Parents feel pressure to buy when faced with latest toy craze
It was the day after Christmas and the crowded aisles of K B Toys at Fair Oaks Mall were stuffed with shoppers. They came in search of anything Pokemon. But after a quick perusal of the shelves that lay stripped under cheerful posters of the Japanese electronic game characters, most of them left empty-handed. “Every year there’s at least one toy that everyone wants and no one can find,” says Mike Adotolaris, an exhausted clerk who spent his holiday break from the University of Richmond working at the store. “Last year it was Furbys, the year before that it was Tickle Me Elmo. But this year was the craziest of all. We ran out of the really popular Pokemon toys by Thanksgiving,” he says as he points to the jostling crowd. “Christmas is over, and they’re still looking.”
While many parents will spend considerable time and money feeding their child’s fad frenzy, experts warn that these toys can never substitute for parental time and attention.
Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist with offices in the District and Potomac, says children can benefit from these fads. They can learn socialization skills, and many play happily with their Beanie Baby collection. But he is concerned when parents contribute to the obsession, buying toy after toy as “a substitute for parenting.”
“Things have changed drastically since the days when we were growing up,” he says. “There’s a media blitz that surroundsthese toys that creates a very different urgency than our [childhood] desire to send away for a Howdie Doody mug.”
Children have always loved to collect things, says Dr. Brody, who teaches a course on television and popular culture at the University of Maryland. The difference is that now marketers have grown more adept at manipulating that desire, and parents, perhaps guiltyabout not spending enough time with their children, try to satiate it.
“There’s a certain phase that children go through especially boys when they’re 8 or 9 years old, and they like to hoard things and classify and catalog them,” he says.
Dr. Brody adds that Nintendo, who created Pokemon, has increased the pressure by tapping into another phenomena of childhood children’s desire for secrecy. “There’s a certain privacy and secretness about [Pokemon]. It’s a whole world and language that adults are not part of.”
Trading in Pokemon stock
The prolonged booming economy and “adults’ obsession with the stock market” also fuels youngsters’ cravings for fads and collectibles, Dr. Brody says.
“It’s unfortunate, but children are excellent imitators. They see adults in their frenzy with the stock market, and they imitate our behavior with their own trading.”
But not all adults are caught in the frenzy. Parents can use their influence to moderate their children’s desire for these items by sharing their beliefs and values, says Eric Brown, communications director for the Takoma Park-based Center for New American Values.
“We recently did a survey, and two-thirds of the parents said that their children define their self-esteem with material possessions,” says Mr. Brown, whose nonprofit organization deals with commercialism and consumption. “Today you have kids who feel that the way that they can have more friends or fit in better is if they collect all 150 Pokemon cards.”
Josh is a 7-year-old from Chevy Chase who carries his Pokemon cards everywhere. At a lunch stop at the Burger King in North Bethesda’s White Flint Mall, his mother (who asked to remain nameless) sheepishly admits that the venue was selected by Josh because of its Pokemon tie-in.
“I don’t know why I like them,” he says when asked about his cardboard collection. “But I know that everyone else likes them, too. We like trading with each other and watching the show on TV together.”
Just say no
Victoria Metz, a mother of an 8-and 11-year-old, says she “avoids all fads” by banning commercial television in her Arlington home.
“They may see some television at their friends’ houses, and they’re certainly aware that these fads are going on,” she says. “But they don’t ask me for these things since by this time they know that mom will just say ‘No.’ “
She says her 11-year-old son has amassed a few Pokemon cards at friends’ birthdays, but she has no intention of adding to it.
“I have a friend from Texas who goes from store to store buying anything Pokemon. I call her a ‘Pokemom,’ ” Mrs. Metz says. “The adults who get pulled into it fuel the business. It’s like fashion. We can have a closet full of clothes, and then we say we have nothing to wear.”
While Mr. Brown also eschews commercial television for his own 4-year-old daughter, he admits it’s hard to avoid a fad like Pokemon in a “culture that is so pervasive in its commercialism.” Mr. Brown says he collected baseball cards as a child. “But I stopped when I collected all the Mets. That was where my world ended. Today it never ends.”
He says Pokemon is a perfect example of a fad that has become almost inescapable since it is promoted through so many delivery devices from television, to the Internet to every possible product in every possible store.
