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They're Making Their Lists . . .

Parenting Magazines, Independent Testers Rank the Year's Best Playthings

November 26, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tyco's remote-controlled Psycho car performs many stunts, but its most impressive is making three influential toy lists this year: Family Fun magazine, Sesame Street Parents magazine and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. The feat almost guarantees a holiday sales spike for the $55 toy from the Mattel Inc., which is aimed at 7- to 10-year-olds.

Writing a wish list or whispering in Santa's ear just won't do anymore. Today, parents and grandparents increasingly base their holiday gift-giving decisions on what the experts say. Several well-known parenting magazines and at least four independent gurus have set themselves up as arbiters of the year's best toys.

For toy manufacturers, the lists can provide thousands of dollars worth of free advertising that can translate into blockbuster sales--witness the craze for Tyco's Tickle Me Elmo in 1996. Toys making the lists are touted on talk shows and local news programs. And the Sesame Street and Family Fun lists end up in the hands of thousands of magazine subscribers.

"The School Bus by Playhut [$30] was a steady seller for us," said Jane Saltzman, marketing vice president of online store EToys. "But as soon as it made the Family Fun list, it became a Top 10 seller day in and day out."

Making a toy list can provide a literal stamp of approval; several list makers allow winners to put stickers on winning products, advertising their status to parents scanning retail shelves in search of fun toys. The Toy Manufacturers Assn. of America, an industry trade group, provides member toy makers with names of lists, and lobbying can be intense.

For publishers, lists help sell magazines because they promise timely information in an easy-to-digest format. The November issues of Family Fun, Child, Parents and Sesame Street Parents devote dozens of pages to "best" toy lists--usually with little overlap among them.

"Last year, the Wall Street Journal called our list the 'Oscars of the toy industry.' We're not going to argue with that," said Heather Gray Keegan, special projects consultant to Family Fun magazine.

Keegan works for Digital Research Inc., a research firm in Maine that created and helps compile Family Fun's yearly list. With the muscle of Walt Disney Co.-owned Family Fun behind it--and a preponderance of heavily promoted, licensed toys such as Hasbro's McDonaldland Happy Meal Girl and Mattel's Bounce Around Tigger--the Family Fun list has become the most-covered list in the media, and the most coveted for toy makers to make.

"Some toy companies are very anxious. They offer to send toys to me personally," Keegan said. "But they know the score. I say, my daughter may like it but it won't necessarily matter. Our toys are all 100% kid-picked by our kid testers."

The toy industry is generally upbeat about the rise of toy lists over the last decade. "The lists have, I think, by and large a positive impact," said David Miller, president of Toy Manufacturers Assn. of America. "But they can't be relied on as a marketing technique. You still have to gain exposure the old-fashioned way, by buying advertising."

When the list makers leverage the media to promote themselves, though, the impact on the winning toys can extend far beyond a particular magazine's subscribers.

"Family Fun makes their [winners] announcements at FAO Schwarz. Joanne Oppenheim [of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio] does a big segment on the 'Today' show every year. In those cases, the lists become more important," said Neil Friedman, president of Mattel's Tyco Preschool Division.

Tyco, which licenses the Sesame Street characters, had an incredible two-year run atop the toy lists in 1996 and 1997. Tickle Me Elmo, which topped Family Fun's list in 1996, became the most-sought-after toy of the year and remains a strong seller at about $30.

Sing 'n Snore Ernie, which topped Family Fun's list last year, had a different fate. After the dust settled from the pre-Christmas hype--which saw speculators trying to get 10 times or more the toy's $30 retail price--Ernie ended up ranking only 13th in overall dollar sales for the year, according to TMA. Tickle Me Elmo was the No. 2 seller for 1997, with the list topped by the fad Tamagotchi Virtual Pets. By this fall, toy chains such as Kay-Bee had discounted Ernie 50% to retail at about $15.

"Not every toy that wins the lists does great," said Friedman. "Some Academy Award films do great at the box office, some don't."

Among the list makers, there is a great deal of argument about whose list is most valid. They trade charges of using unscientific test methods, or opening themselves to corporate influence by taking money from sponsors.

Joanne Oppenheim has a deal with Energizer batteries and Target stores. Her top-toy list is given away in booklet form at Target, with the purchase of two packages of Energizer batteries.

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