year when it is scheduled to go on sale. Along with the push into the United States, Ganz Brothers will introduce new members of a fast-growing family which will include Trunket the ele-
phant, Moogy the Moose and Geezer the pig. Said Siirala: “It has all happened so fast, but it has been marvellous. We are free to do whatever we want.”
Dilemma: Former English lecturer Henry Makow is also adjusting to newfound wealth because of the growing success of a party game that requires players to guess correctly how opponents will handle a moral dilemma.
In April, 1984, Makow was a 34-year-old academic earning $8,500 a year as a part-time lecturer at the University of Winnipeg. As part of his research for an article about baby-boomer morality, he composed six questions—and those became the basis for A Question of Scruples.
Now the original six ques-
tions have grown to 360. One measure of acceptance came when Johnny Carson devoted 20 minutes to questions on his Tonight Show last May. Among them: “A close friend asks you to hide an illegal drug. Do you agree?” This year alone Makow has sold more than 80,000 of the $20 games in Canada and an additonal 375,000 games on the U.S. market. And working with children’s author Sheldon Oberman, Makow has even designed a junior edition of the game for children aged 7 to 13.
Control: Until last February Makow oversaw the production and marketing of the game from his home in Winnipeg. Without the benefit of advertising, his company, High Game Enter-
prises Inc., financed the game’s production from the sale of a $35,000 town house. But now Makow is loosening his control over his creation: last October, Milton Bradley, a division of the U.S. toy giant Hasbro Inc. of
Rhode Island, purchased the right to market the game everywhere in the world except Canada—a territory Makow has reserved for his company. The U.S. firm is already planning a $l-million advertising campaign, and Bradley spokesmen say they are are confident that the firm will sell more than 500,000 units of the game next year. Makow refuses to say how much money he received from Bradley but some reports estimate that he has already made more than $1 million from Scruples sales to date. Still, he insists that his success has not altered his life in any significant way.
While Scruples achieved success raising ethical issues in the parlors of the nation, some of the seasonal festivities have not escaped the wrath of the 160,000-member Consumers’ Association of Canada. At its annual meeting last June in Saskatoon, the association questioned the use of television programs featuring animated versions of toys. The association cited as examples such popular series as He-Man, featuring the Masters of the Universe, the female counterparts in She-Ra, Princess of Power, and the robotic figures in Voltron: Defender of the Universe. The association said that the programs are thinly disguised commercials which prompt children to pressure their parents into buying the toys. Declared the association’s resolution last June: “The toy-based shows are unfair marketing practice which is an unethical exploitation of the family through children.” But Simon Dean, general manager of Mattel Canada Inc., the company that makes Masters of the Universe, has a different view. Said Dean: “ The shows are not violent. Critics forget that Masters of the Universe was the favorite boys’ toy before the TV series began.”
Frenzy: The Canadian Toy Testing Council gave Masters of the Universe figures top ratings for play value, design, function and durability. But the council questioned the use of some of the toys in the TV shows because of “combative and aggressive plots.” By contrast, Julie Creighton, vice-chairman of the volunteer and nonprofit council noted that the organization selected the distinctly nonbelligerent Wrinkles puppet as Toy of the Year because it “represents a return to traditional values. It’s a simple toy. Children can play with it in their own way. It appeals to boys and girls.” Wrinkles the toy is central to the commercial frenzy that marks the holiday season. But its success taps the abiding seasonal sentiments of love and affection.
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