Kids Upfront '09

Where the Toys Are: What Mattel, Hasbro Plan for '09

Barbie's 50, Family Game Night Is 10, and Tons of Movie Tie-ins

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YORK, Pa. ( -- This promises to be a year of contradictions in the toy industry. Even as video games and high-tech electronics permeate almost every aisle in the toy store, back-to-basics categories such as board games and building sets are seeing solid growth. It will be a year of playing to kids' demand for digital, even as their parents stage a retreat, both in budget spending and in a nostalgic bid for less-technological days gone by.

Barbie turns 50.
Barbie turns 50. Credit: Mattel Inc.
For instance, there are about 25 kid-targeted movies due this year -- vs. about 15 in an average year -- so expect lots of movie-tie-in games and action figures to take center stage at retail, said Reyne Rice, toy-trends specialist at the Toy Industry Association.

Nostalgia factor
However, nostalgia factors firmly into the blockbuster picture, with many of the titles and characters resurrected from past entertainment properties. Star Trek, X-Men, Terminator, G.I. Joe, Harry Potter, Dragonball Z and even Hannah Montana are some of the stars of the upcoming movie season that kids and their parents already know.

Toy anniversaries will also garner marketing heft this year. Mattel's blond-bombshell Barbie doll turns 50, and the No. 1 toy maker has already announced a wide slate of marketing and promotional plans for the old gal, including dozens of "pink carpet" events, product partnerships and online promotions.

Designer Jonathan Adler, confectioner Dylan's Candy Bar and Stila cosmetics will roll out co-marketed Barbie household decor, an exclusive line of Barbie candy and "whimsical" Barbie beauty products, respectively, to celebrate her half-century mark.

Check out Ad Age's full coverage to see where advertisers are playing this year.

Meanwhile, No. 2 toy maker Hasbro looks to be going in both directions with its marketing. Playing to nostalgia and increase in family stay-at-home nights, Hasbro will continue to its "Family Game Night" advertising with a renewed push it began in November that celebrates 10 years of the effort. The new campaign factors in the effects of the battered economy, emphasizing value and togetherness. However, one of the newest "games" in the portfolio is a video game via its hookup last year with Electronic Arts. "Hasbro Family Fun Night" for Wii and PlayStation 2 invite families to play "favorite games in all-new ways."

Economic factor
The economy will, of course, factor heavily into the toy industry this year, with last year's estimated decrease of 5% to 6% already revealed. Both Mattel and Hasbro reported less-than-stellar fourth quarters, a departure for the largely recession-resistant toy industry.

"They're less recession-proof than maybe we thought," Ms. Rice said, though she added that the more-than-usual number of retailer price breaks and special promotions played a role in the bottom-line decline.

Hasbro did note in its final quarter of reporting that its aggressive yearend marketing and promotions helped move inventory but added to expenses.

While NPD analyst Anita Frazier said she expected the toy industry to feel the effects of the broader "economic malaise," she added, "In tough times, people still like to take their mind off their worries and be entertained, and parents still want to please their children."

Both bellweather toy makers dropped overall marketing spending in 2008, although not precipitously. Mattel spent $202 million through November 2008 vs. $219 million in all of 2007, while Hasbro spent $132 million in 2008 through November vs. $159 million in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Media spending
Not surprisingly, the two spend big where kids spend a lot of time: kid-programmed TV. Mattel was the No. 1 advertiser on Nickelodeon last year, with $91.7 million (down from $100.6 million in 2007 but still up considerably from $68.6 million in 2006). It also spent $20.4 million at Cartoon Network, down a bit from $21.3 million in 2007.

Meanwhile, Hasbro spent $40.1 million on Nickelodeon and $14.8 million on Cartoon Network in 2008.

Cliff Annicelli, editor in chief of Playthings magazine, said, "Kids aren't as predictable as one would think, but generally it's still a safe bet to bet on toys that toy manufacturers are most heavily advertising. TV commercials are still kind when it comes to creating awareness of what's new in the toy market."

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