H Anthony Hildebrand

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London Toy Fair 2012: Funny and interesting

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I’m at London’s Olympia exhibition venue for Toy Fair 2012, the UK toy industry’s annual trade show. A man from the British Toy and Hobby Association is telling us that the show’s opening is ‘jolly exciting’. It’s a major year for events and celebrations, what with the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee and whatnot. Hopefully the Toy Fair will ‘capture some of the buzz.’

Some of that jolly exciting news, he says, is that UK toy sales increased by 3% in 2011, as opposed to just 0.2% for total UK retail sales. It means the UK toy industry is worth almost £3bn. The best performing toy categories last year were ‘Building Sets’, ‘Outdoor and Sports’, and ‘Dolls’ – reassuringly traditional. Plush toy sales, on the other hand, were down by 10%.

There are a LOT of press here. We’re on the Gallery level of Olympia’s main hall, and looking away from the media scrum and onto the show floor, the overall impression is of whiteness: Olympia’s structure itself, and the vast majority of the stands and signs. Also the vast majority of visitors and exhibitors.

The BTHA man says the theme of the show is ‘active play’, and he’s hoping kids will be inspired by the Olympics to get out and participate. Many others obviously share his view – there are Olympic-themed toys everywhere. (Toy manufacturers pay a hefty fee to use the Olympic logos and characters.)

The ‘active play’ theme seems like an attempt at differentiation from the video games business, but the reality is that a lot of the toys on show have some kind of link-up with a website or phone/tablet app. These ‘app toys’ are all the buzz. Most of them seem to be designed for use on parents’ devices, which is perhaps both a relief, finance-wise, and a guarantee that you’ll be spending less time on your iPhone this year than you have before.

***

I head downstairs to the show floor, and the first thing I notice is that there are scooters everywhere. They seem to be on every second stand, and the ones that don’t have scooters on them seem to have some kind of scooter-related accessory available – helmets, stickers, decorations, etc.

(I should probably come right out and say that I find scooters massively irritating. (That’s the ‘stand-on-‘em-with-one-foot-and-propel-with-the-other’ type, not the motorised, sit on type.) I live very near a primary school, and every morning and afternoon when leaving my house I’m forced into the path of oncoming traffic in an effort to avoid colliding with the hordes of pint-sized terrors who have propelled themselves miles ahead of their uncaring, irresponsible parents. Also, I recently went for a walk with my friend and his family and ended up carrying a scooter for about 95% of the excursion as his daughter decided she wasn’t into the whole scooting thing fairly early on. Anyway.)

***

The other big noticeable thing is the ubiquity of licensed properties. Toy Story. Star Wars. Spiderman. Dr Who. Hello Kitty. SpongeBob. They’re on everything from plush toys to board games, action figures to Lego. And scooters, of course.

On the Jumbo stand, there’s a 240-piece globe-shaped jigsaw, or ‘Puzzle-A-Round’, featuring caricatures of the cast of long-running northern soap Coronation Street.

Over at Vivid, they’re showing ‘Celebz’ bobble headed dolls (or figures/figurines – I’m not clear on the difference) of current boy band faves One Direction, The Wanted, and JLS.

Golden Bear toys is a closed stand – a lot of the bigger exhibitors are unavailable to general visitors, requiring an appointment to enter their enticing confines. GB is one of many offering ‘Official Product of London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’ licensed toys, including plush versions of mascots Wenlock and Mandeville.

GB’s stand also features the slightly incongruous sight of a full sized Mini emblazoned with Union Jack, accompanied by a pretty girl in a short sparkly dress, also emblazoned with Union Jack. She’s one of, if not the only, stand ‘stewardesses’ here – it’s a child-oriented, female-friendly industry, so the ‘sex sells’ marketing you see at other trade shows is refreshingly, if sensibly, absent.

It turns out GB distributes anthropomorphised toy Minis. They also have Pingu, ‘Mike the Knight’, and assorted other brands on show, from what I could tell on the outside looking in.

***

A weird/maybe not so weird thing: there aren’t many kids here. Children from 5-16 aren’t allowed, and there are no crèche facilities. Until the afternoon, the only kids I see are the official ‘Toy Testers’ – children made available to the press for photography and cute interviews on what they think of some of the new toys on show.

There are a myriad of reasons why this is sensible – this is a business event, after all, and there are legal issues re: photography – but it still feels a bit odd to be wandering around a huge hall full of toys without seeing at least a few handfuls of kids enthusing over the amazing new toys on display.

