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Toy Stores Are In On the Secret: Spying Is Hot

April 22, 2001|PETER JENSEN | BALTIMORE SUN

From Beijing to your local movie theater, spies and espionage are big right now. Only one organization had the intelligence capabilities (not to mention James Bond-like luck) to see this coming: the toy industry.

Been inside your neighborhood toy store lately? There's no shortage of spy-spawned toys on the shelf--from microcameras and fingerprint kits to eavesdropping microphones and code books. Until a few months ago, they might have looked like charming anachronisms in the post-Cold War era.

But that was before veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen was accused of being a Russian spy, or 50 Russian diplomats were kicked out of the United States or a downed Navy surveillance plane with 24 Americans on board was held by the Chinese.

Add to that a hit family movie, "Spy Kids," about a family of gadget-loving secret agents, and suddenly spies are hot and so are toys modeled after them.

"There's something attractive to young children about collecting secrets," says Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State University, who writes on toys and popular culture. "Someone in the toy business is probably thinking about coming out with a spy plane right now."

Long before "Spy Kids" started setting box-office records (with a $26.5 million gross its first week of release), the toy industry had started taking notice of spy technology.

Wild Planet, a San Francisco-based toy manufacturer, launched a line of tech-laden spy gear in 1998 and now dominates the niche market. This fall, it's introducing four new products: a spy door alarm; a head-mounted spy telescope and light; a listening device attached to sunglasses; and binoculars with a pop-up light to see in the dark.

"Our spy line evolved from our existing tech gear like walkie-talkies and metal detectors, and now they're our bestsellers," says Jim Garber, Wild Planet's marketing director. "Spies are no longer about Navy SEALs taking out 20 terrorists, and it's more about surveillance and trying to get information."

The toys generally are geared to children ages 6 to 12.

"I like kids running around with spy cameras but not with [guns], not with what's going on in schools," says Eric Compton, director of merchandising for Zainy Brainy, a specialty toy retailer with 188 stores. "I find the trend encouraging."

Stevanne Auerbach, a child psychologist and author of the "Dr. Toy" column and books, says she also sees benefits to the renewed interest in spy toys--as a nonviolent and possibly educational pursuit that taps into a child's love of secrets.

"The downside, I suppose, is that this can build on kids' fears or anxieties about life," says Auerbach, who is based in San Francisco. "It could also produce some obnoxious behavior. But if it's done in good-natured fun, and the kids don't get overly engrossed in it, it's probably OK."

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