Christmas Crazes: How a Few Unlikely Ideas Changed the Toy Industry Forever

Once every few years, during the holiday season, it seems like one ridiculous idea for a product or toy becomes insanely popular.

This is the story of those unlikely ideas and how they went from a brilliant spark of inspiration—or even a coincidental discovery—to something that was purchased, enjoyed, and loved by millions.

 

Let’s dive into three different Christmas crazes and examine why they took off. Maybe the stars aligned just right to make them all possible.

Or perhaps it was just an accident.

1. Slinky

In 1943, Naval engineer Richard James was working on a way to keep sensitive instruments steady at sea when he bumped a spring off his desk. He thought the way it slinked to the floor would make it the perfect child’s toy. After searching through the dictionary, his wife settled on a name: Slinky.

But stores didn’t want the toy and sales were slow for the first two years. That changed during the Christmas holidays of 1945 when a Philadelphia department store gave the Slinky its own display. People went crazy for it and they sold all 400 units in less than two hours. It was a little mistake that turned into a big Christmas craze.

While the Slinky may have been a happy accident, other ideas seem more calculated.

2. Mr. Potato Head

In 1949, inventor George Lerner thought that children would enjoy using potatoes to make silly faces. Just to be clear, this wasn’t Mr. Potato Head as we know him today. What Lerner was suggesting was sticking push pin eyeballs and mouths into actual potatoes.

Toy companies didn’t think the idea would work because mothers wouldn’t be willing to waste food to make a child’s toy.

Nobody really wanted the idea until 1951 when he showed the idea to a stationary company called the Hassenfeld Brothers. They absolutely loved it. In fact, they loved it so much they made Mr. Potato Head the star of the first TV ad ever made for a toy. They sold a million of them in a single year.

Advertising certainly helped Mr. Potato Head, but can a product make it on hype alone?

3. Pet Rock

In 1975, ad executive Gary Dahl was at a bar listening to his friends complain about how hard it was to take care of their pets. That’s when he came up with the idea of a pet that didn’t need to be fed or go for walks. A pet that would cost only a few cents to make, but could sell for $4.

What he invented was the Pet Rock. It was a seemingly normal rock with a 32-page instruction manualthat outlined how to wash it and teach it tricks like playing fetch or playing dead. Surprisingly, the idea caught on almost instantly and 1.5 million pet rocks were sold leading up to Christmas day that year.

What Do Christmas Crazes Mean?

We caught up with Chris Byrne to find out why some toys take off while others don’t. He’s spent more than 30 years in the toy industry and wrote Toy Time! based on his experience. Here’s what Chris had to say:

“Nobody can predict a fad, but it comes into the culture and then everybody wants to have it. Then it becomes an accessible way of branding oneself and saying, ‘Hey I’m part of the culture, I’m part of the here and now.’ You know you can’t have a Birkin bag or a BMW, but you can have a $34 Tickle Me Elmo.”

Although, we can’t predict what the next fad will be, we do know how it will influence consumer behaviour. Once a new toy becomes hot, owning it becomes a status symbol and everyone wants to get their hands on it.

Chris also reminded us of the most amazing aspect of all these ideas and the toys they spawned. Something we often forget amongst the toy crazes and the holiday rush.

“Each child comes to a toy in a different way. Every child brings something different. It’s just a lump of inert plastic until the child’s imagination brings it to life.”

What was the Christmas craze when you were a kid? Reminisce with me in the comments!

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