***

On the Esdevium stand, there are board games based on TV programmes ‘Take Me Out’ (ITV/dating/Paddy McGuiness/depressing) and ‘Would I Lie To You’ (BBC/panel show/David Mitchell/Lee Mack/Rob Brydon/amusing).

While I’m perusing these, I get talking to Abigail, who hands me a flyer for her prototype board game ‘Medal Haul’. She’s wearing a Medal Haul t-shirt and tracksuit ensemble – the game is a sports-themed one, presently Olympics-focused, but ‘totally customisable’, she says.

She’s here to find a buyer for her idea, which she has designed and funded herself. She came up with the concept last year while eight months pregnant. In the same year, her husband suffered a brain haemorrhage and her brother passed away.

The game itself looks reasonably compelling – it’s a standard board game, but the squares represent different sports that players can compete in with customised dice, and there’s a quiz element, and testing (a nice anti-drugs reference that isn’t pushed too hard).

When I talked to her Abigail was still waiting on delivery of the finished quiz cards and medals, but she also had plans to have an app made – to download new questions to a phone or tablet – and for new updated quiz cards to be available for purchase.

She says she wishes the game had come out earlier, to take advantage of Olympic fever, but she’s willing to use her own money to make sure it’s on toy shop shelves as soon as possible.

She’s pulling around a suitcase with the game contents inside, and has yet to talk with any potential buyers. I wish her luck and tell her I’ll check up with her at the end of the week.

***

On the Scream Wholesale stand, there’s an enormous monster truck, along with mini-quad bikes, tiny motorcycles, and a huge range of remote controlled cars and helicopters. It later turns out that Scream has been issued cease and desist papers by rivals Re:creation and Razor, who allege that Scream has copied its products and packaging. Naturally, these products include scooters.

***

The Toy Fair is a small show, relatively speaking – some trade events have exhibitor numbers in the thousands, while there are a couple of hundred here – but it’s well attended.

Up on the Gallery level, other than near the press office where media events take place, it’s much more sparsely visited. One of the problems is that it’s not immediately obvious how you get up here, despite the fact that the organisers have thoughtfully utilised a reasonably prominent staircase near the middle of the show floor.

But the perennial problem with trade shows is that navigation is difficult, and the similarity of stands means that it’s very easy to get disoriented. It doesn’t help that bigger, more customised stands tend not to display their stand number anywhere.

***

A big draw amongst the Gallery stands are the Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip impersonators, who have been posing with plush characters and a cheap-looking mad scientist chap. They’re here because Studio Anne Carlton has produced a novelty Golden Jubilee chess set, and the Royal Couple feature, a tad inaccurately, as the king and queen pieces. Slightly worryingly, the pawns appear to be choirboys.

At the top of the stairs to the gallery, right near the press office, is TY’s stand. TY sells plush toys. Early on there are many more salespeople visible than visitors. Is this symptomatic of the reported downturn in fortune for plush toy sales in 2012? Or is it because the cross-armed salespeople look a bit like they’re preventing anyone from walking onto the stand? Hard to say. But by early afternoon business has picked up significantly.

Red Toolbox’s slogan is ‘Quality Time In A Box’ – which sounds like a justification for child abuse, possibly. But certainly isn’t. I’d wager it’s something to do with their products coming in boxes.

There’s a woman dressed as Princess Leia driving an inflatable remote controlled R2D2 (of Star Wars fame) into the path of passers-by. But more charmingly than that sounds. She’s from the Bladez stand, which is otherwise concerned with RC helicopters.

A lady with two kids walks past. One of them accidentally (let’s assume) kicks me as he points excitedly at R2D2. I’m starting to think that the show organisers should extend their ban to children under 5 as well.

***

Around the enormous Lego stand, the carpet is a photo quality replica of a pile of Lego bricks. The effect is disorienting and psychedelic. Lego has Lord of the Rings and The Avengers figures on display. Lego men now have a much wider range of facial hair than when I was young.

The H. Grossman stand has a section for cheap, plasticky weapons – swords, shields, and best of all, the ‘Space Gun’ – which the packaging proclaims is ‘funny and interesting’. (£1.50 wholesale). There are also a lot of things that glow, sponge-like things you put into water which turn into other things, and dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs! Also: bike and scooter helmets.

