Whenever parents put on amateur Santa Claus hats and try to choose toys for their children, they’re often in for a difficult task with several volatile factors. Will the toy make loud, irritating noises? Is it too expensive? Does it have small parts that are destined to be lost forever under the couch?
While choosing toys for a child poses many challenges, designing them presents even more. Will it be sold in an eye-catching package? Is it a tie-in with a movie that nobody wanted to see? Will it burst into flames when it’s turned on? Does it have small parts young children might choke on?
These are all factors that toy manufacturers must take into consideration, and as with any other business, none of them can bat .1000. Even companies that have dominated the market for decades have rolled out products demonstrating a shocking inattention to safety, an utter lack of taste, or a premise that causes potential buyers to wonder aloud if the toy is actually some kind of unfunny joke.
What are some of the children’s toys that failed spectacularly? Click ahead to find out.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 7 September 2011
The Cabbage Patch Kids line was introduced by Mattel at the 1983 International Toy Fair in New York City. It enjoyed blockbuster sales throughout the decade, and demand was so great that it inspired several spin-off products, such as a breakfast cereal and a diaper brand. In 1996, the Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids line was rolled out. It came with plastic “food” that was hand-fed by the child into the doll’s mouth, which featured a pair of one-way metal rollers behind its lips.
Mattel began receiving complaints from parents that children were getting their hair and fingers caught in the dolls' mouths. The company tried to mitigate the damage by offering a cash refund of $40 to enraged parents, and placing a warning sticker on all unsold dolls. However, in January 1997, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that the company would pull the dolls from store shelves.
Anyone who has flown on an airplane since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has seen airport security become more invasive. While many parents were able to easily explain to their children why they had to remove their shoes when walking through the metal detector, the Transportation Security Administration had instituted pat-down procedures that even the most articulate parent must find hard to explain.
Perhaps as a way of helping with this delicate task, Germany’s Playmobil introduced the Security Check Point play set. It was priced at just over $50 and, shockingly enough, few people bought it, so it was discontinued. Today, a new set in mint condition sells for more than twice its original retail value on Amazon.com. Visitors to that page are advised to read the comments by customer reviewer “Ann,” who claims to be “holding out for the release of the Guantanamo play set.”
Since 1996, Nintendo has been doing quite well for itself with Pokemon, one of the most successful video game franchises in the world. All of the Pokemon characters have been merchandised in one form or another, including books, trading cards, and toys. Fast-food chain Burger King decided to get into the act, releasing its own set of miniature Pokemon toys in a multimillion-dollar 1999 promotion.
The toys were extracted from spherical “Poke Ball” containers and put in children’s meal boxes. The promotion was so successful that 10 days into its eight-week run, Burger King was forced to run full-page advertisements in major metropolitan newspapers to apologize for running out of the toys.
In December 1999, horrified parents learned that the two halves of the Poke Ball were the perfect size to pose a suffocation risk. Burger King agreed to a voluntary recall, and parents were told to confiscate the toys from their kids and return them to the restaurant. In return, they received one small order of french fries.
The 2000 John Travolta film “Battlefield Earth” is one of the most hated movies of all time. The Guardian called it “one of the worst movies ever made,” and Rita Kempley of The Washington Post said "a million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as 'Battlefield Earth.'” Ouch.
The film, which was based on a 1982 book by Church of Scientology founder and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, earned back only one third of its production budget at the box office—a disaster by any measure. The toy company Trendmasters was equally hard-hit by the movie’s failure. It wrongly anticipated that the Travolta film would be a highly popular summer blockbuster, and had manufactured action figures based on its characters.
The company had already lost considerable money as a result of its association with the highly unpopular 1998 “Godzilla” movie, and its investment in "Battlefield Earth" merchandise hastened the company’s demise. Trendmasters closed for good in 2002.
The Easy-Bake Oven has been delighting amateur pre-tween cupcake chefs ever since it was introduced by Kenner in 1963. Before the 20th century was over, more than 16 million had been sold, with no end in sight.
Hasbro began manufacturing the ovens in 1993, but in 2006, it changed the design to the front-loading approach used by real ovens. Unfortunately, just like a real oven, it also exposed its young users to extreme heat when they inserted their hands into the opening. Five injuries were reported, and the model was recalled in 2007.
Sky Dancers was a toy line launched by Galoob for the 1994 holiday season. The principle was simple: A doll with helicopter wings. When a child pulled the string attached to the toy, the wings spun and the doll took to majestic flight. Delight ensued.
The toy was popular right away, but less popular was its unanticipated tendency to collide with faces, teeth, and eyes. There was also one concussion and a broken rib reported in connection to the toy. Sky Dancers were recalled in 2000 after 170 reports of injuries.
The American Girl line of dolls debuted in 1986. The dolls depicted figures of various ethnicities and attributes that were instantly popular with children and collectors. A line of books was released, as well as a clothing line and various accessories, all to excellent sales.
One of the dolls produced was named Gwen Thompson, and her unique attribute was that she was homeless and lived with her mother in a car. It is hard to say who was the intended target audience for this doll, but it wasn’t on store shelves long enough for anyone to find out. Gwen Thompson disappeared from store shelves after just a few months.
Sky Rangers Park Flyer Radio Control Airplanes were toy jets manufactured in 2005 and 2006 by Estes-Cox, which has been in the model aircraft business since the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. This particular toy had an impressive, 14-inch wingspan and a rechargeable battery to power it. Unfortunately, due to a design flaw, hydrogen leaked from the battery and would ignite when the power was switched on. In other words, when you turned it on, the plane would sometimes explode.
Estes-Cox received multiple complaints, including reports of burns and lacerations. The company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of the toy in 2007, and the CPSC press release spelled out the hazards in stark terms: “The airplanes are launched by hand and can explode near the consumer's head, posing a risk of temporary hearing loss and injuries to eyes, face, and hands.”
The Barbie line of dolls contains characters beyond its perky blonde namesake. There’s the dashing Ken, who has served as Barbie’s love interest for decades, and there’s also her best friend, Midge Hadley. The Midge doll has been sold in multiple iterations, such as Wedding Day Midge, who allowed young girls to daydream vicariously about their future nuptials. However, one controversial version of Midge was introduced in 2002: The very pregnant Happy Family Midge.
The Happy Family Midge doll featured a protruding belly which was attached magnetically to the body. When removed, a gestating infant doll could be snapped out of the plastic womb and dressed up in play baby clothes. Outraged Wal-Mart customers complained on a nationwide scale, and the doll was removed from shelves, along with the entire Happy Family line, including Midge's husband Alan and toddler son Ryan. A USA Today article from December 2002 also quoted Philadelphia toy shoppers, who voiced uniform horror at the toy and said that it “promotes teenage pregnancy.”
Lawn darts, also known as jarts, is a game that’s very similar to horseshoes. In this case, the projectiles are 12 inches long with plastic fins and a metal point, and they’re lobbed toward a target at the other end of the grass. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, plenty. In December 1988, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned them outright. As it turned out, forcefully lobbing a sharp metal projectile had the potential to cause grievous bodily injury to others, and had in fact done so on numerous occasions.