Election Section

Toy makers respond to parental concern by de-emphasizing violence

By Anne d’Innocenzio AP Business Writer
Friday September 28, 2001



NEW YORK — Patty Gonzales now keeps soldiers and other military toys in a closet, hidden from her 5- and 6-year-old sons. Instead, she bought them rescue hero figures such as firefighters and policemen. 

Lisa Eastman bought Lego blocks and puzzles for her 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. 

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, more and more parents are trying to rid their children’s lives of violent toys. 

“We just need a break,” said Eastman, a 38-year-old Manhattanite. “My kids now have nightmares about fires and about all those bad guys.” 

The toy industry has been doing some soul-searching, too, editing product lines, pulling toys from retail shelves and delaying release of items that might be viewed as too violent. 

And though it’s too early to gauge post-disaster buying trends, retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have noticed more sales of firefighter and policeman figures, as well as rescue vehicles. One hot seller has been Mattel Inc.’s Fisher-Price “Rescue Heroes,” a lineup of 7-inch characters unveiled in 1998. 

Toy analysts also believe Hasbro Inc.’s newly relaunched GI Joe could be attractive to parents who want to help children act out their fears. Wal-Mart reported an initial uptick in sales of GI Joe’s since the terrorist attacks. 

For others, such as Eastman and Gonzales, military figures are just too powerful when the real thing is on city streets. 

“It’s bad enough that they see the Army in the airports,” said Gonzales, a 24-year-old from Brooklyn. 

Chris Byrne, an independent toy analyst, predicts “those nasty toys that destroy enemies for the sake of unspecified violent play” will be replaced by heroes who restore order. 

“All of this destruction and combat play has been possible because it is so abstract,” he said. “Now ’the threat’ is real.” 

Mattel, the world’s largest toy manufacturer, has already withdrawn its Heli-Jet vehicle, which belongs to its Max Steel line of merchandise based on a teen superhero cartoon series. It contains a mission card with a specific goal: Save New York City from the villain called Vitriol, who stands atop the World Trade Center, ready to blast the city with deadly energy waves. 

Bandai America aims to play down the fighting aspect of its Power Rangers action figures and push “teamwork and friendship,” says Colleen Sherfey, director of marketing. She said the company has redesigned some of its advertising and marketing. 

This re-evaluation couldn’t come at a more critical time for retailers and manufacturers, which have already shipped their products into stores for the Oct. 1 holiday deadline. 

How long consumers’ increased sensitivity will last is anyone’s guess, but many consumer advocates see a new climate favoring less violent types of toys. 

Ann Brown, chairwoman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, said she’s against any toys that “glorify violence.” 

What’s appropriate for children, she said, are toys that help children “deal with violence,” such as Army toys and GI Joes. “Kids need to really re-enact their fears as heroes,” she said, recommending toys that emphasize rescue workers like nurses and firefighters. 

“Children have fears anyway,” she continued. “The attacks have increased those fears. ... Now they have tangible evidence to focus those fears on.” 

She and other consumer advocates are closely monitoring the video game industry. 

Video game makers have already delayed some new games containing images of the World Trade Center to remove the graphics. But for the now-delayed fall launches of games that involve terrorist or other violent activity, the issue is trickier: When will the consumer be ready? 

“Video game makers are buying more time right now,” said Dan Hsu, editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly. “I think they are going to take a safer approach to content for 2002 and 2003.” 

Sega of North America indefinitely postponed its “Propeller Arena” game, involving planes in combat in various cities. It had been set for the end of the month. 

Ubi Soft Entertainment, which owns Red Storm Entertainment, has delayed its PC game, part of a series based on Tom Clancy’s novels. The new release, “Rogue Spear: Black Thorn,” has players involved in counterterrorist games. 

Natasha Spring, 38, of Petaluma, Calif., now doesn’t plan to buy her children — two boys, ages 9 and 5, and a 2-year-old girl — a game console. 

“Even if they watch sports games, it just opens the door for violent games,” she said. “I think they are going to be sticking to Disney cartoons.” 

Merchants said they see no reason to remove existing violent games, even if they involve terrorist threats. They’re leaving it to consumer discretion. 

Zany Brainy, which has avoided carrying violent video games and toys, expects parents to gravitate this holiday season toward more toys with “open-ended play.” 

“I think we will be seeing strength in Legos, trains and board games, as well as arts and crafts,” said Tom Vellios, president and chief executive officer. 

Spokeswoman Lisa Orman said the retailer also expects more participation than ever in its program allowing a violent toy to be traded in for a safer one on a designated weekend.