Halting the billion-dollar march of war toys and war cartoons

Remember the Cabbage Patch Dolls last Christmas? Remember the jammed stores, the empty shelves, the imported counterfeits, the skyrocketing prices, the disappointed kids? Social historians may someday look back on 1984 as the good old days. Cabbage Patch Dolls, after all, are what researchers call ``pro-social'' toys -- cuddly, colorful, and just ugly enough to provoke floods of sympathy.

Sometime last spring, however, the toy market quietly took a more sinister turn. That was when the Transformers -- a line of weapon-laden ``action toy'' robots manufactured by Hasbro -- bumped the Cabbage Patch dolls out of the most-popular-toy spot.

It's all part of the largest outpouring of ``war toys'' in history -- a trend that has developed so fast that many parents haven't awakened to its significance. Sales of such popular robot lines as Voltrons and Gobots, and of such humanoid forms as G. I. Joe and She-Ra, have exploded some 600 percent in the past three years. Total sales of toy guns, war toys, and war games are expected to reach $1.3 billion this year.

In the age of war movies that show the tough Yank single-handedly fighting off the communist hordes with massive, hand-held firepower -- Sylvester Stallone's ``Rambo,'' Arnold Schwarzenegger's ``Commando,'' and the like -- such toys have an awful lot of people concerned. ``We're talking about the most massive sale of war ideology to a generation of children in any modern democracy with the exception of Hitler's Germany,'' says Thomas Radecki, a psychiatrist.

Toys as ideology? Isn't that stretching the point? Not for the members of some 300 groups who turned out for an ``International War Toy Boycott'' at toy stores and manufacturing plants last month. And not for the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV), which, with Dr. Radecki as its research director, pays special attention to the means used to market war toys. Since September, the weekday-afternoon airwaves have been peppered with half-hour television cart oons featuring the toys themselves -- produced by the toy manufacturers for the express purpose of selling more toys.

In itself, the toy-and-entertainment tie-in is nothing new. Plenty of American adults spent their formative years wearing Superman sweat shirts and carrying Peanuts lunch pails. What's new here is the cynical manipulation of a child's love of cartoons for the purpose of selling toys -- and the flat-out equation of deadly force with child's play. According to NCTV studies:

The nation's supply of ``war cartoon programming,'' beamed out at the 3-to-11-year-old group, has grown from 1.5 hours a week in 1982 to 27 hours a week in 1985. Next year, when the 10 current war cartoons are joined by another six already in production, there will be 42 hours a week.

The average war cartoon features 41 acts of violence per hour, with an attempted murder every two minutes. The most violent show, ``G. I. Joe,'' doubles the average with 84 acts of violence per hour.

The average child, says Radecki, will see 800 war-toy commercials this year -- and watch some 250 episodes of war cartoons. By NCTV calculations, that's the equivalent of 22 days in the schoolroom.

``I cannot think of any modern democracy that has exposed its youngest children, aged 3 and up, to 22 days of classroom instruction in warfare per year,'' says Radecki, ``and that is what we're doing.''

Cartoons as ``classroom instruction in warfare''? Isn't that, too, stretching the point? Here, in fact, the ice does get a bit slippery. Prof. Charles W. Turner of the University of Utah, whose research has been largely on the effect of firearms on adult behavior, concedes that ``the effects of toys haven't been studied extensively.''

Yet he notes that several studies (including one he conducted) seem to show a convincing link between playing with war toys and exhibiting aggressive behavior -- hyperactivity, kicking, biting, punching, and general rule-breaking.

Congress, so far, has been stymied on the issue. A bill by Rep. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado to require of broadcasters one hour of ``positive'' children's programming a day has gone nowhere. A proposed bill by Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois to label war cartoons with a message warning about the effects of violence may meet the same fate. Toymakers, after all, have lots of money and lots at stake.

Just now, two things are needed. Initially, we need a lot more research -- aimed at studying how children are affected by cartoon violence at home (where they do most of their television-watching) and not just under obviously experimental situations.

More important, however, we need to rethink our national willingness to tolerate oversimplified, black-and-white thinking.

``These cartoons,'' says Radecki, ``are teaching children to think of the enemy as repugnant, loathsome, deserving of hatred, and subhuman. And the only method of problem-solving in dealing with the enemy in every one of these cartoons is . . . physical force and military weaponry.''

One can hope that, like other fads, this too will pass. As the real-life ``enemy'' superpowers look for postsummit ways to resolve their differences without threats of force, this latest fad may fade. And as the season of Christmas gives increasing relevance to the Christian motto ``love your enemies,'' perhaps the inappropriateness of these toys will dawn on parents and children alike. A Monday column

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