Professor offers "The Real Toy Story"

Ogden - Jim Bird says television advertisements are the Eddie Haskels to our "Leave it to Beaver" world. "They come across as innocent; as 'I didn't mean it, I didn't do anything,' "says the Weber State University professor of child and family studies.

But behind the sweet surface of advertisement lies something insidious, something that gets kids riled about useless toys and parents with nothing left to do but buy them, he says.
"Advertisers are not in the market for trying to determine what is an appropriate toy for a child," he says. He's trying to pierce through the hypnotism of the tube and help parents figure out what to buy their children for the holidays with a television program of his own.

He hosted a show called "The Real Toy Story" which will run through December. It is the first segment of a WSU series dubbed "Family Time," which will address several issues surrounding parents and children.

The program will run on cable station channel 9 Sundays at 5 p.m., Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 12:30 p.m., Thursdays at 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays at 10 a.m. through Dec. 24th.

Toys weren't the thing to buy for the holidays until the television was invented, Bird says. Then came Mr. Potato Head. His commercial debut in 1952 started the explosion of toy advertisements, which is now a $900 million business.

Toy manufacturers used to design products that would fill a need. Now, they create the product and manufacture the need with flashy commercials that trick children into believing they need the product to be happy. The commercials look a lot like television programs and children aren't analytical enough to tell the difference, Bird says.

"What do you think would happen if Mr. Rogers told kids to buy a Furby? We're going to do it," he says. "You have a very vulnerable population here." So, what is a parent to do? They could succumb to their whining kids who mimic the language in the advertisement and demand the toy. But that is not wise, he says.

Bird wants parents to realize that when they give their children toys, they are teaching them values because toys encourage certain types of play. "If I hand a child one toy the encourages active play, then what I am saying really is that's what I want."
When parents don't think about what they're buying, they can confuse their children. Bird recalls a child begging his parent for a sword at a local festival. The parent would say, 'I'll buy that toy for you, but don't hit anybody with it.' Now how far do you think that went? Do you see the conflicting messages?"

And unaware parents may end up buying a useless toy, like a Furby. "They don't even think about what a Furby does or doesn't do. They think about the popularity."

Bird and his TV program won't tell parents what toys to buy because he believes it's a personal decision. But he does have general tips on how parents can shop for toys responsibly and teach their children some lessons:

* Decide how much money to spend in advance and stick to it. Telling your children "no" in the right way will teach them they can't always get what they want.

* Have your children go through printed advertisements and make a list of the toys they want. If they use the TV to make their list, they will probably want everything they see. Make it clear they won't get everything on the list. This will teach them how to prioritize.

*Learn about the toy. Think about what your children will learn from playing with it. Get toys that fuel the imagination instead of toys that dictate how the children will play.

This article appeared in the Ogden Standard Examiner December 17, 1998. Story by Heather May.