I was reading something over at the Curbside Classic site the other day and saw a post about a classic kids’ toy from the 1970’s. It was a “Power Shifter Quick Change Machine” – a toy car that was a Chevy Blazer and a dragster all in one. OK, perhaps “classic” is not the best term – for two reasons. First, I had completely forgotten all about this. And second, it came after the era that I would consider “classic toy”.
But it reminded me of a question I have pondered for quite some time – why is there ever a need for a new toy?
What is “classic toy” in terms of era? It would be those toys that were advertised and offered during the time I was about ages six to eleven. Your classic toy era would be different from my classic toy era if we were born in different years.
There is the occasional toy that reaches a more nearly universal “classic toy era”. The Marx Big Wheel was one of them. The Big Wheel, as most are aware, was/is a low-slung plastic tricycle with a large front wheel with pedals. I remember seeing the first ads for the Big Wheel when I was a little older than the intended demographic. My initial reaction? I felt cheated. How could something this cool not have been thought of when I was 7 or 8 instead of when I was 11 or 12.
But the Big Wheel was just one of a bazillion new toys that were hawked to kids during the Saturday morning cartoons on television (and probably still are).
Which all reminds me of a question I have been asking for awhile. Why, exactly, is it necessary for someone to come out with a new toy?
I get why “new and improved” is a big thing for we adults. We have long lives which are spent earning money and buying things that will make our existence better in some way. Or at least that’s the theory. But with toys? Not seeing it.
Kids, you see, have a short lifespan. Even shorter when they are broken down into age groups. A toy that is appropriate and appealing to, say, a three year old is completely different from what is appropriate and appealing to an eleven year old.
Here’s the thing – a three year old is only three for a year. One single year. Next year he will be four. In two years he will be five. Every year he (she as well, of course) gets older and has a whole new group of toys appropriate to newfound developmental skills. And at five or six, those toys geared to three year olds are last week’s newspapers.
The flip side is that every toy out there has this steady, constant supply of new children lined up and ready to play. For every kid who grows bored with a particular toy there is another who will be along to demand all rights to possession and control.
So with such rapid and constant turnover, why is it ever necessary for new toys? The Jack In The Box that pops up with a turn of the crank or the little wooden people and animals that come with the barn (that emits a “mooo” when the door is opened) is something new and exciting to every single three year old. Have there really not been enough toys invented for a kid of three? Yes, those things may be old hat to you and I (or to the jaded seven year olds out there) but to the kid of three they are new and exciting things never seen before in the history of the world.
Well, you may reply, if there were never any new toys kids would just keep playing with old ones and all the toy companies would go bust. An excellent point, but have you ever seen a toy after a kid has finished playing with it? It is chipped, scratched and battered and dismembered far beyond what Hertz would ever put up with on any rental car you might turn in. Even the most durable toys are thrown away or donated to charity, and besides – find me a set of young parents (or especially grandparents) who don’t want to watch little Cody or Lilly rip open plastic packaging. At least before they give up in the face of the dozen teeny zip ties holding everything together.
So while I fully understand the need to keep pumping familiar shapes of plastic into your local big-box store, I remain skeptical about the necessity of new toy designs or ideas. Is this where we explore the dark side of Capitalism?
It is a brilliant game, really. I remember the year one of my own youngsters simply had to have a Combat Claw Godzilla. It was a toy monster whose little spring-loaded upper arms could be cocked into their upward position, awaiting the push of a button which would release the Fury Of The Beast as the claws of death brought destruction to anyone unlucky enough to be in their path. Wait, that was the official version. What really happened is that the little plastic arms flipped down. Yay.
The Combat Claw Godzilla was the most fabulous thing ever invented – in the opinion of the young giftee. For about an hour or two, anyhow. And in the coming decades it is highly doubtful that the Combat Claw Godzilla will make the cut when conversations turn to favorite toys of childhood.
But those guys did their jobs. They designed a new toy, sold it to a company, which generated a splashy ad campaign to sell it to my kids, who then got to work selling it to me. Who, of course, caved and bought the stupid thing. Which, by the way, I knew was stupid as I was buying it. And once the market was saturated it was on to the next thing. Because it was not a toy being bought, it was a fad, an idea that “this fabulous thing will make my life wonderful and I will be happy forever.” I wonder if this is why one of my children went into advertising?
So I suppose I must make peace with a world which provides a never-ending supply of things like the Power Shifter Quick Change Machine or the Combat Claw Godzilla. I don’t even want to know what is the must-have this season. Perhaps these things do their real jobs, which is to teach kids that those things they think will make them happy really won’t. It’s an expensive and elaborate and not necessarily effective way to teach that lesson, but it’s a way.
Power Shifters Quick Change Machine – from Pioneer_Fox’s piece on CurbsideClassic.com about his very own example.
Combat Claw Godzilla commercial from the YouTube Channel of Trendmasters.