Deck the Halls with Squads of Robots: Hasbro Takes on Tonka in the Toy Wars of 1984

The kids may think the battle is between the hero robot Leader-1 and the sinister Cy-Kill, or between the noble Optimus Prime and the loathsome Megatron. Parents may think the battle is between themselves and other parents scrambling around trying to find enough GoBot and Transformer robot toys in the stores to keep the kids from revolting at Christmas.

But the real war is being fought not by moms and dads, or by some schizophrenic robots that can turn themselves into sports cars, jet fighters, dump trucks, tape recorders or jaguars. It is between three-piece-suited M.B.A. types in the corporate offices of Tonka Corp. in Spring Park, Minn. and the headquarters of Hasbro Industries in Pawtucket, R.I. And the weapons they are wielding are not laser rifles or heat-seeking missiles but multimillion-dollar advertising budgets and high-powered promotional campaigns.

The two companies are fighting for domination of the transforming robot toy market, which may account for sales of $300 million this year. Cabbage Patch Kids set the 1983 record for most sales of a toy in its first year: $65 million. The robots have already turned that record into coleslaw, with both Tonka’s GoBot series and Hasbro’s Transformers approaching a $100 million turnover this year.

Tonka had a four-month head start on the field but, insists Hasbro Marketing Vice President Dan Owen, “We think we’ve more than caught up.” Stephen Smith, editor-in-chief of Toy & Hobby World, one of the industry’s main journals, agrees that Hasbro and Tonka “should be going at it like cats and dogs by the end of the year. The difference in sales between the two companies is small at this point.”

The GoBots and Transformers, both made of plastic and die-cast metal, are not alone either. Toy-store shelves are creaking and clanking with variations on the theme: Road-Bots, Zybots, ManTech robots, Robotix kits, Starriors and Robo Force figures, Diakrons and Robotroids, among others.

The Hasbro-Tonka competition is an internationalization of a conflict that has been going on in Japan. Primitive robot toys were introduced there in the 1940s and ’50s, and two of Japan’s largest toy makers, Bandai and Takara, turn out the GoBots and Transformers under agreements with the American companies. Bandai tried to market its version of GoBots in the U.S. two years ago, but perhaps because most of the writing on the packages was in Japanese, they didn’t catch on.

Then last year Tonka decided to modify the concept after recruiting four key executives away from Mattel, where they had worked on developing the Masters of the Universe toy line. (Fans of He-Man, a muscle-bound 5½” superhero, will be gratified to know that all these alien robots haven’t had any more success against him than Skeletor has. The Masters of the Universe line is still the single biggest seller in the boys action figure toy category, with a projected 1984 U.S. retail figure of $350 million. The Cabbage Patch Kids, however, keep the little girls busy and reign supreme in toydom: Coleco’s wholesale figure for this year is expected to reach $500 million.)

Creating a story from which the toys could spring—and keep on springing, in larger and larger numbers and more expensive variations—was crucial to the Masters’ success. The Mattel defectors—dubbed Tonka’s “Mattel Mafia” in the business—followed the same plan with GoBots. The GoBots, it was decided, had come to earth from the planet of GoBotron. The friendly types are under the direction of Leader-1, a kind of nuts-and-bolts John Wayne who turns into an F-14 fighter jet when he’s not being a robot. They’re at odds with Cy-Kill, a robot-motorcycle, and his henchbots.

Pat Feely, Tonka’s commercial operations vice president, and Marketing Director Ray McDonald—both Mattel veterans—organized market studies using groups of 20 boys to test a GoBot motto. They ended up with “mighty robots, mighty vehicle.” Says McDonald: “Little boys like toys that imply power. As a toy marketer, you learn to respect the discrimination of kids.”

Last February, using the background tale and motto, Tonka launched a TV ad campaign touting the GoBots, preying on what people in the industry call “the nag factor,” the tendency for children, once alerted to a toy by advertising, to pester their parents about it. “Kids can be relentless,” McDonald says, not disapprovingly.

The GoBots became hot sellers almost instantly, reversing the financial fortunes of Tonka, which had laid off 500 of its 1,400 employees in 1982. The success of the GoBots also encouraged Hasbro to market its line. With Transformers hitting the market in May, says Tonka President Steve Shank, “we quaked a little, but we didn’t run.”

Hasbro’s robots have benefited from an $8 million 1984 ad budget. They’re more complicated, bigger and generally more expensive than GoBots. They also come with enough individualized idiosyncrasies to create a new subspecialty of psychology: robot therapy. For instance, among the evil Deceptions (the planet they and the good Autobots come from is Cybertron), Buzzsaw the spy is described on his package as having a “large ego, [and he] will often sulk rather than proceed if his plans go astray.”

The elaborate fantasies surrounding the robot toys are designed to enhance their “play value”—the interest factor that keeps children involved with a toy over time. “The more you can involve a child in a fantasy,” says Owen, “the more popular the character, and therefore the toy, becomes.”

All the accessories associated with the toys also are designed to enhance the companies’ stock value. Animated TV miniseries have been spun off from both GoBots and Transformers, and there are Transformer comic books, kites, T-shirts and records, as well as GoBot lunch boxes, wristwatches, running shoes and sticker books.

All this superstructure might not seem to allow room for a child to exercise imagination. There are worse things. Genevieve Landau, former editor of Parents magazine and co-author of The Gift of Play (Walker, 1980), says, “Such toys limit the child’s free play but I don’t think they’re harmful, as some development specialists might. These toys are attractive replications of things from entertainment, as in the Star Wars/ Star Trek phenomenon, and from reality, as in robots, home computers and all kinds of machines. It’s only natural that children would be captivated.”

Landau concedes the violent nature of the stories connected with the robot toys, but says they are not likely to damage healthy children. “These are instruments of aggression,” she says, “but children are going to pretend to have war toys whether they have tailor-made ones or not.”

The toy companies suggest that the robots have become so successful because they arrived in an increasingly high-tech era. Neither Hasbro nor Tonka, needless to say, explains their robots’ success as a function of their own slick hard sell. But parents might want to muster their sales resistance against what may be the next craze, a sort of Barbie-goes-to-outer-space toy called Star Fairies, from Tonka.

Tonka is already working on the Star Fairies promotion campaign, and a TV series is in the planning stage. Says Shank: “We’ve learned a lot about marketing and our potential from GoBots. We intend to apply the lessons.” Moms and dads, get set for the Star Fairies commercials.

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