Over at the Casdon stand, there’s a whole range of Henry (actual grown-up world vacuum cleaner) and Hetty (female equivalent to Henry – not available in grown-up world) products: plush vacuum cleaners and a broom and pan and assorted other cleaning products set. There are also mini-Dyson vacuums for kids.

Casdon has really gone to town on replicating boring household items for children. There are plastic grocery and play food sets, and cooking and associated items, including a Morphy Richards-branded coffee percolator.

For me the most compellingly odd item on display is the toy Post Office/Newsagent, replete with tiny magazines, tiny greetings cards, and (not quite as tiny) TV and driving licence forms, passport application forms, deposit slips and car tax discs. Dare to dream, kids.

***

Footballing rapper John Barnes causes a press mini-frenzy when he turns up to launch the new version of Subbuteo on the Paul Lamond stand.

The noisiest stand belongs to Wicked Vision, with its Socker Boppers – inflatable boxing gloves promoted by a pair of perky, sportswear-adorned spokesmodels – with their looped promo commercial and accompanying jingle (‘Socker Boppers – more fun than a pillow fight!’) slowly driving nearby exhibitors insane.

The Character Group stand features plush characters from the smart phone and tablet game Angry Birds. Schleich’s World of History has dinosaurs and ancient peoples and animals, the vast majority of which are horses.

Nearby, Worlds Apart’s enormous, colourful stand has tents and sleeping bags and Wendy Houses, adorned with a variety of characters, most notably Disney, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Hello Kitty.

At the grown-up-ish, Forbidden Planet-ish end of things is Star Images. They distribute a variety of cult film and video game merchandise (as well as a large figurine of Kurt Cobain).

Their rep talks me through some of the new product lines, including Hunger Games, a new series of films which he says ‘will be like the next post-Twilight thing’; a range of 30th anniversary ET products; an increasingly broad selection of Star Wars merch, including character-shaped backpacks and ice cube trays, as well as light sabre chopsticks; more horror products in the Saw/Freddy/Chucky vein; and a large number of videogame-based figurines.

These latter products look almost entirely interchangeable, particularly when it comes to the Halo figures, which are identical in all respects but colour. The rep admits he’s flummoxed by their popularity – “but they keep selling with every new version of the game they bring out”.

***

Back at the Toy Fair on Wednesday afternoon. Today there’s a SmartCar outside the venue promoting ‘The Hobbit’ board game from Imagination Games. The car is filled with The Hobbit board game boxes. A sign on top of the car invites the visitor to guess how many of the games are inside the vehicle. There are quite a few.

I assume that the first person to guess correctly wins the car. But it turns out that the first five correct answers win a pair of tickets to the film of The Hobbit when it opens in the UK. Why the car, then? Why not a bigger box? Or a fish tank? It’s probably because the car has big The Hobbit promotional images on its doors. I hope no one had to drive here with all the board games in the car with them.

***

Inside, there are significantly fewer media types about. And as with all trade shows, on the second day the layout feels familiar – smaller, and less daunting.

TY’s stand, with the plush toys, is busy today, with all the sales staff seemingly in meetings with clients or potential clients. So perhaps the 2011 downturn for the plush toy sector is an anomaly.

I venture into the ‘Greenhouse’, where the Toy Fair provides smaller, more basic stands for newer, smaller companies.

There’s a remote control and model car company; one with horses and Pixar ‘Cars 2’ toys; science kits for young children; scooter accessories; more RC cars and helicopters; IQ Games – whose stand is tiny and completely empty apart from a couple of chairs; Lego-themed stationery; lip balm for kids; unicycles and juggling tricks (so this is how carnies and circus folk recruit); stickers; terrifying Victorian and Tudor dolls; more scooters; card figures to colour in; a new Playdoh-ish substance; a stand that seems to combine licensed merchandise from Harry Potter, Merlin, Red Dwarf, Dr Who and assorted others with stamp collecting products; ‘Strider – the no pedal bike’; educational tools to make your children bilingual; ‘toy world’ – a new industry magazine; card and board game Kloo; Award Publications (the only dedicated book publisher I could see at the Toy Fair); a packaging magazine; retail sales stands; ‘London – The Board Game’; a giant bubble company; wooden ovens and buses; ‘miniatures game’ Flames of War; games and puzzles manufacturer Maxim; and Talking Tables – a company whose specialty I couldn’t make out as their small stand was entirely obscured by an animated conversation between about six people taking place directly in front of it. Oh, and there are also ‘Talking Tubes’: flexible plastic pipes that kids can talk down. Colourful. But still just pipes.

