With his classic crew cut and starched army fatigues, GI Joe looks hopelessly vanilla next to his half-human competitors on the action-figure aisle. For example, Wolverine from the movie X-Men sports "slashing action" metal claws. Nearby, a character from the Action-Man cartoon boasts an "exploding" head. Then there's Lara Croft, the new heroine from the video game Tomb Raiders: Her weapons are more, well, voluptuous.
With starring roles in video games, movies, and after-school cartoons, these screen-inspired toys reflect the efforts of the $23 billion-a-year toy industry to keep pace with a media-saturated culture. But some toy makers are taking marketing efforts a step too far, using playthings bound for young children to promote products clearly meant for an older audience.
One Dallas-area KB Toys store, for example, sells a pistol-laden, pony-tailed heroine named Claire Redfield, produced by Marvel Comic's Toy Biz division. She comes with an accompanying zombie featuring a ripped-open stomach and bloody bullet wounds. "When zombie is shot he splits in two," boasts the box, marked "Ages 8 and up." Further investigation revealed that Ms. Redfield and her zombie friend are characters in a gory video game called Resident Evil, also rated Mature for "animated blood and gore."
KB Toys also sells "Primagen"-a squiddish-looking mass of green tentacles and glowing yellow eyes. At first glance, Primagen seems just another innocent space alien. How harmful could he be, packaged as he is in a Playmates Toys box marked "Ages 4 and up"? But included in Primagen's box are game tips for Turok2: Seeds of Evil-a video game rated Mature (for children 17 and older) because of "animated blood and gore."
A report released in September by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) dragged such stealth-toy marketing into the light: Of 118 Mature-rated video games studied by the FTC, 83, or 70 percent, targeted children under 17. Half of the 118 specifically mentioned children in their marketing plans. For example, The New York Times obtained sections of Acclaim Entertainment's marketing plan for Turok video games: "Turok has an M [mature] rating which may discourage parents from buying the game ..." the marketing plan said. "However, the younger the audience, the more likely they are to be influenced by TV advertising."
Such Trojan horse marketing angers Daphne White of Bethesda, Maryland. In 1995, Mrs. White launched a national grassroots parents' campaign called the Lion & Lamb Project to oppose what she perceives as violent toys. Last year, Mrs. White publicly accused toy-makers of stealth-marketing adult-oriented movies and video games to her 12-year-old son. This year she has used the FTC's report to underscore her point: "Parents think, 'Oh it's just another action figure.' It doesn't tell them anywhere on the package that this is going to introduce your kid to an adult product. The labeling is deceptive."
To fight the stealth-marketing problem, the FTC has asked entertainment companies to establish prohibitions against marketing toys associated with Mature-rated products. Meanwhile, toy sellers say they are simply trying to keep up with a media-savvy generation. "X-Men is the No. 1 selling comic book in the United States," said Michael Tabakin, director of licensing and advertising at Toys R Us, referring to his company's sale of action figures of the Wolverine ilk. "It's a kid movie. Kids have been watching it on TV for years and years." But packaging for the Wolverine figure sold today in Toys R Us stores features actors from the 2000 movie-version of X-Men. The toy is marked ages 5 and up; the movie is rated PG-13.
Other toy manufacturers seem reluctant to talk about the problem. Despite WORLD requests, representatives of Playmate Toys and Acclaim Entertainment (producers of the Turok video game) refused to comment. Toy Biz, manufacturer of Resident Evil figures, did not return WORLD's phone calls.
Marketing expert Richard Leonard believes licensing agreements between the toy and entertainment industries represent more of a crutch than a conspiracy. "It probably reflects a shortage of creativity on the part of the toy manufacturers," said Mr. Leonard, vice president at Zandl Group, a New York City-based market-research firm. It's much easier to license an existing property, he said, than to dream up a new toy.
But even if toy manufacturers are not purposely acclimating children to adult products, they still risk violating marketing ethics, said Baylor University marketing professor Terry Loe. "There's an association [in parents' minds] between toy manufacturers and good wholesome values," said Mr. Loe. Marketing adult-oriented violence to children, he said, is "like putting out a new drug without understanding the long-term effects."