What happens when a toy store dedicated to helping "kids and babies develop, learn, and be safe" starts selling hazmat-suited action figures who cook crystal meth?
A pop culture phenomenon collides with concerns that children are being exposed to violent and inappropriate content too early.
Earlier this month, one Florida mother started an online petition to get Toys "R" Us to remove "Breaking Bad" action figures from its shelves. Now, her campaign is gathering media attention, with appearances on local TV as well as NBC's "Today" show.
The controversy centers on whether Toys "R" Us is being hypocritical in selling the figurines. But it also raises questions about the rise of the antihero in American film and TV and has spawned debate over when children can begin to understand and assimilate more complex moral lessons.
Based on the mega-hit TV show on AMC – about a chemistry teacher who begins to cook crystal meth to make ends meet – the toy line features figurines of the two main characters. One holds either a gun or a tray of crystal meth, and the other wears a hazmat suit and gas mask as a protection against the poisonous fumes produced during cooking. Accessories include a duffel bag filled with bank notes and a small bag for the tiny blue crystals.
"I was very shocked and appalled," Susan Schrijver, who has started a petition on Change.org, told "Today." "I just think they need to look at their vision and values, as they call them."
Toys "R" Us has released a statement saying “the product packaging clearly notes that the items are intended for ages 15 and up” and the figures “are located in the adult action figure area of our stores.”
Ms. Schrijver acknowledges that she likes "Breaking Bad" and that it's fine for the toys to be sold by e-retailers or adult novelty stores that are not frequented by children. But she argues that Toys "R" Us claims to be a family-friendly store, so its obligations are different.
Others note how Toys "R" Us has long marketed itself.
"In the '80's, they had a slogan, ‘Where a kid can be a kid.’ They wanted Toys 'R' Us to feel like a safe space," says Andrew Cullison, director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at Depauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "If you look at their mission statement today, they make it clear that they are focused primarily on helping parents raise children.... Their website includes as its first customer promise, 'The broadest selection of products to help kids and babies develop, learn, and be safe.' "
"It's the way they, themselves, market themselves and explicitly make promises to consumers that makes this problematic," he adds.
But Toys "R" Us has its defenders, too, and a counter petition has been launched.
“Heck it can even be argued that Pac-man promotes overeating if you want it bad enough," writes Davysockrocker at the Toyark.com, a website for toy collectors. "The point is this woman is expecting this store to help raise her kids, by putting her wants above anyone else's."
But "Breaking Bad" is not just any toy line, say some observers. Other toy products have easy-to-digest storylines about the struggle between good and evil, which typically involve good conquering evil, notes Professor Cullison
"I don't see any similar message for children in the 'Breaking Bad' storyline," he says. "It would be difficult for children to appreciate the moral decay of this person without having seen the show. What they are most likely aware of is that he is a school teacher who is getting rich by quitting his job, making, and selling drugs."
Yet at a time when antiheroes like Darth Vader and Spider-Man's Venom have become marketable characters for children, even the classic story line between good and evil is becoming blurred.
"Without succumbing to a knee-jerk reaction in either direction, I think this is a debate that adult action-figure collectors should embrace," writes Blue Marvel on the Toyark. "I have always laughed quietly about some of the comic characters being marketed to our children. Wolverine is a wanton murderer, yet he’s packaged as a hero (or anti-hero…you pick)."
The episode is valuable because it highlights a key disconnect in society between the ethical values we promote and the entertainment we choose, says Ronald Hill, a professor of marketing and law at Villanova School of Business who specializes in ethics.
"Drugs are tied into an underground economy that promotes values that seem antithetical to our national call to work hard, save money, raise a family, pay taxes, and advance community," he says. "While we are happy to be voyeurs and peek into the lives of such degenerates through programs such as 'Breaking Bad,' we do not want its inherent perspective on life to come into the mainstream. Thus, our ethical values seem able to overlook one societal problem while casting judgment on another."
[Editor's note: Susan Schrijver's name was misspelled in the original.]