Some of these exhibitors look more happy to be there than others. Some look positively glum. None approach me as I scribble notes in front of their stands.

***

Over at John Crane’s stand there are a wide variety of wooden, old-fashioned toys for young kids. Most are innocent and charming, but there are a couple of dubious items amongst them.

The ‘Sevi by John Crane’ range are wooden food toys. Here’s what their press release says: “All children adore pretend play with food, so Sevi by john Crane Ltd provides the Breakfast Tray, the Hamburger Tray and a Pizza Set to encourage new vocabulary, role play and even healthy eating!”

The Breakfast Tray is much as you might expect – there’s a wooden egg, wooden bacon, wooden croissant, wooden jam etc. However the Hamburger Tray is essentially a McDonald’s replica, with wooden hamburger, wooden fries in wooden red and yellow pouch thing, wooden ketchup sachets, and (the only jarring note) a plain blue wooden drinking cup. The Pizza Set is some wooden pizza slices, wooden cutter, and wooden toppings.

You can also provide your child with an array of 21 wooden Cakes & Buns. Almost as an afterthought, there are four fruit and vegetable crates (wooden, natch) to collect.

Apparently, “children can be encouraged to talk about healthy foods and eating a good diet – the Hamburger Tray certainly promotes a lively discussion!” So good luck with that.

If you’ve tired of lively discussions about wooden junk food, you can always pick up a ‘handbag pup’. This, you might be surprised to learn, is a plush dog in a bag. It allows your child to emulate that most impressive of role models, Paris Hilton. Or you can always create your own dogbag by taking a small dog and putting it in a bag.

***

Three women walk past, literally dragging their complimentary natural fibre tote bags along the carpet, as if the effort of surveying toys and collecting brochures is in itself enough to bring on torpor and depression.

***

I wander past Drumond Park’s stand, where they are displaying adult and kids’ versions of their board game ‘Logo’.

Logo asks players to name brands when given clues, while kids draw and act them out etc. From a certain kind of perspective, the kids’ edition is an obvious, insidious attempt to brainwash children into participating in the doomed cult of capitalism. Perhaps. But it’s certainly an apt representation of the nature of the show itself.

Brands are everywhere. Sub-brands, licensed characters and properties, companies wanting to establish their brand, seeking brand recognition – the toy that also has a downloadable app or element and needs parents to come back for more: more cards, a chance to battle players online, or in the case of Deadstone Valley, the chance to virtually bury characters or follow zombies about or something.

And the industry is now using parents’ nostalgia for the toys of their own youth to sell to their children, who probably couldn’t care less about Sylvanian Families. We kids of the 80s, who were bombarded with He-Man and Transformers and Care Bears and My Little Ponies (which has apparently developed a somewhat fetishistic middle-aged male following), we developed a taste for being marketed to, for receiving marketing messages across a wide variety of media, and we’ve done more than pass it on to our kids – we’ve positively encouraged the entire culture to view everything in terms of branding.

So maybe this is nothing really new.

But surely a child will play with a toy that’s put in front of him or her – if it’s a good toy, if it’s fun or challenging. Or they’ll make something up – invent it themselves.

Let’s say, for a bit of fun, you kept a child completely isolated from the outside world, from all packaging and broadcasting and the internet and TV and radio (much like Red Toolbox’s ‘Quality Time In A Box’). Let’s say you did that. And why wouldn’t you?

Then let’s say you went and presented this child, who had heretofore avoided any and all vestiges of advertising or marketing or peer pressure, let’s say you presented them with all of the toys on offer at the Toy Fair.

Which would they choose to play with first? Out of all the games and figures and wooden foods and bobbleheaded boybands and apps and tubes you talk down and puppets and helicopters and soap-themed jigsaws – what would they go for?

Probably something that promised the possibility of escape. Probably a scooter.

***

Abigail gets back to me on the Monday after the show closes. She says it was difficult to arrange any meetings with distributors or manufacturers, but was “pleased to have the opportunity to make people aware of the game”. She’s “hoping to get some feedback in February when the exhibitions tail off”.

She says the first, self-funded version of the game should be out by March.

Written by hahildebrand

February 7, 2012 at 11:26 am

One Response

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  1. Hi it’s Abigail, just found this article and thought I would give you an update about my game mentioned in your article. See http://www.facebook.com/medalhaul to get the current picture, thanks.

    Abigail

    June 27, 2012 at 3:21 pm


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