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Toy companies make the toys but miss the kids

Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies That Make Them

By G. Wayne Miller

(Times Books, a division of Random House, $25)

Making the toys, but missing the kids

Reviewed by Pamela Davis

The title of this book, Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies That Make Them, and the information in it are two different things.

The only major struggle the book details between the No. 1 toymaker, Mattel, and the No. 2 company, Hasbro, is a failed takeover attempt. And that doesn't come until the last few chapters. In 1996 Mattel offered $5.2-billion for Hasbro, which spurned the bid.

Six years ago, G. Wayne Miller, a staff writer for the Providence Journal-Bulletin in Hasbro's home state of Rhode Island, set out to write about the design, development and marketing of G.I. Joe, Hasbro's flagship product. Instead, with almost unlimited access at all levels of Hasbro, Miller decided to profile the company.

That's really what this book is: a profile of Hasbro and a biography of Alan Hassenfeld, the company's chief executive.

Problem is, somewhere along the way, Miller lost some of his objectivity. Maybe it was because, as he admits in the book, he accepted Hasbro's hospitality and took several trips on its corporate jet. In return, he bought some lunches for Hasbro folks and made a donation to the Hasbro Children's Hospital.

But all that aside, if you start reading Toy Wars, perhaps with a different title in your head like Hasbro: Hits and Misses, you'll come away with a glimpse of the unpredictable, huge moneymaking toy industry and a detailed story about Hasbro.

But for those who are interested in the toy business, the book will be a frustrating read for what's not in it. There's no mention of how the invention of clever toys is no longer the industry's driving force; instead, the key is gaining the right TV or movie licenses on which to base a toy.

There's no complete explanation of what the annual toy fair in New York is all about. There's no information about how the toys parents purchase for holiday gifts are actually ordered by the stores in February. One of the most difficult aspects of the toy business is trying to anticipate what children will want.

Toy Wars leaves the reader with a lingering question. Where are the kids? Toys are made for children, yet children have absolutely no say in what is offered to them.

Year after year, Hasbro reinvented G.I. Joe. He got bigger. He got smaller. He got Kung-Fu Grip. He got Extreme. But rarely did anyone at Hasbro consult the kids who may have purchased him, and maybe that's why kids lost interest in the little guy. Joe is now marketed almost exclusively to adult collectors.

In addition to G.I. Joe, the list of toys that helped Hasbro become a Fortune 500 company include Mr. Potato Head, Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids and Trivial Pursuit. But even though the company has huffed and puffed, it has never been able to blow Barbie down.

One of the most intriguing portions of Toy Wars details Hasbro's attempts to compete with Mattel's Barbie.

Its first efforts were Bobbie Gentry and Flying Nun dolls in the late 1960s. Then in 1971 came the World of Love dolls named Love, Peace, Flower, Adam and Soul.

Next up was Leggy, who came in three different hair colors and was sold with bell-bottoms, halter top and gown stole. She hung in there until 1974. Hasbro came back in 1977 with Charlie's Angels, based on the hit TV show. Those three perky pieces of plastic lasted only a year.

"Every fashion doll (Hasbro) has marketed in more than 15 years had been a different size from Barbie," Miller writes, "on the theory that girls buying (its) dolls would then have to buy (Hasbro's) accessories and outfits, not Mattel's.

"In reality, girls tried to dress newcomers in Barbie outfits _ and, when they didn't fit, lost interest."

For now, Hasbro is going with what it knows best _ action figures _ and leaving the pink boxes and blond hair to Mattel. But, as the book explains, Hasbro never gives up.

The company will keep plotting and planning and putting new toys on the shelves. And one of these days they may get that doll thing right.

_ Pamela Davis is a Times staff writer.