If you're a parent, you've seen or read about Christopher Byrne. He's the guy who shows up a lot on TV at this time of year. He's billed as the Toy Guru.You may have even taken his advice, accepting his authoritative recommendation about the hot toys of the season. If so, I have just one word for you: Sucker. Byrne is not the independent and objective industry analyst you probably thought he was. In fact, Byrne is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars every year by the toy companies whose products he recommends. But you couldn't have known that just by watching him on TV because his main source of income is never mentioned, and many network news producers say they were never informed of his PR business. According to a report in the New York Daily News, representatives for several toy companies who pay Byrne "said his arrangement is an accepted and unquestioned longtime industry practice." Asked whether TV viewers should be informed that Byrne is paid, Shannon Eis, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association said, "I don't know if it's right. I can't say yes or no." Does she mean she can't say because she would lose her job if she did, or she can't say because she genuinely doesn't know? If it's the latter, is it because she lives in a complete moral and ethical vacuum because she believes you have to check your ethics at the door when you enter a business environment? Or is it because she genuinely believes it's fine to deliberately mislead parents in order to sell a few toys? Even more startling is the comment from Laurie Oravec, spokeswoman for Fisher Price, who told reporters, "Chris is one of the most credible people in the industry, and we don't disclose what we pay for that." The fact that his credibility comes from misleading both the media and consumers is apparently not relevant. In fact, it's probably what makes him worth his fat fees. Asked whether viewers should know about Byrne's arrangement, Oravec took the same morally neutral position as Eis: "I think the value is there for consumers as long as it's a credible person, but I don't know the answer to that." It's hard to read this kind of thing and not conclude that the entire toy industry is corrupt, united in its shared contempt for consumers, and by its denial that this kind of sleazy practice is acceptable. Of course, a cynic might ask why the toy industry should be different from the mutual-fund industry or a host of other companies embroiled in scandal recently. The good news is that whatever credibility Christopher Byrne might have had is now gone, hopefully forever. Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.
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