The politically incorrect language of toys

2014-12-12 06:00

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It’s that time of the year when there’s a frantic rush to buy Christmas gifts, and buying gifts for children has become a tricky task.

Do you buy something educational (which might just backfire as boring), something digital (and risk promoting early digital addiction), or something fun, which in this day and age is inevitably politically incorrect?

In the US in October, Halloween proved to be a bellwether of what is to come for festive season toys. The Ebola crisis spilled over into popular culture and one of the Halloween costumes that flew off the shelves was an imitation hazmat suit. In real life, these impermeable, whole-body suits are essential protective equipment worn when working with hazardous materials, or with diseases like Ebola.

An Ebola-themed display in Dallas in the US during this year’s Halloween celebrations. The health crisis in west Africa spawned a slew of Halloween gimmicks that lacked sensitivity, but were nevertheless hot sellers. Picture: Lm Otero / AP

For Halloween, people not only dressed up as Ebola caregivers, but a few enthusiastic Halloween devotees cordoned off their homes, decorating them as “contaminated Ebola areas”, complete with biohazard bins and yellow caution tape – an extreme form of art imitating life.

Halloween aside, a whole new “germphobe” industry has been spawned in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

Clothing specifically designed to counter the spread of germs in densely populated cities is now on the market just in time for Christmas. Why gift your loved ones with a traditional scarf, when you can give them the gift of hypochondria?

The Scough is a germ- and pollution-filtering face wrap that provides a fashionable alternative to surgical masks and uses the same military-grade technology used by the US’s department of defence in chemical warfare. It contains a carbon filter embedded with silver, which helps to trap, neutralise and kill viruses before they can be inhaled.

But back to toys. The “trend” in selling hazmat suits had already been gaining ground, thanks to the popular TV series Breaking Bad and its lead character, Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine maker.

As part of the show’s merchandising plan, a Walter White action figure, complete with bags of cash and crystal meth as accessories, was created. The arrival of the doll, understandably, was met with outrage from parents, and Toys R Us was forced to remove the dolls from its shelves after one mother, Susan Schrivjer, created an online petition that garnered more than 9?000 signatures.

Toys are now becoming a politically correct labyrinth to navigate, and it’s not just mothers who protest. Earlier this year, the Lego Movie drew criticism for including few female characters, prompting a seven-year-old to write to the CEO of Lego to ask the company to “make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!” The toy company subsequently approved new designs for female scientist, palaeontologist and astronomer characters, proving that you’re never too young to be an activist.

However, while gender activists might be getting younger, introducing technology to toddlers seems to be the latest toy trend.

A Swedish company is now selling Tinitel, “a wearable, voice-controlled phone for kids who are too young to own a smartphone”. My question is this: if your child is too young for a smartphone, why give them a phone in another form? Some parents might be convinced because of the safety net it can provide.

Described as the “world’s smallest mobile phone”, Tinitel has no display and looks like a piece of wearable tech seen in gyms. It comes with a microphone, a speaker and SIM card slot, as well as a small processor, which enables it to function as a basic phone.

Parents connect it to their smartphone via Bluetooth to load numbers and register it with their device. The child can then simply press the button on the Tinitel’s surface and say the name of the person they want to call. They can also receive calls through the device, but only from the numbers loaded by their parents, who can also track the location of their child via their smartphone.

While the Tinitel might not spark debate among parents, a concept toy called New Born Fame is sure to. New Born Fame is for parents who are social-media addicts and are desperate to get their offspring started while still in the cradle.

This “interactive plush toy” looks like a traditional hanging mobile, but the soft toys dangling over the cot are in fact synched to a variety of social-media platforms. If the baby pulls on the small bird, a randomly generated Tweet will be sent out. If the baby pulls the Facebook logo, the baby’s status (and location) is automatically updated. When the camera toy is pulled, the baby will, in essence, take a selfie and upload it to Instagram.

Some parents will find this terribly cute, while others will be horrified. So if you’re buying toys this festive season, tread carefully. Current affairs, gender politics and digital addiction have seeped into the toy stores. The gift of giving has suddenly turned into a moral minefield.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com

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