The Real Toy Story by Eric Clark

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The Real Toy Story by Eric Clark

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Category: Home and Family
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: An illuminating view of a $21 billion a year industry, from the stifling of invention, through corporate buyouts, to the nauseating underbelly of its manufacturing - sweatshops in which children as young as the toy's 'target market' labour in the most brutal of environments. It will certainly make you think. The toy industry is dominated by American manufacturers, so expect to find more information about the US than about the UK.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552774062

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Far from encouraging creative play [toys produced today] stifle it: the action comes from the toy, not from the child. The play patterns that result are structured by the movies or television programmes that spawn them, or from the built-in electronics. No-one says, let's pretend...

Sad, but all too often true. Children don't even get to build what they like with their Lego bricks these days. They require a fifty page booklet and an adult's help to create a Star Wars Republican Cruiser with which they dare not even play. I know, because I was the adult making one for my six-year-old nephew this Boxing Day. Each Christmas, British children unwrap over £2 billion worth of toys in a global industry worth £30 billion a year. Obsolescence is built-in. Toys get more expensive, more elaborate, more expensive. But so many of them are less fun to play with. Play value isn't the overriding factor these days; the bottom line is. And this bottom line is achieved by sweatshops overseas, corporate bully-boy tactics and insidious viral marketing in which only social outcasts do not possess the latest craze.

What a depressing picture. How on earth did it all get this bad?

To find out, read Eric Clark's The Real Toy Story, which gives you a potted history of the toy industry over the last century. It explains how toys go from idea to prototype to toybox and how marketing runs the show. There's a particularly disturbing chapter about Barbie and the all-pervading control Mattel exercise over her name and trademark. Recently shunted from the top-spot by the hyper-sexualised Bratz, Barbie's fighting back. And the common story seems to be true - in all these battles the ultimate loser is the child.

Of course, the most shameful in an often shameful industry is the manufacturing process. Most toys are made in China, in the most awful of conditions. Dormitory-based workers labour for fifteen hour shifts seven days a week. They are fined for mistakes, over-charged for bed and board. Hazardous chemicals take a devastating toll on their health. The CEO of an American toy company earns more than the entire workforces of dozens of Chinese factories. If nothing else in this book makes you consider standing up to marketing-fuelled pester power, this chapter will.

Clark speaks to a great number of industry executives and the book is easy to read, with editorial and interview seguing nicely. There are plenty of facts and figures, but they don't detract from the flow. As the toy industry is overwhelmingly American, the focus lies largely stateside with the odd nod to the UK environment. This extends into the retail side of things, and I confess I'd like to have seen more on familiar British names. ELC gets a surprisingly critical mention, but it's over and gone within a line or two. I wanted to know more. While Walmart and Toys R Us are as familiar in the UK as they are in the US, I'd like the book to have given British instances, not American ones.

USA-centrism aside, this is a must-read book for anyone who feels uncomfortable at the thought that TV shows exist entirely to provide programme-length commercials - and that this is a deliberate ploy, not just the blurring of boundaries. You won't enjoy it though.

My thanks to the nice people at Black Swan for sending the book.

If you're interested in finding out more about the products you buy every day, you might find Joanna Blythman's Shopped, an excoriating look at the practices of the major supermarkets.

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