Toy makers respond to parental sensitivities by de-emphasizing violence

Friday, September 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Patty Gonzales is keeping toy soldiers and other military playthings in the closet, hidden from her 5- and 6-year-old sons. Instead, she has bought them rescue-hero figures, like firefighters and policemen.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gonzales and other parents are trying to rid their children's lives of violent toys.

``We just need a break,'' said Lisa Eastman, a 38-year-old New Yorker who bought Lego blocks and puzzles for her 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. ``My kids now have nightmares about fires and about all those bad guys.''

The industry also has been doing some soul-searching, pulling toys off shelves, rethinking products and putting off the release of items that might be seen as too violent.

Chris Byrne, an independent toy analyst, predicted that ``nasty toys that destroy enemies for the sake of unspecified violent play'' will be replaced by heroes who restore order.

``All of this destruction and combat play has been possible because it is so abstract,'' he said. ``Now `the threat' is real.''

Retailers such as Wal-Mart have noticed more sales of rescue vehicles and firefighter and police figures. One hot seller has been Mattel's Fisher-Price ``Rescue Heroes,'' a lineup of 7-inch characters unveiled in 1998.

Analysts also believe that Hasbro's newly relaunched GI Joe could be attractive to parents who want to help children act out their fears. For others, like Eastman and Gonzales, military action figures are just too much.

``It's bad enough that they see the Army in the airports,'' said Gonzales, a 24-year-old from New York.

Mattel, the world's largest toy manufacturer, has withdrawn its Heli-Jet vehicle, which contains a mission card with a specific goal: save New York from a villain called Vitriol, who stands atop the World Trade Center, ready to blast the city with deadly energy waves.

Bandai America plans to play down the fighting aspect of its Power Rangers action figures and push ``teamwork and friendship,'' said Colleen Sherfey, director of marketing. She said the company has redesigned some of its advertising.

This re-evaluation couldn't come at a more critical time for retailers and manufacturers, which have already shipped their products to stores for the Oct. 1 holiday deadline. How long consumers' increased sensitivity will last is anyone's guess, but many experts see a new climate favoring less violent types of toys.

Ann Brown, chairwoman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, said she is against any toys that glorify violence. What's appropriate for children, she said, are toys that help them ``deal with violence,'' such as Army toys and GI Joes.

``Kids need to really re-enact their fears as heroes,'' she said, recommending toys that emphasize rescue workers like nurses and firefighters.

The video game industry is drawing close scrutiny from Brown and other consumer advocates.

Video game makers have already delayed some new games containing images of the World Trade Center to remove the graphics. Sega of North America indefinitely postponed ``Propeller Arena,'' involving planes in combat in various cities, and Ubi Soft Entertainment has delayed a PC game in which players participate in counterterrorist games.

``Video game makers are buying more time right now,'' said Dan Hsu, editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly. ``I think they are going to take a safer approach to content for 2002 and 2003.''

Merchants said they see no reason to remove existing violent games, even if they involve terrorism. They are leaving it up to the customer.

The Zany Brainy toy store chain, which avoids violent video games and toys, expects parents this holiday season to look for things like Legos, trains and board games, said Tom Vellios, president and chief executive.

Natasha Spring, 38, of Petaluma, Calif., does not plan to buy her two boys, ages 9 and 5, and 2-year-old daughter a game console.

``I think they are going to be sticking to Disney cartoons,'' she said.