Washington — This is not a landmark Christmas for activists and toymakers. Where, for example, is the blockbuster toy, the new Laser Tag or Rubik's Cube or Cabbage Patch doll, that every parent has to find if he or she doesn't want an open revolt on Christmas morning?
And where is the loud controversy? Last year, antiwar toy activists sunned themselves in nonstop media attention, stirring the most fiesty Christmas in years. Today, they are being largely ignored by the media, in part because state and local legislators have confiscated some of the issues as their own.
Christmas 1987 seems to be a year of gear-shifting, when parents revert to traditional gifts and toymakers figure out how to catch the eye of baby boomlets - the children of the baby boomers - who are just leaving the doll-playing age and are demanding more sophistication. This evolution is bringing new points of controversy to the surface. But thus far, activists are having to wait out the season in relative calm. (Organizers against war toys, Page 23.
Consider the reaction to two toys, one for adults and one for kids, that have been labeled aggressive. The one for adults, called ``Revenger,'' is a box that attaches to a car dashboard and sounds like a machine gun or grenade launcher. It is eliciting mild reaction from toy observers. Says psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith, author of Toys as Culture: ``One could see that the sudden sound of a gun in the wrong place could have deleterious consequences.'' But, he notes, Revenger ``creates humor out of anger,'' adding that may not be a bad thing in Los Angeles, where drivers have shown a propensity for the real thing. A more controversial toy is ``Gotcha,'' a toy gun which shoots pellets of ink. Gotcha has drawn fire from antiwar toy groups. ``It's an accident just waiting to happen,'' says Scott Goode, owner of Lowen's toy store in Bethesda, Md. Mr. Goode won't sell Gotcha. However, sales elsewhere are brisk, and Gotcha has climbed to the No. 12 spot on Toy and Hobby World magazine's hit parade.
Part of the reason war toys are no longer the flashpoint they were a year ago is that they are not as popular. Seven of the top 15 toys last year were based on fighting themes, according to Toy and Hobby World magazine. GI Joe topped the list. This year, GI Joe has fallen to third place, and only five of the top 15 have an aggressive, combattive theme. Antiwar toy publicity is waning as well. Last year, a group of cartoonists, eight of them Pulitzer Prize winners, made big waves in the media with their cartoons against war toys. This year, they can barely get on the back pages of newspapers.
In an effort to stir the slumbering issue, the rock group Timbuk 3 is launching a new music video, which premiered on MTV last week. Entitled ``All I want for Christmas,'' it lyrically lists a whole battery of popular war toys, noting, ``It looks to me like World War III/Underneath the Christmas tree.''
But the antiwar toy groups have scored some big legislative coups of late. Last week Los Angeles passed a law banning the sale and manufacture of realistic-looking toy guns. Nearby Burbank and Santa Monica had already passed similar laws, and New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Kansas are considering similar moves.
The pressure is taking its toll. Last month the nation's largest toy retailer, Toys `R' Us, announced it would not sell realistic-looking toy guns. And Daisy Manufacturing, one of the biggest toy-gun makers, said it has begun to paint orange markings on its guns to differentiate them from real guns.
These moves come a few months after a 19-year-old boy was shot and killed by a policeman who mistook the boy's Lazer Tag gun for the real thing. Then in August, a television reporter at KNBC-TV in Burbank, Calif., was held hostage on air by a man pointing a toy gun at his head.
As initiative moves from the grass roots to the legislators, consumers and activists are noting new controversial trends in toys. Possibly the major debate in the future boils down to the question: How much time should children spend in front of television? It's an old question, but a new technology brings it to a boil.
The technology is called ``interactive video,'' in which the viewer can alter what's happening on the television set through high-tech gadgets. Today there is only one successful toy, called ``Captain Power,'' which makes use of it.
Children can wage gun battles with the TV opponent, either during the half-hour Captain Power television show that airs on independent stations, or by using Captain Power video tapes.
``No one has any gripes with the technology,'' says an aide on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance, which is drawing up a bill to limit toy-based programming. ``But why does it have to be geared toward war?'' Mattel is reportedly working on an interactive educational toy.
The technology is coming on line just as the baby boomlets are ready for it. The oldest in the swelling ranks of baby boomers' children are 14 years old, an age at which are looking beyond dolls and ``action figures'' and toward sports and high-tech entertainment.
With so many ``turnkey'' children who must entertain themselves until their parents came home from work, says Dr. Sutton-Smith, television has already become a popular babysitter, he says. ``Now that we've developed the [interactive] technology,'' he adds, ``television is an even more compelling babysitter.''