The TV-Toy Axis Still Targets Kids

CALL it wishful thinking or naivete, but each time the holiday season rolls around, I harbor the hope that TV will play a lesser role in determining the demand for certain toys. Maybe this time, I keep thinking, the toys will be popular for what they are and not because TV has already fixed an image of them in the mind's eye of children.

So I was a little sad to turn on the network news the other night and learn that among the hottest items this year are something called the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. They are currently the most popular of the ``action figures'' - models of humans and objects, often with removable equipment - being offered this year. Some Toys ``R'' Us stores and other outlets can't keep them in stock, and many youngsters who want them badly will be disappointed.

They want them badly because of a TV show called ``Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' a half-hour series airing on the Fox Children's Network that features a rather strange format of live-action superheroes who are teen karate whizzes dressed in space suits. The Power Rangers control dinosaur robots that clash with a army of monsters, with lots of splashy though unrealistic violence.

Power Rangers probably are innocuous enough in their genre - and let's defer, for a moment, the whole issue of whether such toys function as promoters of violence. That link was not created by TV. War toys are, after all, the immemorial playthings of boys. One of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems for children, ``The Pleasant Land of Counterpane,'' describes a boy in bed who says, ``I watched my leaden soldiers go'' - a typical pastime of the period.

Actually, physical objects aren't even required to play games of symbolic violence. As kids, we didn't use cap pistols to stage a mock gunfight. We merely extended a forefinger, curled a thumb, and made shooting noises that sounded something like ``s-s-schtoo, s-s-schtoo.''

And the media's creation of false expectations about playthings is also old hat. In radio days, there was one notable series of commercials for a ring you could hold up to your eye and, as I recall the language, ``behold an eye-dazzling universe of lightning bolts and flashing points....'' When you got the ring itself, you couldn't see a thing inside - oh, perhaps a glimmer, but even that may have been wish-fulfillment. Another time a ``whistle'' ring was advertised. When you blew into it, a high-decibel siren was supposed to send signals to friends far afield with its clarion call. The ring turned out to sound - if it made a noise at all - like the death rattle of a cricket.

But at least in those days you waited eagerly for the reality of the physical object, however misrepresented by the media it turned out to be. The difference in today's TV-conditioned demand is that the reality has already been established before you walk into the store. The boy I saw buying a Power Ranger during the TV newscast had the expression of a happy conspirator who had already been sold. ``I'm with it,'' his smile said.

His look helped you understand why more hasn't been made of the fact that figures looking truly Brobdingnagian on the tube sometimes turn out, in the store, to be Lilliputians that fit comfortably in your palm. Kids have accepted this discrepancy partly because the object has been mythologized in toy-based TV shows, so its identity is secure. If the physical reality is small, chintzy, and laughably less heroic than its TV version, that almost doesn't matter, because children are using the toy to ritually reenact scenes already performed by its TV incarnation.

This season some retailers - like the Target chain of stores - are putting toys out on the floor and inviting kids to come in and play with them. The goal is no less commercial than TV pitches for toys, of course, and in fact some of the same objects are heavily promoted in TV commercials. But at least it gives a child a chance to see, feel, and hold the toy - possibly before its meaning has been predetermined for them on the screen.

A recent edition of ``Wall Street Week'' also offered some reassuring evidence that even in the face of TV's saturation ad campaigns for toys, customers can still go into stores to see for themselves the range of choices among today's top-selling items - lots of cuddly things, for instance.

Apparently there is still a reality outside television. Yet it must be hard for many kids to keep the boundaries straight.

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