MEDIA ROUNDUP: Toys: Toy stories romp in an increasingly cluttered market

While today's must-have collectible can quickly become tomorrow's afterthought, scoring year-end attention is still the name of the game. But as David Ward explains, toy PR remains a hit-or-miss adventure.

While today's must-have collectible can quickly become tomorrow's afterthought, scoring year-end attention is still the name of the game. But as David Ward explains, toy PR remains a hit-or-miss adventure.

What will capture the fancy of American boys and girls this year? Past hits such as Tickle Me Elmo, Furby and Cabbage Patch Kids have proven that the right media coverage can turn any toy into an overnight smash, complete with parents fighting in store aisles to ensure their child isn't disappointed on Christmas morning. But even for the rest of the toys that compete for consumer attention, a good article or press review can push them to the forefront of a shopper's mind - important not only during the winter holiday season, but during the spring and summer as well. There's also a booming toy-collectible market among hobbyists who have made gathering action figures, dolls, and other trappings of their youth a lifelong passion. But despite the $23 billion annual sales of the traditional toy business and its well-deserved reputation as one of the few true recession-proof industries going these days, toy journalism can still be somewhat hit or miss. Getting in the game The good news is that there are more opportunities for toy coverage than ever before. "There are more outlets these days because of the segmentation of the media, especially with the rise in the number of collectible publications in recent years," explains Ron Antonette, VP of marketing and brand strategies for Golin/Harris International, which represents Mattel's Hot Wheels products. But the bad news is that outside of a few trade and niche publications, most stories about toys are from reporters whose expertise is in an entirely different field. "Most publications don't have a dedicated toy reporter per se," says Ketchum account supervisor Dimitri Czupylo, who handles PR for Barbie. "Sometimes there's a business reporter who's assigned to cover the toy industry. There's also the lifestyle editor and sometimes a parenting editor who covers it from a new-products perspective or the parenting perspective." Increasingly, toy coverage is falling into the newly emerged pop-culture beat. "The lines between pop culture and toys are blurring," notes Samantha Sackin, SVP with Rogers & Associates, which represents toy maker Bandai. "You end up competing not just with other toy companies, but with video games, television, and other types of entertainment." Sackin suggests that one way to cut through this clutter is pushing toys with a storied history - such as Bandai's upcoming revival of its Strawberry Shortcake line - and tapping into the nostalgia of journalists and their audience. By far the biggest challenge for toy PR is that virtually all coverage in the general-interest press is jammed into the last few months of every year. That means the PR season for toys begins in early summer with pitches to long-lead lifestyle publications, and peaks in early December with the release of the holiday must-have lists for kids. Despite efforts to turn Easter, the beginning of summer, and the back-to-school season into key toy-giving periods, "most toys are still sold in the fourth quarter of the year," says Kristin Greene, vice president with Switzer Communications. Switzer has handled Lego's tech-centric Mindstorm and Spybotics products for the past four years and recently added the toy maker's Explorer and Galidor action figure lines as well. "But the way the toy business is run is that companies such as Lego announce their new product line in February [at the annual Toy Fair] and then strive to maintain momentum until the products ship." Pitch during the off-season Terri Bartlett, VP of communications for the Toy Industry of America, says you can get coverage during the spring and summer months, but it's not easy. "Just like any kind of PR, you have to come up with something clever, something sexy, that gets the attention of the media," she says. The last great example of that, Bartlett says, was the Razor Scooter, which generated massive coverage and sales two years ago despite an early spring launch. Bartlett suggests you can get coverage of other aspects of toys during other parts of the year, especially by tailoring your pitch to consumer-affairs and parents writers. "We do a major effort throughout the year to educate about toy safety," she says. "It's not about dangerous toys. It's more about misuse of toys. We work throughout the year to teach the general public how to help their children play safely." There are also opportunities to get toys worked into licensing-themed stories tied to huge movie properties, such as last summer's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man. But given the fact there are so many toys released every year, many print publications, as well as TV and radio stations, are relying more and more on outside experts to sort through products and tell them what's noteworthy. Thus, the real fight is not to get the journalists' attention, but rather to be included on "top toys" lists from gurus such as Chris Byrne and James Oppenheim. "Holiday roundups and awards, along with toy testing, are very important," says Greene, who adds that even if your client's product isn't new, you can still vie for inclusion on these lists. "For the Lego Mindstorm line, there is a wide universe of awards, so you can constantly find different awards that maybe you didn't hit the first time out." There are also annual media conferences, such as the upcoming Playdate in New York in late October, where toy companies meet with reporters to talk about new products as well as the overall prospects for the holiday season. "Most general-interest reporters don't want to hear about a product until it's close to being on shelves, but they get bombarded with multiple product pitches for months," says Sackin. "A lot of journalists look for events like Playdate because they can get all their holiday coverage in one fell swoop." Playing by the rules Many PR professionals advocate the traditional tools of the trade, such as press releases, digital art, and desk-side briefings, and some advise sending reporters actual products. "When if comes right down to it, we're all kids at heart, and so everyone loves to get a new toy," says Sackin. But Czupylo notes, "After September 11, when mailrooms became more tight, we generally don't do mass mailings of products anymore. It's only after a journalist has requested a product that we send them a sample." Maria Weiskott, editor-in-chief of toy trade publication Playthings, recommends that any pitch also include a retail contact. "Don't just tell us that a promotion you're running is great," she says. "Our audience likes to read about what...retailers are doing and what's selling in different parts of the country." Weiskott also says the right kind of art in toy journalism is very important. "If people are going to send us digital art, we wish they would get in touch with us to find out what our requirements are," she says. "Some companies will send pictures of packaging. We want to see the actual product." While this year's hot toy may quickly become next year's afterthought, there are a few brands that have been able to transcend generations. "Luckily, Barbie has been popular not only with girls, but with the media," says Czupylo. Indeed, the Barbie brand is so well known, the dolls can be positioned as celebrities themselves. Czupylo recently helped organize an arts benefit at FAO Schwarz in New York that featured Barbie as one of the draws - along with talk show host Caroline Rhea, Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon, and models Nicky and Paris Hilton. "Because Barbie is important not only to girls but to pop culture, we can target a variety of publications, from parenting and lifestyle to general interest," says Czupylo. "When Barbie talks, people listen." ----------- Where to go Newspapers USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal Magazines Disney Adventures, Boy's Life, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Child, Family Circle, Newsweek, Time, Ladies' Home Journal, BusinessWeek Trade titles Playthings, Baby Shop, Children's Business, Model Retailer, Small World, Doll/Teddy Bear Review, Toy Shop, Toy Collector, Games, Toy Book/Specialty Toy & Gifts, License, Toy Wishes TV & Radio CNNfn, CNBC, Today, TechTV, NPR, Disney Radio, local news, lifestyle TV programming Internet Figures.com, Child.com, Amazon.com, Ravingtoymaniac.com, Babycenter.com, Action-figure.com, Parents.com, Toyportfolio.com

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