Archive | October, 2012

Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct






Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.

In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.

Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.

Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.

Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.

We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.

The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.

According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”

According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”

Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.

Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.

Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.

As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.

Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.

Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.

While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.

I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).

How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.

I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp  and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune




I’m not Exaggerating, I’m Aspiring

11 Oct



“134% of All People Exaggerate.”

                                          Unknown Author

Exaggeration is a common place phenomenon.  For one thing, it lies at  the heart of the advertising industry.  During last week’s Superbowl,  Chevrolet ran a commercial showing a driver of a Chevy Silverado talking to other pickup truck drivers in a post-apocalyptic world. The driver is told that one of their buddies unfortunately didn’t make it —  a misguided soul who drove a Ford.   And of course, locally  there was the  controversy over Papa John’s famous  slogan,  “Better ingredients, Better Pizza”,  to which Pizza Hut took such great offense.

For me the month of February brings up two other activities also prone to exaggeration–   filing income taxes and getting a dental checkup. The U.S. Internal Revenues Service estimates that about 40% of taxpayers exaggerate their deductions or business losses. According to a  Phillips Sonicare survey this is just about the same percentage of people who say they exaggerate how often they brush  or floss  their teeth  when they visit the dentist.

            The motive for exaggeration on a tax return is relatively straightforward— monetary gain. Lying to your dentist by exaggerating your commitment to oral hygiene, however, is more complicated. In this case people are looking for ways to avoid embarrassment or disapproval, or to look good and be more socially desirable.

            Exaggeration is among the most common forms of deceit in which people engage. It fits into the class of  psychological phenomena that social scientists call “self-enhancement”. “Self-enhancement” involves consistently taking a more positive view of  yourself, than is true, in order to convince others of your worth or acceptability.      

That 40% figure holds up  pretty well across various situations. Michael Kinsman, from Copley News Service,  reports that between  30 and 50% of American workers lie on their resumes, mostly exaggerating  their references, qualifications, or accomplishments. Peter  Voght a senior writer at  advises job seekers to learn how to “package”  their résumés “smartly”, so that they can reach that  “happy medium between unintentional modesty and over-the-top exaggeration.”

               Other studies suggest that there is about a  10 to 18% gap  between what people say they do on surveys and what  close self-monitoring  reveals that they actually do.  These sort of exaggerations include things like church attendance,  watching popular television, how much they earn, compliance with physician’s orders,  prejudice,   charity, and  antisocial or illegal acts. People  even routinely  exaggerate how tall they are and regularly underestimate their weight.  All of these are part of our desire to be seen as socially desirable.

Psychological tests often try to weed out  this social desirability  factor in order to  make self-reported information  more accurate. Probably the most famous of all objective psychological tests , the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI),   takes   exaggeration very seriously and has a variety of internal scales   designed  to  measure things such as  lying, faking,   and the tendency to systematically answer true, false, or randomly. Paper and pencil tests are no substitute  for a lie detector and cannot tell you  specifically  when a person is exaggerating, but they can tell you if the person has a general tendency to do so.

Back in high school I had a friend who would always exaggerate how well he did on algebra tests. Even  if he failed completely  and  got a score  of  55  out of 100, he would say he got a 59 instead. I never  quite  understood  this seemingly  meaningless exaggeration,  but modern research may have an answer.   A recent series of   studies,  suggests   exaggerating about grades may differ psychologically from other forms of  deception. Exaggerating  past academic performance evidently does not  create the same level of  anxiety in people that lying  typically does.  In fact research reveals that exaggerators  often work hard to try to live up to the false image they project. One of the foremost researchers in this area, psychologist Richard H. Gramzow, now at Syracuse University,  suggests that these sort of exaggerations are best classified as aspirational,  rather than deceptive.  They are aimed more at the exaggerators themselves,   than at the audience. Gramzow  says. “Basically, exaggeration here reflects positive goals for the future, and we have found that those goals tend to be realized.”  Although I wouldn’t advise  using this as a defense in an IRS audit, these researchers also suggest that  the exaggeration  of  things like   charitable contribution are, not only self-enhancements,  but also the positive expression  of  future  goals.

  Aspirational exaggeration may explain things like Connecticut Representative  Richard Blumenthal’s misleading remarks  about his  military combat record,  or Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton’s story of being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

It has been suggested that self-monitoring  is generally more  accurate than the information   people  give on surveys. While this may be true,  that doesn’t mean that self-monitoring is free from misrepresentation and  exaggeration. In some jobs I’ve held , I‘ve had to complete  time sheets  which are  a  kind of self-monitoring.  If most people  accurately recorded everything they actually  did at work they  would be, at the very least, embarrassed,  if not in jeopardy of losing their jobs.  Most companies employ a coding system  that is woefully inadequate to cover all the possibilities that work presents. The lack of sufficient  descriptive codes only encourages misrepresentations and exaggeration. Freeman  Institute  has come to the rescue and published a tongue-in cheek  “Extended Job-Code List”. Among these  work  activity codes listed are:  5316 – Useless Meeting, 5318 – Trying to Sound Knowledgeable While in Meeting, 5402 – Trying to Explain Concept to Coworker Who Hates You, 5503 – Scratching Yourself, 6200 – Using Company Resources for Personal Profit, and 6221 – Pretending to Work While Boss Is Watching.
            A final form of self-monitoring  is the  health related diary or log. I’m still monitoring my blood sugar and  I’ve also kept a  food diary,  which at times has resembled an exercise in creative writing. You just have to know how to properly decode it. For example a “sliver of apple pie”,  actually means “ one big  honking piece of apple pie”.

    Recently Diane was keeping a health-related diary in which she had to list her activities ever hour. She wrote down she was putting away boxes, but didn’t specify that it was Christmas boxes she was putting away in late January. To not appear like she was an inactive person, who spent the whole day reading, the log forced her to vary her activities to include washing the kitchen floor, washing lots of clothes, and undertaking various cooking projects. I think her most creative entry, however, was listing vacuuming as an activity, when she was actually watching me vacuum (she wants you to know that she did dust).