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How Do Toy Companies Appeal to Kids in the Post–Saturday Morning Cartoon Era?

A screenshot from a Hot Wheels commercial.
Mom, I want it!!!! YouTube screenshot

When I was growing up, I wanted nothing more than a Barbie Jeep Wrangler. And the Lego set that could be built into a castle, complete with a drawbridge and tiny Lego knights. And a pair of Super Soakers for summer parties. Oh! And a pink Skip-It, the jump rope with a counter to tally all my skips!

I found out about each one of these toys during long weekday afternoons and early Saturday mornings parked in front of the TV. In between Power Ranger fights and Recess debacles, my TV time was filled with flashy toy commercials that all seemed to feature one amazing moment: an excited kid shows off her cool wares, as fast camera zooms capture the toys in action and the subsequent gasps of awe and amazement.

I was hooked. Who wouldn’t want the Hot Wheels set that could transform into a space shuttle and a space station?

Advertisers first identified children as an effective marketing target in the 1960s and ’70s, and by 2004, James McNeal—a longtime researcher of the children’s market—estimated that kids aged 4 to 12 could directly influence adult purchasing by more than $300 billion. In that same year, advertisers were spending upwards of $15 billion at marketing towards children. But these days, it’s harder and harder to find a child who spends her screen time watching good old fashioned television, and the commercial break is going the way of the compact disc. Many kids now consume entertainment just like their adult counterparts—through on-demand media like Netflix and YouTube, and on mobile devices and tablets. Nielsen’s Q2 2017 Total Audience Report estimates that nearly half of all U.S. households with children now have at least one internet-enabled device connected to their TVs, and as Slate’s screen survey of parents suggests, kids also watch plenty on tablets and phones.

“I believe that the advent of hand-held technology that children access—whether it’s tablets or phones—has been a disruptor,” said Rebecca Hains, a professor of communications at Salem State University and author of The Princess Problem. In the era of Saturday-morning cartoons on only three networks, “you knew that the majority of kids were going to sit down and watch children’s cartoons, and the networks could bank on being able to sell ad space for very, very high rates.” These days, no such mass network audience exists.

But there are ways toy brands have managed to get children’s eyes (and presumably, dollars) on their products in this fractured age. One method that’s long been in play is connecting toys to known entertainment properties—think of Star Wars and its overabundance of BB-8s. “That is the present and future of toys, is the connection between watching the content and having the merchandise that goes with the storylines that one sees in entertainment,” said Matthew Quint*, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. The predicted 4.5 percent growth of the toy industry in 2017 is deceptive; without such licensing deals, the big three—Mattel, Hasbro, and Lego—would be generally struggling.

Toy companies have sold entertainment brands for decades, of course. What’s changed now, though, is how much content originates with the toys themselves. Netflix is stacked with series inspired by Lego (Nexo Knights, LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, LEGO: City), Transformers (Transformers: Rescue Bots, Transformers Prime Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising), and the like. “It’s sort of a two-way street,” said Quint.

Marketing is a bit more overt on platforms like YouTube, where traditional commercials still run before videos. Advertisers also make use of influencers, popular personalities whose word goes a long way with their followers. (Influencers do have to disclose if they were paid to endorse a product.) In the toy world, there’s EvanTubeHD, which boasts 4.7 million subscribers, and per a 2015 interview nets the video-making family seven figures annually from AdSense and Google’s embedded ads. Another family-led YouTube channel, KidToyTesters, has more than 300,000 subscribers, and its creators told Bloomberg Businessweek that they estimated making $140,000 by the end of 2017. The channel includes a number of sponsored videos for brands like Nintendo and Spin Master.

The ne plus ultra of YouTube toy marketing is the unboxing video, in which a consumer gleefully opens a package she’s just purchased. Such videos have long been popular for tech gadgets, candy, and clothing; more and more, users are unboxing toys online, dispensing entirely with actually playing with the toy and focusing instead on the joy of acquiring it.

Once, unboxing videos—like this one—were low-wattage affairs, often just a pair of hands opening a product that the unboxer had purchased herself, absent of paid endorsement. Unboxing now has a money machine behind it, of course—YouTube parent company Google itself recognized the “magic” of the genre early on—and influencers like EvanTubeHD participate as well. A study on unboxing released last year noted the genre has grown 871 percent since 2010, and dedicated online channels can get millions of subscribers each. In response, said Quint, toy companies are now looking at their products during the development and packaging stages and considering how “to make opening the box with the toys seem that much more engaging and exciting.”

A prime example? The 2017 holiday season’s most popular toy, the L.O.L. Surprise! Big Surprise—“a glittery, dome-shaped plastic case filled with 50 surprises.” There are already thousands of videos of this literal unboxing toy being unboxed on YouTube, like this one posted on Oct. 8, which has already gotten more than 13 million views. Apparently, watching people showing off their awesome wares to gasps of amazement never grows old.

*Correction, Jan. 5, 2018: This post originally misspelled the last name of Columbia Business School’s Matthew Quint.

*Correction, Jan. 19, 2018: This post originally misspelled the last name of Salem State University professor Rebecca Hains.

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