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Friday, December 3, 2010

8 Toys Not to Buy This Christmas

As we move into the holiday season, the Internet is replete with gift giving advice.  Hundreds upon hundreds of bloggers are hard at work doling out Christmas advice like distant psychic Santas.  I suppose I could have joined the fray and offered my own list of the best toys the industry has to offer this year, but to do so would perpetuate the illusion that there is some “perfect” gift somewhere that will satisfy every child.

Nobody can make a reasonable claim as to what the best toy is for your child unless they know your child personally.  Children are tiny little individuals and one child’s perfect gift is another child’s target practice.  Lists of best toys not only suffer from delusions of hegemony, they also take all the fun out of searching for the perfect present.

"Sure it's fun, but the noise is gonna
drive you nuts eventually..."

Bad toys, however, are universal.  There may be no toy that’s guaranteed to please every recipient, but there are plenty that are guaranteed to disappoint.  The toy industry learned long ago that it was far cheaper to market a bad toy than to make a good one and thus many of the day-glow plastic icons your child covets to the point of near asphyxiation turn out to be far less than meets the eye.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I work for a toy company and some of the products listed below directly compete with some of our products.  While I don’t feel that this taints my objectivity on the matter, I feel it would be dishonest not to make that clear.  After all, I certainly wouldn’t include one of my own company’s products even if one of them really sucked (and none of them do).

 #1) The Lightening Reaction Game 

Ah, the joys of electrocution.  This game of fast paced finger frying seems more like a nineteenth century torture device than a children’s toy but I assure you, you will find it in the toy section of your local big box.

Pictured: A sex toy for terminators.

The concept is simple and, it should be noted, perfectly safe.  Each player grabs one of the four handles and waits for the game to signal them that it is time to let go.  At that precise moment, everyone has to take their fingers off the button.  The last one to do so is punished by a weak electric shock.

While the makers of this toy (pic of Dan Ankroyd) are quick to point out that there’s nothing remotely dangerous about the game, I feel that the “We’re not electrocuting your kids very much” argument is a bit flimsy.  At best, this toy simply teaches kids that electricity is fun and relatively harmless.

 #2) The Zero Gravity Car 

Your kids have seen this one on TV and it couldn’t look cooler.  If they open one of these up on Christmas morning it will bring smiles that will last until late in the afternoon, at which time you will snatch it back from them and boil it in oil.

Drives on walls, ceilings, nerves...

The concept is pretty sweet.  The cars use vacuum suction to adhere to walls or even ceilings so you can drive them around on a bunch of different surfaces, thus rendering the former nemesis of the RC car, the dog, all but impotent.  Many parents avoid this toy because they fear it will damage their walls.  Don’t worry, it won’t.  But that’s the least of your concern.

The real problem should be obvious to anybody who has ever listened to a running vacuum cleaner before.  These vacuum powered cars make slightly less noise than a rock concert and thus it won’t be long before the sound of your child crying because you took his car away will appeal to you more than the sound of the damn car.

 #3) The Elefun 

Moving now to the youngest victims of heartless marketing, let’s take a look at a toy that’s marketed towards the tots.  This unassuming game actually has a lot going for it.  It encourages children to get up and active and it helps them work on coordination and fine motor skills so it has more on the plus side than most toys.

So at some point in the R&D somebody said, "What
should come out of the other elephant's nose?" and someone
else replied, "Butterflies."  Why this seemed natural may
be the last thing humankind ever comes to understand.

There are a few unfortunate downsides to more than counterbalance that.  Again, this is a toy your kids will probably love on Christmas morning.  The goofy little elephant’s plastic nose will dance around like a Wacky-Waving-Inflatable-Arm-Flailing-Tube-Man while spurting out little butterflies as though they were winged boogers.  The object is to catch as many of the little butterflies in the net as you can while they slowly flutter to the ground.

Notice that I identify them as little butterflies.  They are downright tiny and within a few days at most only a few will remain.  Stockpiling little fabric butterflies won’t help for long, as the cheap little trash bag trunk will probably rip after a few dozen uses.  If you have a cat in your home, the Elefun will be lucky to survive for eight minutes.

Note also that if the toy works perfectly and nothing gets lost, you still have a group of kids running around each other, eyes locked on brightly colored butterflies while they navigate their way hastily about the living room furniture.  All I’m saying is that sounds like a recipe for one of those great YouTube videos that I force myself not to laugh at.

 #4) Nerf Guns 

Before I lose all my credibility as a geek, let me confess that I personally love Nerf guns.  My roommates and I have an arsenal of them and I’m about as accurate a shot as one can be with an unmodified N-Strike.  That being said, I’m also 34 and if I get hit in the eye with a Nerf dart (been there, done that) it’s my own damn fault and I have nobody to complain to.

First of all, just look at this damn thing.

But let’s forget for a moment that we’re arming children with projectile weapons and then trusting them to use their own best judgment about shooting one another in the face with them.  There is an equally sinister financial danger that comes along with the Nerf gun: the ammunition.

Nerf darts are bouncy and expendable.  An errant shot often makes the darts impossible to retrieve and even if you try your best to track them all, the supply depletes rather quickly.  The six or eight darts they give you to start with will last until Christmas dinner, at which time you better hope you have a stash of about a hundred more.

