Eric Clark

The Real Toy Story

"A fascinating exposé"
The Atlantic Monthly

"Readers beware: You’ll never look at Barbie (slutty!) or Bratz (sleazy!) the same way again"
Time Out

The $22 billion American toy industry is world-dominating, ruthless, and exciting, increasingly willing to sacrifice kids in a frantic rush for profit, yet also in the business of enchanting our children.

The Real Toy Story explores this fascinating world of contrasts. Lone, maverick inventors conjure up captivating playthings for millions but the shots are called by huge, faceless corporations who care more about their stock prices than about consumers.

How do toys go from prototype to playroom? What are the
stories behind the blockbuster successes of Transformers, Barbie and Elmo? As kids get “older” younger and younger, how is the industry competing with new “toys” such as cell phones and iPods?

The Real Toy Story answers these questions and more. It reveals the dark side of the business – and the fun side.

This riveting exposé is essential reading for everyone who cares about kids.

EXTRACTS

CHAPTER TWO
THE INVENTORS

RON Dubren was on his way from New York City to a family event in Chicago when he realized his life had changed forever.

For 15 years Ron had been building a reputation as an inventor in the tough world of toys. Thousands of wannabe toy creators would envy what he had achieved – 40 different ideas licensed to companies, half of them actually produced and on sale to America’s kids. But, as Ron is the first to admit, it was a modest success. None of his toys had lasted more than a year before lines were closed, products swept off toy store shelves and consigned to clearance outlets. Nevertheless, recently things had been a lot more hopeful...

Now, Chicago bound, Dubren settled down to read the Times, reached the Business section - and the words leapt out. Even today, a decade later, he can recite the key lines virtually word for word. As just about anyone who spent last week on planet Earth knows, it said, Tyco Toys Inc. has shipped over a million Tickle Me Elmo dolls, and stores simply cannot keep them in stock...

What Dubren knew was that he had invented not merely a big selling toy but a phenomenon. Something that every toy inventor and manufacturer dreams about. A toy that newspapers and television feature, that jaded retail buyers beg for, that has kids screaming and pleading – and parents queuing up to pay way, way over the odds...

CHAPTER SEVEN
GRABBING THEM YOUNG

ON a good day the car ride from Hasbro's Pawtucket, Rhode Island, headquarters to New York City takes around three and a quarter hours. Time enough for four advertising and marketing men to brainstorm, especially if their creativity is still in overdrive.

Advertising agency men Joe Bacal, Tom Griffin and Paul Kurnitz and Hasbro chief marketing executive Stephen Schwarz had already spent hours bouncing around ideas. Preoccupying everyone from CEO Stephen Hassenfeld down was, what to do with a toy they had just bought. Its Japanese creators had already spent a year trying to sell it in the United States with little success. Kids weren’t intrigued or excited. The toy just was not moving. In the jargon, it was nailed to the shelves, it looked like a stiff.

Stephen Hassenfeld, grandson of Hasbro's founder and the man regarded by many as the genius and architect of the modern toy business, was convinced the idea - cars and planes that transformed into robots - could be a winner. He had made the decision to license the idea instinctively. Now came the moment of truth – how to make it work.

What happened during that car ride and in the months following helped propel a massive shift in toy marketing that would forever change how toys are sold, the degree to which kids are considered fair game and exploited, even the toys themselves and the nature of play. Today, marketing rules the toy industry... All that matters in toy marketing is Does it work? Rules, such as they are, exist to be sidestepped or overcome. For most toy companies, it is only about profit. The role of children is a clear one – they are cash cows to be milked...

The groundwork for all of this was laid during that car ride two decades ago.

CHAPTER EIGHT
SANTA'S SWEATSHOP

THIS is where it happens. This is what makes today's toy industry possible. This is where toys are produced for a few cents each by vast numbers of young migrants toiling in sweatshop conditions. This is what makes it possible for the modern toy business to be able to spend such huge sums on marketing. This is the hidden face of the toy industry without which it could not exist...

The Pearl River Delta, China. The workshop of the world. Behind high fences, sprawling factory compounds stretch mile after dusty, depressing mile along the congested roads cut like scars across the landscape. Guarded gates control entry and exit. Adjoining many of the blocks are identical concrete boxes, only the washing at the chicken-wire covered windows adding flashes of color show these are the dormitories.

Between shifts the workers, mostly young women, their faces set in exhaustion, shuffle from building to building. Shifts can last 15 hours a day or more, seven days a week – unlawful, but far from uncommon in the peak toy making season. Inside the fetid dormitories, their only living space, and often packed illegally with as many as 22 to a room, they collapse into curtained off bunks...

We are under a day's flying time from New York, much less from Los Angeles. But the toy aisles of Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, and happy American kids in the television toy commercials, could be a hundred years and a million miles away...

AND MORE PRAISE FOR…

"The Real Toy Story rates early installation on the list of best business books of 2007. It should be must reading for parents who don't want to watch their children get brainwashed by the toy industry."
Boston Globe

"(Clark) spent three years on this effort and, his publicist says, conducted some two hundred interviews with toy industry insiders. To his credit, it shows... It’s all here from the fabulous dream story of the Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, who invented Trivial Pursuit and then pushed it until the world realized it could not live without it, to the long reign of the Barbie doll, to the dominance of Scrabble, probably a game that would not succeed were it invented today. It makes a person want to sit down and come up with something clever to slice a juicy slab off of this $20 billion industry."
The Conference Board Review

"... memorable are his descriptions of some of the great toys in history and their inventors' struggles to get them to market. You root for these folks..."
Washington Post

"If you care about children and how they play, be sure to read this book. It can help you shape a young person's life in a creative, positive way, and there's nothing more important than that!"
–Carnegie Library Business Librarians

Selected Works

Nonfiction
Inside the global toy industry and the ruthless battle for the world's youngest consumers.

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