The most high-profile example to date of this kind of product-combining traditional doll play with computer play-is the Microsoft Corp./ActiMates Interactive Barney, which on its own can say 2000 phrases, sing songs and play peek-a-boo. It can also interact with TVs, VCRs and computers with the aid of separate transmitters.
Microsoft's $14.5 million marketing push for the product kicked off late last month, with ads from Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis. The effort will continue into next spring with promotions tied to the upcoming "Barney" movie from PolyGram Films.
Microsoft is developing another ActiMates product for Christmas '98 based on another children's property. And more convergence products are coming, with technology and toy companies scouting for new applications and opportunities from their products and brands.
Toy marketers, ever on the hunt for the next big thing, have the added pressure of pleasing their increasingly tech-sophisticated young consumers.
"Kids' expectations are higher. They've seen magical things on the computer screen, and now they expect it in their toys," said Gary Carlin, a former VP-marketing at Hasbro Interactive and president of toy development company Inventor's Greenhouse, which is also looking at creating convergence products.
Talk With Me Barbie comes with a CD-ROM and a small, Barbie-scale "computer" that plugs into a regular computer. The software allows kids to program the doll with up to two minutes of conversation. The product was introduced early this year at the American International Toy Fair (AA, Feb. 17).
Mattel has bought a mix of Saturday morning TV programming and prime-time shows to reach young girls and their parents. The product is suitable for kids age 5 and older; typical Barbie dolls are suggested for kids age 3 and older.
Some toy industry analysts have doubts about convergence products, suggesting they require a technical know-how too complicated or tedious for the target market. On top of that, they say, since Talk With Me Barbie sells for $90 and Barney costs $99-and each of its transmitters is priced at $59.99-the products are too expensive.
Marketers believe the technical expertise required isn't beyond the ability of their target, and definitely is not beyond that of parents. And Mattel believes interest in customizing a talking Barbie will overcome any disinterest or difficulty with computers.
"What girls will want is a Barbie that knows them, that knows their name, and their favorite topics, that can be changed and updated whenever they want," said a Mattel spokeswoman.
LESS COMPLEX IN FUTURE
Microsoft also said consumers will respond to value, but added future ActiMates products will be less complex, and that next year's product will skew older.
As for price, the company said the Barney doll has sold well but most consumers have been slow to buy the transmitters. Still, it believes the doll is priced