Toy companies ride military wave and watch kids catch it

There's a pile of controversy under the Christmas tree this year. Tricycles with bazookas attached. Guns that shoot beams of infrared light at an opponent. Dolls with bad breath, or those with controversial messages, like Grace the pro-life doll and Nomad the Arab terrorist.

These and other toys are on more wish lists than ever before. They are drawing fire from organized groups of parents, consumer watchdogs, cartoonists, and even toy-store owners, who are concerned about the values they instill in children.

At Lowen's toy store in Bethesda, four-year-old Michael wants a Rambo helicopter and the year's hottest item, Lazer Tag. In Lazer Tag, a child shoots at an opponent, who wears a ``Starsensor'' that registers the hit with a stuttered electronic tone.

Unfortunately for Michael, he won't find either Rambo or Lazer Tag at Lowen's, one of the country's largest specialty (nondiscount) toy stores. Owner Scott Goode won't carry Rambo toys because he says they are tied to overly violent movies.

As for Lazer Tag, ``I have real problems with a toy that's designed for one small child to aim a gun at another child and shoot it at his chest,'' says Mr. Goode. He gets 25 to 30 calls a day from mothers trying to locate the popular toy. (Another hot item: presents for the pooch, P. 3.)

Don Kingsborough, whose company, Worlds of Wonder, makes Lazer Tag, says the toy merely puts a high-tech spin on a time-honored game. He says the game ``is a vehicle to bring children together,'' a wholesome development, since ``children today are so isolated'' by divorce, working parents, and urban living.

Controversy has not hurt sales. Lazer Tag, which is No. 5 on Toy and Hobby World magazine's most popular list (it would be higher if the company could make enough to meet demand), is expected to bring in $100 million in sales this year. Combined with the 21-month-old company's other main toy, the talking bear Teddy Ruxpin and friends, the company should have $350 million in sales.

Lazer Tag and a similar game called Photon (No. 12 on the list) are the stepsisters of an older, also controversial, trend in the toy business: military toys. One doll in particular, however, has created a firestorm - and a victory for watchdog organizations.

Nomad, one of the enemies of Rambo, looks Arab, wears an Arab headdress, and engages in ``terrorist assaults on innocent villages,'' according to Coleco Industries' description of the doll.

``We find it offensive to be marketing toys that will in all likelihood develop a militaristic attitude in children and will give them a distored view of other ethnic groups,'' says Faris Bouhafa of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. After the group organized protests on Thanksgiving weekend, Coleco agreed to stop production.

Bob Staake, a free-lance cartoonist in St. Louis, wages a comic war against military toys. He has sent letters to some 150 newspaper cartoonists, asking them to draw cartoons with antiwar-toys themes between Dec. 10 and 23. He expects about 100 to comply.

``I know we're going to have some effect,'' says Mr. Staake, who began the campaign last year after his son greeted him at the baby sitter's door with a toy hand grenade.

This year, warlike dolls are second only to stuffed and high-tech animals. GI Joe is the country's best-selling toy for the first time in his 26-year life.

Most groups don't object to these items, though they worry about the national attitude they reflect. Parents like Staake, however, think some toys, such as the Rambo power cycle, a tricycle with guns attached, go too far.

But others say the industry can't be faulted for making products that sell; moreover, they note that the values - patriotism, valor, and the like - are positive. ``Children think they're defending their country,'' says a spokeswoman for Toys ``R'' Us.

Aside from the proliferation of military toys and accessories, 1986 has seen ``the institutionalization of the grotesque,'' says Ann Brown of Americans for Democratic Action. ADA's ``Trash box'' list of the season's worst toys includes several of these. Among the Breath Blaster doll family, which smell as they sound, are Death Breath, George Garbage Mouth, Miss Morning Mouth. The ``Rude Ralph'' doll makes unappealing sounds when the child tugs on his eyes.

Religious toys, however, haven't yet attracted much attention. Wee Win Toys makes sets of biblical figures complete with cassette tapes and book. Sales may reach $7 million this year. ``The pendulum is swinging back to more conservative thinking, and we're right in the middle of that,'' says spokesman Zed Daniels.

Also catching the social wave is Praise Unlimited's ``Grace the pro-life doll,'' who sings, ``Jesus loves little children,'' and says, ``God knew me even before I was born'' when she is hugged.

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