This year, Santa's sleigh was an incredible 1,300ft in length and came via China. When the colossal Emma Maersk docked in the UK last week, retailers cleared their shelves in readiness for the thousands of toys disgorged from the vessel's 11,000 containers.
The first salvos in the pre-Christmas toy price war have recently been fired by Argos and Asda, but in PR terms the battle has been under way for some time: the pages of kids' magazines (see bottom of article) are already stuffed with ideas for potential presents.
It is into the crowded market of children's titles that Anorak has just launched; the title, from Oksar Ltd, is targeting children aged five to ten.
Publisher Cathy Olmedillas says the title gives its readers something more substantial than cartoon-based rivals, and covers fashion, trends and culture.
The print version is quarterly (next issue, 11 March), but its website is updated daily. Reviews for toys, books and films are done by Anorak's ‘council of little editors', with adults providing no more than a synopsis.
Although Olmedillas claims no other title in the sector covers Anorak's remit, there is a huge range of magazines in the kids' market.
General news is covered by The Funday Times (now only online), The News Paper and First News. Boys' titles such as Marvel Rampage and Toxic focus on gadgets, films and outdoor activities, and girls' publications range from unique titles such as Bliss and Miss to the younger versions of grown-up glossies (Ellegirl, Cosmogirl, etc).
Other ‘specialist' titles include Oink - the only business-focused newspaper for seven to 12-year-olds.
Oink editor Ernest Henry says the mag aims to be ‘the little Pink 'un', and encourages children to engage in
finance. ‘Even our celebrity interviews have a money slant by asking how they save money, and products will be Oinkified to see if they can be skewed for a money angle,' he says.
Matt Yeo, senior editor of Toxic -which targets eight to 12-year-old boys - points out that Christmas is just one of numerous toy-buying periods. ‘The start of the summer holidays is also a spike for outdoor toys: water-cannons and remote-controlled cars - and there is a lot of buying activity around Easter,' he says.
PROs intent on gaining media coverage for potential Christmas presents need to plan many months ahead. For example, Hasbro's annual ‘Christmas in July' event - run by retained agency Mason Williams - sees around 80 journalists, publishers and researchers get their hands on prototypes of ranges set for release later in the year.
Much of the planning for kids' titles also takes place around forthcoming films, Yeo points out. ‘Spiderman 3 is out next year, so we'll get in touch with the franchised toymaker and plan editorial and competitions around that.'
Kerris Macauley, head of PR at Ware Anthony Rust, says issues-based campaigns have worked well for its Zapf Creation doll brands. ‘Passive playing, where children just sit in front of the TV, gets a lot of criticism, so our theme was "traditional playing",' she says. ‘Playing with a doll means children use their imaginations and dressing it helps develop dexterity. This theme went down very well with journalists, parents and retailers.'
WAR recently enlisted the British swimming team to help publicise Zapf's first bathable doll, Baby Born.
Identifying benefits also reaps rewards, points out Communique PR's London director Miki Lentin. Communique works for Little Nut Tree Toys, whose products are aimed at children with learning difficulties. Lentin says making sure parents understand why a toy is beneficial gives it the edge. ‘You have to answer the questions the parents will be asking,' he says. ‘Does the toy help the child play better with other children? Does it aid learning?'
Nicky Parkinson, director of Threepipe Junior, recalls running a press trip to a racetrack to promote Scalextric's Powerslide edition. ‘Journalists got to race real cars around a track and then have a go on the Scalextric version.
Allowing them to get their hands on the product in that environment worked really well,' Parkinson says. ‘As well as boys' titles, we got coverage in car mags.'
Routes to parents
With the major spending power in the hands of parents, the importance of targeting the gift sections of nationals, established titles such as Practical Parenting and Mother and Baby, and TV, cannot be underestimated.
Mason Williams account director Jen Dutton recently managed to get a toy cat from Hasbro's FurReal range onto Paul O'Grady's desk during his daytime chat show.
Similar plans are afoot for Hasbro's flagship offering this Christmas: a life-sized Shetland pony called Butterscotch that ‘neighs and swishes its tail'.
It is not just parents who are seen to have gift-buying power. ‘Don't forget grandparents,' urges Kazoo senior account manager Ricky Davidson, who heads the agency's Disney account: ‘The older titles like Saga, Prima and Good Housekeeping are all routes to doting grandparents.'
But when targeting kids' titles directly, PROs need to be inventive. Last year's EU directive on advertising to children means directly encouraging kids to buy products, or implying peer-group acceptance is dependent on ownership of certain products, are off limits - as is encouraging them to pester their parents. Promoting mobile phones or downloads (which could tie children in to regular bills) and food - especially if it is unhealthy - are also potential no-nos.
PR professionals who fail to appreciate these restrictions will get short shrift from editors.
Media aimed at youngsters
First News, The News Paper, Funday Times (online), Oink (money-themed), Flipside, Kids' Express
What boys read:
Toxic, Marvel Rampage, Beano, Simpsons Magazine
What girls read:
Ellegirl, Sugar, Bliss, Cosmogirl, Miss, Go Girl
What they watch:
CBeebies, Cartoon Network, GMTV (with their parents), Boomerang
What their parents/grandparents read:
Practical Parenting, Mother and Baby, Good Housekeeping, Prima, various gift guides and ‘best buy' sections of national newspapers and regional press.