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A Lump of Coal for Toy Makers

Just in time for Christmas, it’s the worst-toy-of-the-year award.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The competition was fierce: would the winner be LEGO’s “Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop” featuring little plastic dolls who, the marketing copy notes, enjoy shopping, gossiping and “get[ting] primped and pretty”? Or maybe the 7-11 Slurpee Maker, which allows kids to make their own high-fructose-syrup-and-artificial-colors treat right at home?

In the end, it was Fisher Price’s “Laugh & Learn Apptivity Monkey” that grabbed the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood’s 2012 prize for worst toy of the year. Now in its fourth year, the TOADY award— that’s for “Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children,” a play on the industry’s Toy of the Year, or TOTY, award—is selected by online votes through the website of the Boston-based CCFC, which fights the pernicious influence of consumerism and intense marketing on the lives of kids.

Marketed for kids ages six months to three years, the Apptivity Monkey is part stuffed animal and part electronic “learning toy.” “It’s the best of both worlds for baby—a soft, cuddly friend to hold and hug, plus fun interactive learning with (or without) your iPhone or iPod Touch!” Fisher Price boasts on its website.

Actually, CCFC counters, the monkey, with its giant purple head and touch-screen tummy, represents the worst of toy trends, training tots to rely on screens for stimulation while assuring their parents that it’s educational. “A teddy bear just won’t cut it for today’s jaded, screen-addicted babies,” the non-profit notes in its description of the toy. “It’s the first stuffy with an iPhone in its belly, so your little one can get everything she needs—Hugs! Video games! Milk! [we made that one up]—from the same creepy package!”

And, the group adds, “Since it’s marketed with bogus educational claims, mom and dad won’t have to feel guilty about that glazed look in baby’s eyes. And while the Apptivity Monkey won’t assure baby a slot at Harvard, it is guaranteed to give her a head start ... on a lifetime of needing screens for comfort.” The trend of pitching videos, apps and computer toys as “educational” for young children is a particularly sore spot for CCFC, which has successfully pursued complaints against Baby Einstein videos and the company behind the Your Baby Can Read video program for making unsubstantiated claims that their products have educational benefits for babies.

“Screen-free stuffed animals have been a source of comfort to young children and a springboard for creative play for generations,” said psychologist Susan Linn, CCFC’s director and the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World. “The Apptivity Monkey is a textbook example of more being considerably less.”

Voters shared CCFC’s distaste for the touch-screen monkey, which walked off with an impressive one-third of all votes cast, according to an announcement from the group. The release included a comment from one voter who said she picked the toy as the most odious “ because it is in clear violation of pediatrician and professional recommendations to keep babies and toddlers under two away from any screens at all. … It’s more like the Capptivity Monkey.”

Lego’s beauty-shop toy—which CCFC describes as “just for girls and so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush”—came in a close second with 30 percent of the votes. But perhaps the most absurd contender was something called “TheO” ball, a soft foam ball with a slot where kids can insert a parent’s (or, perhaps just as frighteningly likely, their own) smart phone or iPod, which then guides them through such apparently inscrutable games as bowling. “Since the dawn of time, children have longed for something fun to do with 3-dimensional round objects,” CCFC notes wryly. With TheO ball, “in no time, they’ll be playing games their technologically primitive ancestors couldn’t dream of—like ‘Hot Potato.’ Kids will love a ball that tells them what to do. And parents will love that their little ones no longer have to choose between exercise and excessive screen time.”

Screen- and computer-based toys for little ones have—no surprise here—emerged as an unwelcomed trend; last year’s TOADY went to the Vinci Touchscreen Mobile Learning Tablet, a computer tablet for babies. Still, good, old-fashioned sexist stereotypes remain alive and well in the toy aisle, as the proliferation of pink-and-purple “girl” LEGO sets shows. Indeed, Mattel’s Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Barbie is a previous TOADY winner.•

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