Friday, August 12, 2016

Toying around

I invented a toy once – a bread basket with a couple of ball bearings in it, covered with a piece of that filmy plastic that dry cleaners use. You shook it and it made noise. I suppose I could have called it the Bread Basket Rattle, but the toy was never named, let alone monetized. I was ten. I invented it to amuse my baby sister. And it apparently inspired her. When she was about 3 or 4, she came up with a toy invention of her own: stick a pencil through an empty spool of thread and roll it around. Watch it go!

My sibs and I were toy innovators in other ways as well.

Back in the day, Texaco offered an annual series of (boy) toys that were available around Christmas to patrons for cheap or free. There was a Texaco delivery truck, and a motorized Texaco oil tanker that we tested on the waters of Hendy’s pond, which was just down the street from our house.

We were a Texaco family, and my father was a regular at Walter Marchessault’s station at the corner of Varnum and Main. I remember Mr. Marchessault quite vividly. This was the day when folks who worked in gas stations dressed for work, and Mr. Marchessault was always snappily decked out in a uniform (including hat) quite similar to what Ike wore when he addressed the troops the day before the Normandy invasion. I guess you might say that Walter Marchessault was Supreme Allied Commander of his gas station.

But I digress…

One year, the Texaco toy was a gas station.

Unfortunately, and unlike the other Texaco toys, it was a flimsy piece of junk.

My father complained and was given a second one. Also a flimsy piece of junk.

The plastic station and gas pumps just didn’t stay put.

But the base of the station. Now that was something entirely different.

It was rectangular piece of metal, maybe 18 x 24, coated with an incredibly slick grey paint. It made an excellent snow toy – faster than any sled, toboggan, or flying saucer in the ‘hood. And we had two of them.

Anyway, now that I’ve established my bona fides as a toy developer, you’ll understand my interest in a recent Bloomberg article on toy inventors.

Inventors like Ellie Shapiro who, in 2012:

… invented a new kind of toy: little animal figurines with snow globes in their bellies. Shapiro called them Wishables, and she loved them, which meant something. Before her nearly two decades as a toy inventor, the 53-year-old had spent 10 years as an executive at toy-industry titans Mattel Inc. and Walt Disney Co. and worked on such major brands as Barbie and Disney Princess. (Source: Bloomberg)

Let’s not get too deeply into the merits of animal figurines with snow globes in their bellies. Let’s just say that it’s no Bread Basket Rattle. It’s not even a spool with a pencil stuck in it. But someone who worked on Barbie and Disney Princess clearly knows something about what appeals to kids.

One of the toymakers Shapiro pitched the concept to was Hasbro, which asked her to work up some concepts for embedding snow globes in brands like My Little Pony. The pitch went well – she was even asked to send samples in – but Hasbro ended up taking a pass.

Shapiro says she continued trying to find a home for Wishables until the fall of 2014, when she walked into her local Target store in Eagle Rock, Calif., and saw a new toy on the shelf. It was a little animal figurine that doubled as a snow globe. It had been made by Hasbro.

While toy companies have inside people working on new toys, they also rely on freelance inventors for ideas. The freelance inventors rely on the toymakers for their manufacturing and marketing chops.

Yet allegations of stealing are rampant to the point of routine. Many inventors largely chalk it up as an unavoidable part of the job: Either accept that some of your ideas are going to be lifted, or pursue another career, says Louise White, who’s been inventing toys for more than 15 years. Companies have borrowed from her submissions too many times to count. But there have been at least five instances when she was blatantly ripped off. The most egregious came when she says a manufacturer, whom she declined to identify, didn’t even bother changing the name of the bath toy idea it stole. When she complained, the company said it would get its lawyers involved. She balked. Legal action is risky because it can get an inventor branded sue-happy and dry up opportunities, plus few have the money to fund a suit, she says.

“They know you are the little guy and know you won’t waste the time and money bringing a lawsuit,” said White, who lives in Long Branch, N.J. “It makes you angry, but after a while you just shrug your shoulders.”

Is this any way to run an industry? Apparently so…

Anyway, Shapiro sued – using a real lawyer, not Lawyer Barbie, by the way – and the case is coming to trial this fall.

Hasbro claims that their in-house inventors were already at work on the embedded snow globe concept.

See you in court.

Meanwhile, the toy industry is dealing with tough times. Kids play with mobile devices, not toys. (If only they had the opportunity to get their hands on a Bread Basket Rattle.) And a good proportion of the toys that are available license “intellectual property” – think Star Wars and Frozen – so the toymakers have to fork over a lot of money for use of IP. There’s also the pressures from mega-buyers like Walmart and Amazon to keep prices down, while wages in rock-bottom manufacturing countries have been going up.This puts the squeeze on what toymakers are willing to pay their inventors – if they’re willing to pay them anything at all.

Best of luck to Ms. Shapiro. As a fellow toy inventor, she has my sympathies and support.

No comments: