From shortcake to tart

What have marketers done to the beloved toys of my youth?

Published June 13, 2008 4:50PM (EDT)

For those of us who grew up in the '80s, now is our time. Every other Brooklyn, British and Boise band is mining the Cure and the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain, Hollywood is pumping out sequels to our favorite '80s movies (I'm talking to you, Indy), and our beloved childhood toys are back on the shelves, just in time for us to recollect the Admiral Akbar, Salacious Crumb and Strawberry Shortcake lunchboxes we foolishly sold at our garage sales as 10-year-olds.

"It's a terrible world, and modern parents are trying to cocoon their kids as much as possible," Alfred R. Kahn, chairman of 4Kids Entertainment, told the New York Times. "What better way to protect them than wrapping them in nostalgic brands?"

Ah, but don't get too comfortable in that amber glow of nostalgia. Not all these toys, you see, are for us. American Greetings, the owner of Strawberry Shortcake and friends, had the audacity to decide that our beloved roly-poly icon just wasn't hip enough for today's children (image, above right, from the New York Times). According to head designer Jeffrey Conrad, paraphrased in the article, the goal was all about "leaving the troubles of the modern world behind and playing up the fantasy angle."

How do you replace modern troubles with fantasy? Well let's see: You ditch the bloomers, the pinafore and the clown shoes and replace them with a sleek little argyle and pin-dot number that looks like it came off the racks at Roxy. The old-fashioned pillowy hat becomes a newsboy cap. And then you replace the doll's calico cat with a cellphone. Just to be sure you are leaving modern troubles behind, you know.

The new Strawberry Shortcake has lost her chubby cheeks, her yarn hair that vaguely resembled red dreads and now looks sort of like Ariel the mermaid after a stop by Hot Topic and some Manic Panic. But her sleek new figure can be attributed to her "fruit forward" makeover. The company, in keeping with the modern concern/obsession with nutrition, has decided to nix the emphasis on sugary desserts and replace them with fresh fruit. "We're downplaying characters that were part of Strawberry's world, but who didn't immediately shout out fruit," says Conrad. Angel Cake, I think that means you're out.

Apparently, the classic toy makeovers are all part of a sinister plot by marketers "to hit the nostalgia button on a generation of young parents just as they start to feel their first twinges of middle age." Ouch. Up next are Care Bears (without the belly fat) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (without the attitude). Over it all hovers the specter of the toy industry's "nightmare," Mattel's misguided attempt to make over Barbie's boyfriend in the '90s that resulted in the blond-highlighted, purple mesh, leather-vested monstrosity known as Earring Magic Ken -- aka "Cock-Ring Ken." Oh Cock-Ring Ken, you still make me howl with fiendish delight.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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