Total sales of a franchised item such as Pokemon are not tracked, says Marisa Gordon, spokeswoman for the Manhattan-based Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA). But she estimates that Nintendo has earned more than $1 billion through direct sales and licensing agreements. Her estimate was low.
“Even Nintendo didn’t expect Pokemon to be so huge,” says Riley Brennan, a spokesman for Nintendo, USA, which is located in Redmond, Wash. “We earned more than $1 billion in just the 13 months that Pokemon has been in the United States. Worldwide we’ve made more than $5 billion.”
The Japanese company created the characters three years ago as a Game Boy game. A TV show followed a year later. The game and TV show came to the United States a little more than a year ago.
Mr. Riley says sales are continually fueled by new games. Pokemon Stadium will be introduced in March, and it will be the first electronic game to link the hand-held Game Boy and console Nintendo 64 systems. Introduced in Japan in late November, it sold more than $4 million in games before Christmas.
Even catching all 150 Pokemon will not end the phenomenon, because by next Christmas, Pokemon Gold and Silver games will not only introduce 100 more creatures but will give players the chance to breed them and create hybrids.
Few big-sellers last beyond one season. But Mr. Brennan attributes Pokemon’s attraction to its social aspects. “In the past, playing electronic games could be very isolating,” he says. “But with Nintendo, it’s designed so that kids can only capture all the Pokemon by working together.”
Ms. Gordon from the TMA agrees that Pokemon has gone beyond any previous trend or fad.
“A few years ago we saw Star Wars items selling across all kinds of merchandise lines,” she says. “But there has never been anything like this before.”
While admitting it’s virtually impossible to predict what makes a concept evolve into a fad, she notes five key characteristics. It has to have collectibility. It has to be inexpensive so children can buy more than one. It has to appeal to boys as well as girls. It has to be fun to play with that’s what gave Beanie Babies more than their 15 minutes of fad fame. Finally it has to be fueled by a great marketing machine.
Extending the shelf life
“The toy industry has always done a great job at marketing toys to kids,” says Venky Shankar, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland in College Park. “But manufacturers realize that these items have a limited shelf life. They have therefore grown expert at prolonging that shelf life and creating additional revenue streams by creating a network effect.”
A network effect, explains Mr. Shankar, is when an item’s value increases as more consumers buy it. The more people want a product, the more valuable it becomes. While most Pokemon cards sell in packs priced from $2.50 to $8, some individual cards are now resold for prices as high as $50.
It’s the trading rather than collecting that has disturbed most educators. After reports about thefts of valuable cards and older children taking advantage of younger collectors in inequitable trades, many schools have prohibited children from bringing in anything Pokemon. One Silver Spring synagogue also instituted a similar ban when the younger members were found sneaking out of services to play and trade cards.
Kinder, gentler combat
But other trading venues abound. Borders Books and Zainy Brainy toy stores sponsor Pokemon leagues, where players can bring their collections in and “combat” other Pokemon competitors. The game is modeled on paper-scissors-rock where the different Pokemon win or lose based on their attributes, which are printed on the cards. Mr. Shankar says part of Pokemon’s attraction with parents is that the game is “a kinder, gentler” combat where defeated Pokemon faint instead of die, and no blood is ever spilt.
Burger King has had a wildly successful Pokemon promotion for the past few months, offering Pokemon toys with the purchase of its newly created and more expensive “Big Kid’s Meal.” Recently, the chain recalled the plastic balls holding the Pokemon toys. A 13-month-old girl suffocated when one covered her mouth and nose.
Mike Disereria owns 13 Burger King stores in the area. At his Gaithersburg store on Shady Grove Road, as many as 70 children have shown up to trade cards on Tuesday trading nights, when Burger King employees serve as “Pokemon trainers” to ensure that all trades are fair.
“We’ve had merchandising tie-ins before, but nothing like this,” Mr. Disereria says. “The kids don’t care about the food. They want the Pokemon stuff. We don’t make money on the toys. We’re after the adults, and the kids are dragging them in.”
Dr. Brody has nothing against Pokemon, which is short for pocket monsters. But he says parents need to learn to say no and create a healthy balance of many interests in their children’s lives.