Bunhill: Yo-yos string up the rules of marketing

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A PRODUCT can't succeed without good marketing, the theory goes, so how come the latest craze to sweep Britain has barely an advertisement to its name?

The new brand names of choice are variations of a game that dates back at least to ancient Greece and possibly to ancient China. Rediscovered in 1929 by an American called Frank Duncan - who had been watching Filipino waiters at leisure - they have been going in and out of fashion ever since. But now they are back with a vengeance.

With names like Viper and Black Mamba 5-Star - "the fastest-striking snake in the world" - it must be obvious we're talking about yo-yos, the humble gadgets that have sprung up without warning to dominate the toy market.

Appropriately, this is an up-and-down business. Barry Eldridge of The Entertainer, an independent British toy chain, reports that in 1997 sales of yo-yos soared as high as none. Immediately after this summer's school holidays, by contrast, The Entertainer was shifting up to 17,000 a week.

Given the modern, hi-tech demands of kids, it seems strange that yo-yos should have taken off to the extent that the British Association of Toy Retailers puts the value of the market at pounds 1m a month. However, they have evolved into gadgets that Q would be proud of. Many of the most popular brands smooth the passage of the yo-yo back up the string by incorporating features such as wheels, axles and clutches. And when Mr Eldridge talks about the market "going ballistic", you're not sure whether or not to take him literally.

Sadly, just like most games or hobbies you'll come across, none of these products are designed or made in Britain. "You can count the number of UK toy manufacturers on the fingers of one hand," says Mr Eldridge.

Toys are sold at very low margins, he explains, and Britain can't compete with the Far East for wage costs or the big US multinationals for distribution channels.

Britain can boast an extremely responsive market, however. The latest craze began when stores like The Entertainer demonstrated a US product called the Playmax, one of the first yo-yos over here to include such futuristic features. And once a few kids had been smitten, the word was out on the playground and yo-yo sales gathered their own momentum. It didn't take focus groups or a marketing blitz - just research and development, inventiveness, and a gut instinct for what consumers want.

REMEMBER the millennium? Once upon a time it all seemed so promising - huge parties, spectacular exhibitions, a brand new beginning and, of course, the end of the world.

But now it's all going wrong. The Millennium Dome in Greenwich has been struggling for sponsors, the Jubilee Line extension may not be ready to take visitors to Peter Mandelson's big tent, and the most imaginative millennium landmark London can come up with is a giant Ferris Wheel - which is about as futuristic as its 19th century origins suggest.

Until very recently, the apocalypse angle was shaping up nicely, courtesy of the "year 2000 problem". Because machines are not programmed to distinguish between 1900 and 2000, we were led to believe, they would go mad - spewing out information before self-destructing and blowing everyone up.

The scare story took off and articles appeared, warning not just of malfunctioning computers but "the time bombs in our homes". Washing machines, kettles, fridges and vacuum cleaners were all at risk.

Then Action 2000, the group set up to avert millennium catastrophe, announced that none of these things were at risk - only machines that actually work to dates, like computers and video recorders. Carnage was averted. Boredom set in.

But now it's James Bond to the rescue. It emerges that the next 007 movie will feature scenes shot on the Thames, including a clip of our hero landing a seaplane next to the Dome.

So the millennium is back on. Thrill as our fearless hero braves a ride on the Ferris Wheel; gasp as he gets off the tube and walks the rest of the way to the Dome; swoon as he defuses deadly ovens, fridge-freezers and bedside reading lamps shortly before midnight strikes and the whole world is blown to smithereens. And hope to hell that Bond's watch- -come- missile-launcher meets the requirements of the Action 2000 Millennium Bug checklist.

And finally . . .

IT emerged on Thursday that the ITV network's plan to shift News of Ten out of the way of post-watershed blockbuster movies had provoked a record number of opposing submissions to the Independent Television Commission. As the ITC has said that its ruling on the issue will be strongly influenced by public feeling, the business imperative of securing higher ratings seems to be losing out to the traditionalist view that any messing with the news bulletin will "dumb down" the nation.

So it was comforting that on the very same night, in time-honoured fashion, News at Ten was shoved out of its sacred slot by a post-watershed party political broadcast. Now what was that about dumbing down?