Unless you’re planning on making Nerf darts one of your monthly expenses (like me), the guns will lose all of their play value quickly.  By the time they do, you will have seen what your kids are shooting with them and will probably be relieved.

 #5) The Tumbler 

This inexpensive remote control wonder’s ingenious design allows it to operate whether it is right side up or upside down making it almost impossible to stop.  Or at least, that’s what the advertisements will have you believe.  In truth, it’s actually pretty easy to stop the Tumbler.  All you have to do is use it for several minutes in a row.

Shown here in the unusual state of
not being broken.

Many of the previous toys have design flaws or unseen handicaps that inspired me to warn consumers against them.  The Tumbler was included because it’s a good old fashion piece of crap.  They are notorious for breaking within days of being opened and if the car doesn’t break the remote control likely will.  I’m sure some moms will get lucky and buy a Tumbler that will work until their children tire of it.  Many more will be sifting through receipts before New Years.

As a general rule, remote control toys are either expensive or garbage.  Any remote control car that doesn’t set you back at least $50 isn’t going to last long.  $20 or $30 might be relatively cheap for an RC car but it’s relatively expensive for a toy and thus parents who plunk money down on them probably have a reasonable expectation that they should work for more than a week.  Whether or not that expectation is reasonable, it probably isn’t rational.

 #6) Cheap Remote Control Helicopters 

For generations the remote control helicopter was the paragon of unattainable coolness.  Not only were they prohibitively expensive, they were also extraordinarily hard to use so even if somebody’s uncle had one there was no chance you would get to fly it.

They also used to look a lot cooler than this.

Present day RC copters work far differently than the ones from my youth.  Twin rotors stabilize the vehicle and make them far easier to control, which revolutionized the market by turning them into something anyone could use.  There are a number of incredibly durable remote control helicopters that can be mastered by a 10 year old and withstand the bumps and bruises that go along with his or her learning curve.

And then there are the ones they advertise on Nickelodeon…

This is largely a prologue to the previous point about cheap RC toys.  While these little suckers are definitely durable enough to withstand a crash into the wall or the ceiling, they will be able to withstand exactly one less crash than your child will cause.

The reason is that the new technology only makes it easy to keep the helicopter stable.  Even a professional toy demonstrator that uses one for eight hours a day won’t develop enough proficiency with the thing to reliably make a ninety degree turn in mid air.  They can hover for a while in open spaces and veer off wherever the hell they want to go.

This works well if you’re demonstrating it at a mall kiosk or a large toy store, but I’m guessing your house has a lot less open airspace.  Most climates tend to frown on outdoor toys as Christmas gifts but even if you take the helicopter outdoors anything but the mildest breeze will send it tumbling to the ground.  With a stroke of bad luck there will be a roof there to break the helicopter’s fall.

 #7) The Fushigi 

It pains me to steer anyone away from a skill toy.  As an avid juggler and contact juggler I would love to see the youth of America take to skill toys in the way that kids from virtually every other country seem to.  Our largely sedentary youthful population could benefit from a toy that demands rigorous practice and physical dexterity to use.  And if they sold the Fushigi as exactly that it would not be on this list.

"Watch as it amazingly obeys gravity..."

First, for those who haven’t seen the campy late night commercials, a Fushigi is a hollow metal ball covered in an acrylic shell that is sold as a “magic gravity ball”.  In truth it is a contact juggling ball that many will recall as the cool crystal ball thingy that David Bowie did in labyrinth… well, actually Michael Moschen did it while standing really, really close to David Bowie, but that’s irrelevant.

The commercial leaves virtually all viewers under the impression that there is some mystical or at least mechanical secret behind the awesome manipulations they see the guys on TV doing.  There isn’t.  It’s a ball.

Kids will probably be excited to see a Fushigi under the wrapping paper but as soon as they open it up and see it fail to float or be in any way magical, they will probably be too disappointed to bother apologizing for dropping the Fushigi on the floor and breaking the tiles.

If I haven’t convinced you enough, let me simply say that an $8 juggling stage ball from is a far easier prop with which to learn contact juggling.  If the kids are really stoked about the look of the Fushigi brand, spring for one of the real contact balls on the site.  They are sturdier, easier to use and come with a lifetime warranty.
 #8) The Oozinator 

Every few years a toy sneaks into the mass market with such glaring flaws that one could be forgiven for assuming that no rational person was consulted.  It’s as though these toys pop up miraculously, fully formed and packaged, in route to stores.  I picture executives at whatever unfortunate company green lighted the product and I try to imagine their tone as they utter, “We’re selling a what?

Now what could possibly be wrong with a
toy gun that's covered in sharp points?

If you haven’t seen the Oozinator yet, you’ll probably have to check out this youtube video to get any real clue how bad this thing is, but for those of you who don’t mind having the suspense ruined, it’s basically a water gun but instead of shooting water it shoots (spoiler alert) neon phlegm.

Okay, so I’m sure it’s not actually snot, but it’s also not anything you want your kids spraying on each other.  The manufacturers call it "bio-ooze", which is arguably worse than just calling it neon phlegm.  If I expound much further on this toy I’m liable to move well beyond the family friendly tone I try to set with my blog so I’ll let you add your own disgusting joke after you watch the video.

Aaron Davies

Look for a few more gift buying tips in the weeks to come.  I pride myself as something of an expert in the toy industry and I’ll be hard at work looking on your behalf finding horrible products to make fun of.

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