Gifts turn decidedly toward the heroic

Play: Even before Sept. 11 the toy industry had come up with play sets and action figures that celebrate rescue missions and firefighters.

November 11, 2001|By Lini S. Kadaba | Lini S. Kadaba,Knight Ridder / Tribune

The heroics of everyday folks -- the firefighter, the police officer, the rescue worker -- have inspired Americans in the days since Sept. 11. Those touched include the littlest of Americans, said Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, an expert on heroes. "Now, there is an enormous affection for 911 heroism and heroes," he said.

Nowhere is the popularity of the men and women on the front lines of public safety more evident than at the toy store, where shelves are overflowing with hero dolls and their rescue gear. Several toy-makers are poised to introduce play sets and action figures this holiday season that celebrate rescue missions and New York City firefighters -- ideas conceived, serendipitously, months and even years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Other toys are being pulled from store shelves, suddenly inappropriate after the tragic events.

Industry analysts expect sales of hero and rescue toys to swell as youngsters -- and their parents -- put wholesome playthings celebrating America's finest at the top of wish lists. Military action figures such as Hasbro's G.I. Joe also are expected to sell well as the country displays its patriotism -- and real soldiers face real battles.

"Play and toys always reflect our culture," said Chris Byrne, an industry analyst and contributing editor to Toy Wishes, a consumer magazine. "I think you'll see a lot of hero play and a lot of kids working out anxiety over [Sept. 11] through play."

Fisher-Price plans to step up production of a New York City firefighter doll called Billy Blazes, from 30,000 units to 100,000, spokeswoman Laurie Oravec said. The doll, conceived last year, was intended to draw attention to fire safety by featuring the uniform worn by New York City firefighters, the country's largest firefighting force.

Production began in August. "Then the attack happened," Oravec said. Now, the doll, due in stores this month, will honor the valiant firefighters. Fisher-Price will include a letter from the New York City fire commissioner, and it will donate proceeds from sales of the dolls to the city's fire-safety program.

But some hero story lines are hitting too close to Ground Zero.

Mattel is pulling its Heli Jet, in stores for about a month, from the shelves. The vehicle is part of the Max Steel line, which features a bionic superhero out to save the world. Each toy comes with a fictional plot for children to enact.

The Heli Jet's packaging presented the story of a villain who is attacking New York City from atop the World Trade Center. "It's a little bit too close to reality," Mattel spokeswoman Sara Rosales said.

Lego has pulled its Alpha Team: Ogel Control Center construction set from stores after a customer complained. The toy's instruction booklet shows a plane zooming over a city skyline and dropping what appear to be bombs.

Well before the terrorism of Sept. 11, parents had been clamoring for less-violent action figures, and toy-makers had responded with everyday-hero lines.

"This whole rescue theme is so appealing to parents," said Oravec of Fisher-Price, a unit of Mattel, which saw sales of its Rescue Heroes line for preschoolers jump 70 percent in 2000 over the previous year.

Since the attack, the toys seem even more right.

"Kids are focusing on the rescuing aspect of play rather than the destroying aspect," Byrne, the toy-industry analyst, said. "They're going to want to create happy endings."

After the attack, Matchbox, a Mattel brand, reevaluated the appropriateness of its Rescue Net Line toys and commercials.

Parents in focus groups said their children identified closely with rescue figures.

"Children want to be firemen more than ever," said Dave Bryla, vice president of marketing for Matchbox in Mount Laurel, Pa. "These are toys that bring those heroes to life."

Sales for its Map'n Go Fire Truck were up 20 percent last week over the previous two weeks, Bryla said. Sales for the Hero Highway play set were up 14 percent for the same period.

Temple's Farley said young children's heroes always include close relatives (Mom and Dad) or fantasy figures (Superman). As they get older, Superman gives way to real-life, but extraordinary, figures, such as Mohandas K. Gandhi or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The rise of the everyday hero only enriches children's play, Farley said. "Kids can identify with them, and they can become really terrific toys where lessons are learned about heroism and courage and generosity."

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