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The Scotsman
Mon 25 Nov 2002
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Horror dolls threaten Barbie

Jacqui Goddard in Miami

BARBIE and Ken will have to watch their backs as a new generation of ghoulish and violent "urban toys" challenge their cosy pink suburban world.

American toy manufacturers are turning to ghetto culture, urban style, rap music and horror to create toys for America’s new street-smart children.

For the Eminem generation, the toy industry staples of Winnie the Pooh, Barbie or Action Man don’t cut it any more. To fill the gap, independent toy companies are creating dolls that can breakdance, bendy dolls in urban clothes, toy cars with ultra-wide wheels and over-the-top accessories.

They are also indulging teenagers’ obsession with the macabre. One company, Mezco Toyz, has invented the Living Dead Doll, a creation straight from a horror movie. The gruesome ten-inch dolls, with devil-red eyes and blood pouring from their mouths, come in their own coffins, along with a death certificate.

The characters include Sybill, who is strapped in a straitjacket with a collar and chain, and Inferno, who has auburn hair, fiery eyes and bat-like wings.

"If the toy market has changed, it’s a reflection of a changing world," said Mezco’s vice-president, Susan Sisco.

The company also produces toys based on the rappers Run DMC and characters from Quentin Tarantino’s cult film Reservoir Dogs.

The new toys are finding a niche in America’s £19 billion toy industry.

"The toy industry represents society in miniature," said Colleen McMillan of the Toy Industry Association. "Whatever - or whoever - is fashionable in the real world is likely to be picked up and mirrored by the manufacturers."

Scott Harris, product manager for New York-based toy firm Fun-4-All, knows that real-life trends can strongly influence the success or otherwise of his products. The company launched Posers, bendable figures with urban clothes such as grossly baggy trousers and accessories such as wallet-chains just before urban toys became popular. "At that point, people didn’t really know what to do with them. Now we are thinking of relaunching, because the demand is out there," he said.

However, the company scrapped proposals for Tagg Team, character dolls that would have come complete with their own spray can and a plastic train on which to scrawl graffiti.

"Nobody could really get past the graffiti aspect," Mr Harris lamented.

A proportion of urban toys are targeted at late teenagers and upwards, many of them seen as adult entertainment or collectors’ items, and it is the same for the novelty market.

Fun-4-All’s Ozzy Osbourne Talking Picture Frame, for example, contains a light sensor that brings the singer’s family portrait to life, with Ozzy uttering an assortment of bleeped-out profanities and choice phrases.

The Rev Christopher Rose, of Grace Episcopal Church in Hartford, Connecticut, is a leading critic of the dark side of the toy industry. He singles out products such as the Mutant Power Bashers dolls which children must punch in order to hear them moan, "Uuugh, my stomach" and the Back-Talkin’ Crushers, which respond to having their necks and limbs twisted.

Dolls with exploding heads, dolls that carry knives, dolls that carry buckets full of body parts have all been targeted by the campaigning cleric.

"If we had a rating system as we do with movies, these toys wouldn’t be in toy stores," he said.

In Greece, ministers took action when Living Dead Dolls started appearing in the country. Only a handful of the gruesome dolls were actually imported, and those that were, were only on sale for a few days before being withdrawn.

Few violent toys have gained the notoriety achieved by McFarlane Toys’ most famous product , Death Row Marv, which at the flick of a switch, children could make convulse in a mock electric chair.

"He was real popular," said the company’s public relations director, Ken Reinstein. "It wasn’t sick. It was one of those conversation-starters."

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