Hanging on by a string

Most toys need an ad campaign to make them a success. So how did the yo-yo swing back to fame?, asks Karen O'Brien
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Indy Lifestyle Online
REMEMBER those nice people who brought you the irritating little Tamagotchi, the virtual-reality cre-ature responsible for introducing the demands of 24-hour care-giving into the previously carefree lives of children the world over? If you haven't already done so, bury the Tamagotchi now, because its Japanese creators have resurrected the last vestige of the dinosaur age of innocent toys - the humble yo-yo. Word on the street, or rather in the playground and back-garden, is that it's social death to be seen without one of these little objects either in or flying from the palm of your hand.

Long the scourge of little girls whose brothers (like mine) used their heads as target practice, the yo-yo - in true Darwinian style - has evolved sufficiently to survive urban life, fluctuating pocket-money budgets and the post-modern consumer culture that is merchandising childhood today.

The important feature of the current yo-yo vogue is that it has not been preceded by a huge marketing campaign with an avalanche of commercial tie-in deals - the film, the t-shirt, the lunch-box, the burger, the video, the watch-strap, the doll. This was an organic resurgence that caught toy manufacturers by surprise. But that doesn't mean they're not poised to move in with some mega-marketing.

Caroline Goodfellow, the curator of dolls and toys at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, says there are ten-year cycles in the rediscovery of traditional toys like the yo-yo. It's hardly scientific but it starts on a tiny scale with parents and grandparents who enjoyed these toys when they were young and are therefore more likely to buy them for their own children.

Once one or two are brandished among schoolfriends, it's a small step towards creating a huge trend two years later. "A lot of people feel like the yo-yo is one of the last of the toys that has been around for generations", says Caroline Goodfellow. "And most people can at least do one or two tricks with them."

But don't be fooled into thinking the simple design of the humble yo- yo has been preserved intact, like one of the museum's exhibits. The basic structure may have been around for a couple of thousand years but the designers of the Nineties feel they can improve on it. For a couple of pounds, you use your own brain in figuring out how to do various yo-yo tricks; for an extra tenner, the yo-yo comes equipp-ed with either two or four brains of its own and it'll do your thinking for you.

Moving up the evolutionary and price scale, yo-yo marketing resembles a high-tech showroom catalogue and is designed to capture the adult whose search for the inner child is facilitated by playing with toys like the pounds 75 Tiffany's stirling silver yo-yo or, for pounds 100, the SB2 that has a precision ball-bearing similar to those used in top-of-the-range computers. Or the model with a centrifugal clutch that programmes automatic returns, or the one that is made of aircraft-grade aluminium.

Others are bizarrely-titled Viper and Dominator. Yo-yo-ing has become a major sport so save on the pricey tennis lessons and the footie kit and buy your little darling one. But start at the cheaper end of the market, because the craze will have died long before your child reaches Olympic yo-yo-ing standard.

So what's next? The hula hoop that rotates itself around your waist without you moving a muscle? The laser-powered conker that flies in and out of its virtual pod? The Rubic Cube which solves itself?

The smart money, says, Caroline Goodfellow, is on a furry little toy that sounds like a cross between a Telly-tubby, Tamagotchi and a grouchy two-year old: it burps, farts, makes incessant demands and babbles in its own language. It comes complete with its own dictionary so you can understand what it's saying. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Yo-yos, at all good toy stores, priced from pounds 3-pounds 100