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Presents past

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Boppi the Booty Shakin Llama, makes it to several of this year’s must-have Christmas toy lists. With three different tunes to twerk and spin to, this battery-powered camelid is described as ‘adorable, hilarious and good fun for all the family’… to which hard-pressed parents across the country will respond ‘ask me on Boxing Day.’

What toys are popular?

As electronic pets go, Boppi is relatively unsophisticated, with none of the developmental capabilities of its Furby or Tamagotchi forebears – but it does point to a technology-facilitated trend towards toys doing more, so kids don’t have to. Compare the sedentary joy of watching a dancing llama with the effort that owners of the original Mr Potato Head had to go. When launched in 1952, heads were not included. Instead, children had to find their own potato in which to insert the famous facial features. This left open the potential for other vegetables to be pressed into service – although it’s debatable whether Mr Cabbage Head would have taken off in the same way.

It seems then, that growing sophistication may have come at the expense of imaginative play. Even the perennial champion of dream-it-yourself creativity, Lego, has had to move with the times. Through the 1970’s and 80’s, it continued to emphasise the endless possibilities that could be built from the basic brick. But things look very different today – with a child’s imagination limited only by their interest in Hogwarts or the Millennium Falcon and Dad’s ability to decipher the instructions. 

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Unsplash: Umberto

This leads neatly to another key theme in the cross-over between toys and film and TV franchises. Star Wars, Ghost Busters, High School Musical, Toy Story, and Frozen have all spun-off into best-sellers, proving there’s nothing like screen-time to stoke demand for play-time. But it’s not all been one-way traffic with popular toys and games including Dungeons & Dragons, Masters of the Universe and Transformers all making the leap from shelf to screen.

These cross-overs have often played a starring role in another modern phenomenon: the Christmas Craze. Characterised by intense spikes in demand, limited supply and insanely inflated prices, the Christmas Craze is every parent’s worst nightmare – and frequently hair-raising for retailers too.

As one shop-worker, caught up in a stampede for Tickle Me Elmo’s in 1996 reported: ‘I was pulled under, trampled – the crotch ripped out of my brand-new jeans… I was kicked with a white Adidas before I became unconscious’. Likewise, in 2014, Frozen Elsa dolls were the cause of fist-fights breaking out in stores – proving that in pursuit of getting the little ones exactly what they want, parents are no longer prepared to let it go.

If you’re hoping for a reminder of the more wholesome, innocent values of Christmas gift giving, dolls are probably not the best place to start looking. Contrast the most popular choices of the 1980’s and 1990’s and their 21st Century sisters. In 1983 and 1984, Strawberry Shortcake and the Cabbage Patch Kids charmed us with their dimples, bonnets and pinafores. By 1992, Barbie’s Weekend Denim ensemble represented more grown-up tastes – but was still a girl you’d introduce to your mother with a clear conscience.

And then, in 2001, a bomb went off in the peculiar shape of Jasmin, Chloe, Jade and Sasha. According to their manufacturers, the Bratz girls represented core values of ‘friendship, hair play and a passion for fashion.’ Parents’ groups and the American Psychological Association amongst others, thought otherwise – raising concerns about the doll’s ‘adult-like sexuality’. Whatever your views on the controversy, it’s striking how the signature Bratz look, with its over-sized eyes, exaggerated lips and vanishing noses, was so wildly popular a decade before a legion of Instagram accounts followed suit.

So, what about boy’s toys (if gender specificity isn’t an outmoded concept)? From Action Man and GI Joe, through Darth Vader, Mutant Ninja Turtles and on to the Skylanders, action figures have been a staple favourite. Light sabres and Nerf guns also make an appearance. All of which confirms that boys are never happier than when fighting in one form or another. A less aggressive character, Stretch Armstrong, was a hit in 1976. Bizarre as it may sound, the key feature of Stretch (indeed the only feature) was that he was extremely stretchy. This adds ‘a man with very long arms’ to the list of boys’ heroes – but doesn’t do much for the reputation of the male intellect. 

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Unsplash: Marco Blazevic

Why simple toys are better

The exercise of brain power generally hasn’t been a popular requirement for top-selling toys – with the notable exception of the Rubik’s Cube in 1981 and before that, in 1974, the board game Risk. What today’s kids would make of a map-based game of Napoleonic power-politics, is anyone’s guess. They would almost certainly be mystified to know they could start a game on Sunday afternoon and still be waiting for a result by bed-time on Tuesday. Who can blame them then, for preferring the instant and very much more lively gratification of the GameBoy, Wii and Playstation?

But are they missing something? In the progress from Mr Potato Head to Boppi the Lama, and from Risk to the immersive thrill of computer games, have the virtues of simplicity, innocence and the imagination been sacrificed?

It’s tempting to cast the past in a rose-tinted glow – and all too easy to persuade ourselves that things were better in our day. Doing so rather misses the point, however. Because as toys change, expectations do too – and that’s a tide you can’t hold back. Not convinced? Then ask yourself how you would have felt if instead of that BMX you were desperate for, your parents had got you a penny-farthing?

Some things are slower to change, though. Looking back at top-selling toys from the 1960’s until today, an almost universally common ingredient is plastic. Given the contemporary demonisation of the material, could this be a catalyst for a return to more traditional play- times? Possibly. But you wonder if a cardboard-booty-shakin’ Boppi will have quite the same appeal.


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