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7 Children’s Play Goes Underground, 1950 to the Present EACH YEAR, 80 percent of the thousands of new toys that are introduced into the American market fail to capture a significant share of what now amounts to more than $12 billion in sales. This means that neither marketers, who try to persuade kids to buy certain toys, nor parents, who assume that they know what their daughters and sons like, are as perceptive as they think they are. Rather, preadolescent children continue to express a kind of independence in their play and in doing so subtly influence the commercial world by determining how and with what they amuse themselves. Getting to understand children’s culture poses the biggest challenge to marketers because it is only by letting youngsters speak for themselves—exerting at least some power over the adult world—and then acclimating to those young needs that toy makers can succeed. As analysts Sydney Landensohn Stern and Ted Schoenbaum noted more than fifteen years ago, The secret to success lies inside the head of an eight-year-old child. That is the eternal paradox of the toy industry. Adults running multimillion dollar toy companies are always trying to climb back inside that eight-year-old head. Creative people in the industry love to boast that they have not grown up, that they have retained enough youthful enthusiasm to know what children consider fun.1 As the children’s consumer economy and its handmaidens in the advertising industry expanded in the latter half of the twentieth century , toy makers and retailers increasingly applied the concept of “play value” as a means of reckoning the success of a product. But defining play value meant carrying out research, and to marketers research meant finding out directly what young people liked—in other 182 words, what “value” they attached to the toy. How children themselves acted toward a toy, rather than how some adult assumed they would react, became the most important factor in determining how and whether the toy would be marketed. As the product-testing manager at game maker Milton Bradley Company declared, “Our management philosophy maintains that contact with children through the product development cycle is the best way to ensure that we make toys that children will enjoy.”2 Thus, at the same time that they were being bombarded on television and in print with exhortations to play with one product or another, children, through their expressed preferences as measured by researchers, were exerting influence over what was being marketed to them. They were, in a sense, empowered by the very forces that critics said were manipulating them.3 Girls and boys in this era have exercised influence—“agency”—in other ways as well. For one thing, as noted in the previous chapter, children quickly have learned how to express their desires in a way that induces parents, relatives, and other gift givers to purchase particular items. In contemporary America, “pester power” reaches fullest force during preteen years and when combined with a new ideology that grants kids greater say in family decision making, it enables children to acquire goods as never before. Moreover, children in their preteen years now have more discretionary cash from gifts and allowances to spend on themselves. Thus they have their own means to satisfy their wants by participating directly, as well as indirectly, in consumption. As has always been the case, commercial toys are not the only components of children’s play. With parents ever present in their lives, children nevertheless still have reveled in the activities they devise to amuse themselves independently. Writer Annie Dillard, growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s, recollected a dual quality of her childhood that exemplifies the experiences of many children in the late twentieth century. She described the attention her parents gave to her drawings and poetry, their willingness to buy art supplies and sports equipment for her, their readiness to listen to her problems and “supervise my time.” But Annie also had “days and nights [that] were my own to plan and fill,” times when adults did not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework . . . , nor visit the salamanders I 1950 to the Present 183 caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection.4 Annie’s parents may have...


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