Action Man on the attack

... and he's got Po and Tinky Winky at his side. Richard Phillips reports from the toy front line

IF you thought Action Man had faded into obscurity, think again.

The macho doll, popular way back in the sixties, has made a comeback as unlikely as John Travolta's leap from obscurity to low-life star in Pulp Fiction after a previous career as a romantic lead.

Action Man, too, has been reinvented. Gone, in the main, are the trappings of militarism that older generations remember him by. The new-look version has been re-incarnated as a politically-correct fighter against urban crime, especially the drugs world.

Action Man's renewed popularity isn't confined to the UK; its maker Hasbro claims it is the most popular boy's toy in Scandinavia, while it sells well in France and Italy.

It is the overseas drive, however, that starkly illustrates one of the great dilemmas facing today's toy makers.

As a British stalwart, Action Man's popularity overseas had been limited. But for most toy makers today, if a brand is to make it, it must do so on a global footing.

And in the global markets, where toy makers fight for a claim to parents' wallets in Hong Kong, Paris, or Berlin, the real rivals are not other toy makers.

"I don't see myself competing against Mattel," says Bryan Ellis, group managing director for Hasbro UK, the British arm of the American toy giant, Hasbro. Rather, he sees the company up against the likes of Sony, Nike, Adidas and Nintendo. Money parents spend on gifts for their children could just as well go on a Sony Walkman at Christmas, or the latest trainers from Nike.

And Mr Ellis, who can lay claim to the revival in Action Man's fortunes, is also uncertain about the sort of business he is in.

"I haven't decided if it's children's entertainment, or children's leisure time that we are competing for, rather than being just simply a children's toy manufacturer."

His comment is reflected in the changing displays at Toys 'R' Us. Less than half of the toy store now is filled by traditional toys. The rest is displays of computer games, videos, and sports goods and clothing. Pre-recorded videos, for example, take about a third of all entertainment spending on children, with Disney taking a large chunk of that amount.

While many toy makers are licking their lips in the run-up to Christmas, things look less rosy further out.

Chris Burgin, chief executive of Bluebird Toys, the UK's largest independent toy manufacturer, paints a bleak picture of the industry as it gears up for its busiest time of the year. "Traditional toys are under huge pressure, and are a declining business, in the long term," he says.

Polly Pocket was the foundation of Bluebird Toys' success; it swept the world and continues to draw the interest of kids everywhere.

The company generates annual sales of over pounds 60m. However, Polly Pocket has stumbled recently, with Mattel, its distributor in the US, deciding to pull out of selling the brand over there.

Overseas sales are vital for a business like Bluebird Toys. Mr Burgin explains that the development costs are too high, in most cases, to justify a toy which sells in Britain alone. "Tooling up costs for a toy that only shifts 100,000 units means each one may cost pounds 2 before you get it into the shops. But if you can sell a million units, then your development cost comes down to 25p or so - a very different proposition."

So there is little sense in building up and developing a mass market brand if it lacks global appeal.

For the toy market, which is notoriously prone to fads, fashion and the fickle taste of the school playground grapevine, ensuring a toy will sell overseas is almost essential.

The tamagotchi is a prime example. Its Japanese makers actually stimulated demand for the cyberpet by getting teenagers in Japan on to its books, to talk up the merits of the toy to friends and peers - real grapevine marketing.

The hit of the summer in the UK, however, the cyberpet is now friendless - few trendy kids would be seen with one.

Bluebird has watched the impact of electronics closely, and has come up with its own range of electronic products. It has concentrated on electronic organisers - diaries and address books - for children. To be able to sell at normal retail prices, most of the products use technology that is out of date. Its "Secret Diary" was launched in 1995, and this year is expected to shift 200,000 units, selling at upwards of pounds 20.

Mr Burgin says the key is to build brands that are sustainable for the long term. He points to Polly Pocket as an example; the brand is developing a following he hopes can stand the test of time - like Action Man or Barbie.

Despite the long-term sellers, this year's Christmas hit looks to be in the bag already. Yep, parents of toddlers know only too well what is in demand; Teletubbies seem to have won hands down.

As well as being set for the number-one slot in the singles charts - with the catchily named "Teletubbies say Eh-Oh" - licensees are expected to sell 1 million Teletubby soft toys for Christmas. BBC Worldwide, the marketing arm of the Corporation, has come up with a series of deals for the products, and has high hopes that their shelf lives will stretch out for years. But other commentators believe that the market for the Teletubbies is already close to saturation point, and certainly will be after Christmas.

There are now up to 40 licensees for Teletubby-linked products, from soft toys, to books (four), videos (two), a single - just the one so far - along with one audio cassette, and any number of soft toys, T-shirts, and nursery-age products.

While Teletubbies seem relatively harmless, some mourn a lost era, before the day of the global hard sell and the relentless quest for the next one-hit wonder. A time when Christmas presents for children had a certain timeless quality, and Airfix models were the ultimate in sophistication. If those days ever did exist, they're gone now.

(Incidentally, does anyone know where I can get a Po doll? My local toy shop is sold out.)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Reach Volunteering: Trustees with Finance, Fundraising and IT skills

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses reimbursable: Reach Volunteering: St...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent