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Toy Unfair? Did toy companies do right by fan sites?


As comic-cons become bigger and bigger pop culture events, one things is true: Media members like to complain about things. Nasty publicists, poor access, no Wi-Fi, crappy coffee in the press room. The same is true of the toy sphere, and at this year’s Toy Fair, the toy media felt they got the short end of the pogo stick. It was definitely an odd situation. As big companies rely on fan media to get the word out about their products to the lucrative collector markets, the way they do it is being constantly reinvented.

My own relationship to the toy world is a tenuous one: I’ve been going to the Toy Fair for years (starting back when it was where Eataly is now) and it isn’t a main focus of this site, but I always have an item or two. Before the internet, there was no such thing as the toy media, and the only way to get into showrooms was to finagle some kind of tour with each company — which wasn’t always easy. Over the years, getting into the big companies — Hasbro and Mattel — was sometimes an arduous process, with no “fan days” at all.

As the toy media and hobby segment of the business grew and grew, eventually the “hobby media event” was born. Back in the day Jakks had the most fantastic events — especially for their WWE line. They’d bring in a wrestler — anyone from Mick Foley to Terry Funk — and give away great exclusives. Lego also had fun times — receptions with actual food and people dressed up like Anakin Skywalker.

This year the whole enterprise was weird. Things kicked off with Hasbro on Saturday. Whereas last year there were perhaps 50 or 60 people — all the usual toy site suspects — this time there were more like 150, most of whom were, as far as I could tell, weekend toy bloggers. Everyone was herded into an auditorium for two and a half hours listening to brand managers unveil the Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers, and GI Joe lines. I think the intent was to be informative but in actuality it was…..long. No food or drink was allowed and if, like me, you forgot to eat a hearty lunch beforehand, it became a bit grueling. There were even two in memoriam sections — one for influential toy photographer Gianni Lopergolo, who recently died of ALS and another touching tribute to artist Clément Sauvé who did the lovely character designs for the animated G.I. Joe Renegades. It’s not that these were not fitting, just that…well, it was a long afternoon.

What happened next — a scrum to shoot the toys in the show room — did not please the elite toy media, as Beat pal Paul Nomad reported:

Now we are made to wait in the cold til they are ready for us (a treat that was coupled with snow this year..the kind falling from the sky not still sitting on the ground) and then ushered into another waiting area where somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 “reporters” check their coats. I use douchey air quotes because some of these guys are shooting the show room with a camera phone. This means those of us that came to do serious coverage have to wait while someone slowly focuses, takes a shot, checks it, deems it unworthy, deletes and tries again. They also have no sense of decorum as we all que up waiting for our shot at a busy section like Star Wars..or Transformers..or anything at Hasbro…and these asshats either walk right past you or start in from the other end, whipping out their video phone to do an ultra slow pan of each shelf. Agony.

Now you can call this whining press entitlement, but to be honest, covering the toy beat is hard. How do you write about action figures that just sit on the shelf, anyway? The toy press traditionally comes in and shoots zillions of pictures of toys that they’ll be given media shots of on the way out (in theory). They are all the same toys and most of the shots look the same, but it’s the only thing you have to set yourself apart.

After this long afternoon with no food and just bottles of Hasbro water to keep you going — upon leaving, you were given a Transformers poster. That’s it. Not even a media kit on a CD or thumb drive (which were given out in the past.) “Do you have any media kits on USB drive” I asked the lady as I checked out. “No, we’ll email you a link later on,” said the lady. Of course, there was actually a pile of USB drives sitting on the counter behind her. I’m used to this sort of denial but it does put you in your place — and as a bit of a Sunday toy blogger myself, I really had no right to complain.

However, I did get a bit peeved later on when I got the link and discovered it was to an FTP site that wasn’t even an FTP site — meaning that instead of being able to just download all the images in folders, I would have to sit there and individually download all the giant JPGs for the Thor and Captain America stuff. That was a lot more time than I wanted to invest — seriously, I can see not getting a USB drive, but how much does a CD media kit cost?

The Hasbro people meant well with the event, clearly, but I’m told they realized everyone fell sleep somewhere between Kit Fisto and Miko and afterwards were apologizing and asking how to improve the event.

Toy media ire was raised by two other factors. The main one is that all the toy news was released early to mainstream media sites like USA Today and io9 (I bet they got the thumb drive.) Now that nerd news is mainstream, there’s nothing special to getting covered on Raving Toy Maniac for a Hasbro. Of course, this is how the world works, but when it’s the fan sites that covered all this stuff and got people so excited that eventually USA Today wanted to cover it, it has to be a kick in the bollocks.

The other factor was more surprising. Word quickly spread among the toy corps that earlier in the day it had been “Mommy blogger morning” at Hasbro — the influential women who recommend products for actual children. There were far fewer mommy bloggers, they had the run of the place without being jostled, and –most galling of all – upon leaving, they were given giant bags full of products. Or as Have Sippy Will Travel put it:

Just got back from Day 1 at NY Toy Fair. It is HUGE!!!! I am SHOT, ladies and gentlemen! I have tons of photos, and I also have a Cold Stone Creamery contest for you- but right now I need dinner and a shower! I will either post tonight, or tomorrow when I get back from work.

This is sort of a “Mommy Bloggers Ruined Toy Fair!” type story, but I can see the point of veteran toy sites being peeved by not only being lumped in with total newbs but scooped by people with sippy cups.

The next day, Sunday, started with an even more brutal ordeal, Lego’s 7-9 am press event. Anyone who knows the Beat knows that mornings are our enemy, but Lego does give away cool toys so the alarms were set and we heroically sallied forth at 6:45 am. Oh beautiful mysterious morning world! People we know had to get up at 4:30 to get there. Lego did the right thing and offered coffee, juice and bagels and just kind of let people run around taking pictures. I would have appreciated more demos of the products, but again, I’m a part-timer. Lego spokespeople said the early morning start was because it’s the only time they would be able to give media free run of the showroom. I can’t help but think that it could be done at the end of the day just as well but…well it’s Lego’s call. Legos are really cool and that’s a fact.

After imbibing a ton of coffee in the press room (which was pretty lavish by comics show standards, with comfy chairs and a limited amount of food) we trekked around the show floor until 3 when the Mattel event kicked off. Once again, tons of people scrambling for identical photos of toys. At least they gave you coffee and soda at this one, and afterwards you were allowed to visit the rest of the Mattel showroom to look at things which, to my mind, were more interesting, like the latest Barbies and a baby proof iPhone case that doubled as a teething ring, or some such. The takeaways included some nice toys but no press kit (Although I’m sure you could ask for one–I didn’t try.)

Once again, I’m sure that everyone reading this is rolling their eyes at this as another example of press entitlement, but I definitely understand the frustrations I heard. Getting Hasbro and Mattel to acknowledge the collector market hasn’t always been easy but now they absolutely cater to it with tons of exclusives and chase variants and Comic-Con exclusives (many with bigger runs than stuff you see at the toy store) and so on. It’s a real money-maker for toy companies. And it’s the long-running toy sites that built and nurtured that audience with their coverage, even if that coverage isn’t anything that would win any journalism awards. With the vast influx of interest in all things nerd, everyone with a blogger account — which is everyone — feels entitled to access which perhaps has not been earned.

To get brutally honest about things, it’s also a matter of valuable toy exclusives and the eBay after market. Running any kind of specialty website is not the world’s most lucrative enterprise, and getting something to sell to help defray travel costs isn’t an unreasonable expectation. A bonus, not a right, but I can understand the grumbling on that account, as well.

Anyway, I’m more of an observer on this score than a participant. No one was mean to me, or unprofessional, and I think everyone meant well. My Toy Fair coverage is a bonus, not a matter of life or death. The toy press is not a slick bunch, and it definitely includes some oddballs that I wouldn’t want to deal with as a publicist year after year. But perhaps the people who do it well deserve a little more exclusivity, not less, in a world of intense competition.

  1. I attended a few years ago, and my complaint was that companies had space on the floor, but the general attendee couldn’t visit.

    The biggest offender was Lego. A big yellow box up front, and impossible to visit without an appointment (and good luck getting one of those). No promotional material, just a few monitors showing off the Lego Batman video game and a few other videos.

    I’m a bit surprised that Hasbro or Mattel did not sponsor a reception with their license partners, allowing DC or Marvel to invite their “friends” to participate.

  2. I am (and have been) in the Toy Industry for over 10-15 years. While the main Toy Fair (in the states) is held in the late fall in Dallas, the New York Toy Fair is still mainly for Toy Companies to meet with buyers and sell products.

    IMO, the problem over the last decade or so, especially with the advent of the internet and Toy Collectors (and the multitude of blogs covering it all) is that the public is misinformed about the New York Toy Fair.

    It is not meant for the public. Never has been. Many of the smaller companies that appear (and remember, each company has to pay a pretty price to join and to acquire a space) really need this showcase to meet with as many buyers and sell as much as they can. For many, this is their be-all end-all for the year.

    Toy Fair is not just another media or comic convention.

  3. Richard: true, this is a business show, but the reality is that any media=based industry — as toys are — are now subject to the consumer/internet news cycle of 5 seconds.

    I don’t really have a skiff in this race, but I do see it as an example of an internerd-driven culture clash.

  4. “Once again, I’m sure that everyone reading this is rolling their eyes at this as another example of press entitlement”

    Um…ya think? My schadenfreude levels just spiked off the charts reading this.

  5. I used to have some friends who ran a toy news site and it’s a rough deal. The bigger toy companies don’t really offer that much help and it’s hard to even get news and pictures at all. It’s harder than people realize to run a respectable hobby news site.

  6. It really sounds like they’re too lax when it comes to granting credentials. This has been an issue with many industries since the “rise of the blogger”. From the blogging side of the things, there’s the race to post the images first. I get that. It’s good for hit counts. That said, they really are just showing the same pictures of the same items.

    The New York Toy Fair has been Mecca for toy collectors for quite some time, but a lot of that was due to the fact that it was closed to the public. Outside of the occasional 48 Hours special, the man on the street really didn’t get to know a lot about what went on over the course of those few days in NY. If toy companies really wanted to foster better relationships with bloggers, they could just send links/media kits directly to them, either before or during the show, instead of dealing with everyone in NYC. After all, every blog’s just showing the same stuff – at least these would be TF-sanctioned.

    I went to Toy Fair back in 2007. While I wasn’t a blogger, I was one of those people who probably didn’t need to be there. I’ll just say that it’s pretty clear who IS and ISN’T supposed to be there. They will treat you as such. You will stick out. If it was that noticeable 4 years ago, I wonder why TIA hasn’t done anything to rectify that now. Plainly put, there are way too many people going to NYTF who aren’t supposed to/don’t need to be there. It’s not an auto show or comic con, even if they share the same venue. As long as credentials are being granted as-is, people are just going to keep taking advantage of it.

  7. “But perhaps the people who do it well deserve a little more exclusivity, not less, in a world of intense competition.”

    Well there’s your problem. Stop thinking of it as competition, get your pictures, do your rounds, post to your site and get over your collective selfs. It’s not about competition, it’s about the readers of those various sites wanting to hear about Toy Fair and the news through the perspective of the person in attendance. They don’t give a toot if it comes from the exclusive, the veterans, the elite, etc. Sometimes – and maybe this is hard to swallow – sometimes they want to hear about this news from people who are just like them.

    The larger more established sites may want to get their info first, but it’ll still take time to reach the masses as it drifts down from the “veteran’s” high and mighty pedestals.

  8. Trust me there’s nothing high and mighty about trying to maintain a successful, self sustaining or..dare they dream..profit generating collectibles’ news site. I attempted this for 7 years and its the surest way to suck a love for these plastic animals out of you. Today, its even worse. Today there are next to no after parties as companies just don’t have the cash, so even a shot of defering some diner spending and unwinding with free drinks is over. Very few places will ask you to wait 15 to 20 minutes past your scheduled time and when you get to work, you’ll often have to slide out of the way for another 20 mins as the dreaded buyers from Toys RUs come through turning an hour long shoot (if done prproperly) into 2 and a half. As stated, there are few parting gifts or perks for anyone, some of whome fly in and have to pay for a hotel on top of everything else. Do we do we choose this special torture? Of course we do, especially if we’ve been doing it over 10 years. The kick in the ass is the level playing ground, putting the 10 yr vets up against just about anyone with the knowhow in getting into the show and scoring invites to the” nerd herd” events. Meanwhile MTV, USAToday and anyone else seemingly impressive enough gets early access to the show floor, private tours and advance exclusives, assuring that you no longer need run to get coverage of any hot new figure line as all the scoops are scooped. Having covered films for a while now, I can say without hesitation that its far easier to get news and work with film reps that it is to cover toys.

    So in closing..yes I get that the toy companies are there to sell the damn toys and i’m grateful for any time they allow me. Yes I know mtv covering toys means we get more of the stuff we love as sales increase. There’s just got to be a better way man! The year I don’t call toy fair self imposed torture, you’ll know we are there.

  9. I agree with Mikael.
    I attended Hasbro’s event last year and this year. There were *maybe* ten percent more attendees this year. In any case, the auditorium was still less than 2/3 full. Also, it wasn’t snowing outside. ::eye roll::

    I don’t know who Paul Nomad is, but he sounds like a douche. He’s whining that he has to wade through a bunch of “unprofessional” bloggers? Well if he’s such a big deal, he should have gone through on a press tour with AP and NBC news. The event is for FAN PRESS. Pretty much nobody there is a pro. People don’t have 2,000 cameras and a suitcase of equipment to cover this stuff. They’re *not* professionals. That’s the POINT.

    And why can’t mommy bloggers have an event too? By insinuating that they shouldn’t be given attention, you sort of go against the main point of your article.

  10. This was my first Toy Fair and I have to say I was definitely disappointed with the treatment of press. I understand these companies want/need to sell to buyers on the floor but you’d assume they’d also want as much press exposure as they can get. Walking the floor with a fellow journalist got aggravating after the first five times we told a rep we were press and got the, “Oh” response.

    The Hasbro event was pretty brutal in my opinion, I wasn’t expecting all that either. The memorials just made me feel uncomfortable. I know some people in the audience probably knew those guys but I’m guessing the majority didn’t and wanted to get on to doing their jobs, i.e. getting to see and write about the actual toys, faster.

  11. I used to go to ToyFair in the early to mid-90’s but gave it up as internet coverage developed. It has always been tough to navigate for many reasons, so I’m sympathetic. Yet as I read this piece, all I could hear in my head was:

    “Wahhh! Wahhh!”

    Sounds rough! The buffet wasn’t to your liking AND you had to wait to get the handouts that you’ll sell for a profit*?!? The NERVE of those bad old toy companies!

    NO trade shows (not just nerd events) are wining and dining customers or press like they did 5 or 10 years ago. Get used to it. Eat something at home before you go and bring a snack (no one is going to throw you out if you quietly eat an energy bar).

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone is interested in how a reporter forgot to use common sense before they left the house – that’s not the story that gets people to a site (and keeps them coming back).

    ToyFair is a hybrid event for buyers & press (note that it’s buyers first), it’s not geared toward either but both.

    ToyFair has always had limited press access and NO public access. You can’t just roll up and expect to walk in. They have always set up appointments.

    NBC or CNN will always get preferential treatment because they are the big dogs – they can reach an audience exponentially larger than any nerdsite and this is the only time of the year when they report on this stuff (except for a top ten list at Xmas or a recall).

    That said, many nerdsites have developed relationships with brand managers and others at the toy companies and they typically get scoops all year round. Sucking up to some of those morons can’t be pleasant and it is work, but it has helped them get scoops and build a readership.

    A lot of the toy sites that are now very popular were likely started by fans who never dreamed of getting in. I don’t know anyone who makes a living off a toy news site – but they do spend hundreds of dollars traveling to the show, getting hotel rooms and all the other expenses one incurs while staying in NYC. I assume you took the subway or walked.

    Some Mommybloggers sell a lot of product. They are like mini-Oprahs, in that they can anoint something and their followers will then mindlessly consume. They are also easier for the PR folks and toy company handlers to relate to than 40+ year old nerds losing their shit over Thundercats figures. That’s why Mommys are served. There is no Toynerdsite equivalent.

    Furthermore, no one from TRU, Target, Wal-Mart or any large retailer is there stepping on your showroom time. Those buyers all go to Dallas or have local ToyFairs set up near their headquarters.

    In Egypt the journalists are getting raped and punched in the face for their stories. No one expects nerdpress to endure that sort of treatment, but no one wants to hear whining about the amenities, either. If trade shows and cons like SDCC are too much “roughing it”, don’t go. Plenty of other sites are covering these events and delivering stories& news rather than griping about the atmosphere, length of the presentation or their sense of entitlement.

    * nice edit, BTW

  12. Just a note first off..wrote my reply on the way home n half awake, so sorry for not being entirely coherent.

    That said, I stepped aside no less than than 5 times for the toys r us buyers

    Also, the one main thing to take away from this is bigger sites like The Beat and the numerous Jill writes for are far bigger than mine and now come away with the opinion they shouldn’t cover the show at all, and that doesn’t benefit anyone.

  13. There never used to be a collector’s day or dedicated collector press events. If you could get in, you had to have an appointment and go through the entire showroom, including all the Barney, Tonka and baby dolls. It took multiple days to get through just the top 6/7 companies.

    So the current set-up, while perhaps not as good as you’d like it to be, is about 10000 times better and more nerd-friendly than it was 15 years ago.

    While I’m surprised (and a little skeptical) about a TRU contingent, I’m not surprised that, even if they roll in unannounced, the buyers for the biggest toy-dedicated retailer in the country take precedence over any blogger or press. Are you?

  14. I would go as far as to say that there should be applications for sites to fill out. Fly by night sites really shouldn’t get in. It’s those sites that the industry is frwoning on and also those sites that are giving wrong information. I know the first day of the even, I saw so many sites posting images and having wrong names and more wrong info that it was worth. I eventually just waited for the more professional sites to get pictures and info before worrying about viewing.

    The New York Toy Fair is an industry event as it was pointed out, but I am also in the idea that it has to allow change. It’s an inductry that’s heavily driven by collectors these days and media tours are necessary. It’s just, again, the lesser sites and blogs shouldn’t be in there to spread their ill informed information.

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