Manipulated by Morphin Madness

November 02, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

It is 6:30 in the morning and dawn is bleeding over the tree line. I'm standing in a line in front of a Wal-Mart. There are about 20 bleary-eyed people ahead of me. By the time the store opens at 7, there will be 40 more folks behind me. With hands jammed in coat pockets to ward off the season's first frost, everyone is fairly quiet, but there's a nervous edge to this crowd. Few words need to be exchanged. Like the earthlings drawn to the spaceship in ''Close Encounters of a Third Kind,'' we all know why we're here.

Power Rangers.

Norwegians may be banning the popular children's television show, the ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' in the wake of a child's murder in their country that has been blamed on violent media influences. But here in America, the allure of the Power Rangers is nothing short of obsessive. My 7-year-old son had requested the white-suited ranger, the newest character in the campy TV series about high school students who transform into superheroes to rescue the world from monsters. As much as I tried to convince my son that one's holiday joy shouldn't be based on any one toy, he remained resolute. So too, apparently, have many of his peers.

I knew I was in trouble a month ago when I passed by a toy store in a strip mall near my home one Sunday morning. A line of 100 people snaked around the store. Why the crowd? I asked someone. ''Power Ranger shipment,'' they replied, in a tone that suggested I must be living in a cave. The store wasn't even to open for another hour.

This morphin madness sweeping shopping centers and stirring so much parental angst isn't new. It began more than a year ago. When my son and his grade-school classmates discovered this show last fall, I went into one of those ''category-killer'' toy stores, two football fields long, to find a Power Ranger toy. I didn't find the toy, but I did find several adults huddled near the warehouse, awaiting the next shipment. They had no idea when the truck would arrive, but that didn't deter them, including one man who claimed he'd waited four hours for naught the day before.

It's not that I despise buying toys; Getting to experience childhood again through the eyes of one's progeny is one of the joys of being a parent. But this ranger quest was beginning to drain the joy out of the experience.

I've heard tales of these Power Ranger toys being sold at black-market prices at flea markets; last year brought reports of them being stolen out of unattended shopping carts.

We've witnessed runs on products before, the Cabbage Patch dolls in the '80s, gasoline during the oil embargoes, bread and toilet-paper panics during every Maryland winter. Something different and deeper is at work here.

After a half-century of marketing products through the mass media, American business has sharpened that sales tool to surgical precision. We've come a long way from soap jingles on the radio. Now business cross-pollenates its marketing between television and movies, fast-food giveaways and product licensing, breakfast cereals and logo clothing. It's why Walt Disney Co. can just about print money with its full-length cartoons these days; its re-release of the classic ''Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'' is expected to be bought by nearly every American home that possesses a VCR and a child.

You can't simply blame children and their pampering parents for this acquisitive explosion in America. We're buying bigger homes. Fancier cars. We've got home-shopping networks. And, adult passions -- not the wishes of children -- turned what was once a simple outing at a ballpark into a virtual night at the opera.

The anger of the electorate this political season, particularly in the well-off suburbs, should be a reminder that you can't buy happiness. Yet, we'll continue to be brainwashed otherwise. You want off this treadmill? You'll just lose your space in line. Which is why 70 others and I took what seemed like a Bataan death march into Wal-Mart that recent daybreak.

We'd heard rumors that Wal-Mart had pallets full of this advertised special. As an employee began passing out numbered slips and stopped maybe a third of the way into the line, some of us pondered the unthinkable: We mightn't make the cut.

As we filed into the store, employees stood slack-jawed at the spectacle. If they reserved any of the toys themselves beforehand, one told me, they were warned they would be terminated. The coveted toys were shielded behind the service desk, lest some crazed parent make a run at the stock. I held a slip that said ''23.'' The supply ran out after 21. The manager found three more.

As I left that store clutching that $37 toy to my chest, I felt an odd mix of naughtiness, as if I had just gotten away with something, and accomplishment, as if I'd done something worthwhile. I deserved to feel neither. What I should have noticed was a force so stealthy and strong even the Power Rangers couldn't save me from it: manipulation.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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