Classic Toys are Being Redesigned into Visual Overload

My skin has been itching since I became a dad and began noticing the toys sold today. I finally popped my top when I read an Associated Press article this week titled “Companies reinvent classic toys to drive sales.”

Photos of two versions of the Etch A Sketch. The first features Dora the Explorer in its original packaging. The second features a classic red version. A caption asks, Which version will survive for your grandchildren to enjoy?The news article is a publicity piece about the debut of a Dora the Explorer-themed version of Etch A Sketch. They took the clean and simple interface of this drawing toy and complicated its appearance with tons of stars and cartoon characters. The toy’s classic rectangular shape is now lumpy with curves.

If you think Dora caters to girls, then this pinkish-purple toy has even been ascribed a gender. If you have a boy and girl at home, you’ll want to buy male and female editions. The classic version will still be sold, but that provides little solace if stores don’t carry it.

I am really complaining about two things.

First, children’s toys are filled with visual noise. Clarity in toy design is becoming the exception to the rule. Classic toys that have proven popular across multiple decades are being rethought with marketers steering the design.

Second, toys are needlessly branded with corporate children’s icons that have no relation to the subject at hand. Putting Thomas the Tank Engine on a train conductor’s costume makes sense. Putting Thomas on a memory tile game does not.

Strolling the toy aisle at Target, I noticed Hi-Ho! Cherry-O, a board game dating back to 1960. My daughter played it recently at a friend’s house, and I decided it would make a good Christmas gift. But then I noticed it was sold in two versions—today’s edition and a “Collector’s Series” in a metal tin with game components that resemble the 1960 edition. The price was the same, but the classic version had a much cleaner design. The same held true for Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders.

You could make the case that the new editions better represent America. For example, today’s Chutes and Ladders is filled with Dora characters. A Latina is representative of America’s evolving face, quite a change from the generic and  stereotypically white children depicted in the ’60s edition. But do we need Dora in every game and on bed sheets and tooth brushes and underwear and everywhere else?

Chutes and Ladders and Etch A Sketh are brands in their own right, recognized fondly across multiple
generations. When they tie themselves to the latest cartoon character craze they ultimately harm sales. Today’s kids will become parents and
look for the non-existent toys of their youth. I am of course assuming
that many of today’s cartoon characters will expire in 10 years, not
all of them have the staying power of Sesame Street or The Muppets. Timeless toys are built around an idea, not around a personality.

Oh nuts. This rant wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about one more problem with today’s toys. Why does a Sit-N-Spin need flashing lights and popping sound effects? Is twirling in circles until you throw up not enough for today’s kids? The toy is actually called now, “Music & Lights Sit ‘n Spin: Rockin’ Tunes.” Do what I did. Find an old school version from the 1990s and remove the stickers. Or, buy a new one, don’t apply the stickers, and never insert batteries. Your kid will LOVE it.


4 Responses to “Classic Toys are Being Redesigned into Visual Overload”

  1. Mark says:

    Haha…I’ve been trying to figure out a diplomatic way to make a Christmas list for my son to give to family members that gives the message that we don’t need tons of toys that are branded with corporate and commercial icons, or that have nonstop noise and flashing lights. I worry that I’m already sounding like a grumpy old man at the advanced age of 30: “Kids these days, with their newfangled gadgets and gizmos…why, back in MY day we had REAL toys, not the crap they put out now…”

    Between that and the certainty that my fam will all just ignore me and get him whatever the heck they want, I think I’m gonna have to resign myself to a certain amount of annoyance with the baby’s gifts. He’s already got Chicken Dance Elmo, Cartwheeling Tigger, and some baffling dog that will start singing, flashing, spelling, or clapping if you so much as breathe in its general direction…and this is just at 15 months! I’m fighting back though, I just ordered 2 of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs, so we can get to know some of the classics together. Now THERE’S some good stuff!

    November 17th, 2006 at 10:20 pm

  2. Beth says:

    Amen! I’m going to print your post and place it on our refrigerator in the hope that all the grandparents will see it and take the hint. Perhaps I should print it in the brightest red?!

    November 18th, 2006 at 12:00 pm

  3. Mark says:

    LOL Beth…that may be just the ticket! Distributing my son’s Xmas list stapled to a copy of this post? BRILLIANT!

    November 19th, 2006 at 2:40 pm

  4. thordora says:

    Although it’s extra work, with our inlaws in another province, we purchase their gifts and they reimburse us. That way, we avoid the “elmo epidemic” and actually avoided some battery noise toys this year in favour of nice, quiet blocks and little people.

    I’m sick of everything having some over marketed “name” on it. We buy the odd thing for them with characters they like, but I’m the same-I want the actual toy, not the four pounds of crap and “gender” added to it. I don’t relegate my kids to only “girls” toys, and will certainly not buy them stuff like that.

    ick. If only more people stopped to think about stuff before they buy it.

    November 22nd, 2006 at 10:14 am