The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
June 30, 1986, Monday, Home Edition
Business; Part 4; Page 1; Column 1; Financial Desk
HEADLINE: S. J. DIAMOND: MARKETING TO CHILDREN RAISES BIG
BYLINE: By S. J. DIAMOND
February and June this year, Mattel Toys gave away thousands
of cans of Slime -- a neon-green gelatinous goop that's just
one accessory in the endless series of Masters of the Universe
figures, vehicles, animals and buildings. Kids love it "cause
it's yicky," says Ramsey Bitar, 3, of Los Angeles. He
puts it in his Slime Pit -- at $12, one of the cheaper outbuildings
in the Masters category -- and then, he says, "I slime
all the little people."
isn't a new product. Seven years ago, Mattel sold 10 million
cans of it as a novelty. It was brought out of retirement
this January for the Masters series -- a line that started
with six-inch He-Man figures in 1982 and is now, according
to Mattel, in almost 70% of American homes with boys aged
4 to 10.
didn't exactly give away Slime. Until June, Ramsey and all
the other kids who used up the can that came with their Slime
pits couldn't buy more. They could only get another can as
a "free" gift when they purchased two $6 Masters
figures, or, of course, another Slime Pit. "All gone,
you go get more Slime," says Ramsey, "but you have
to buy two men and you don't want them!"
This innovative little marketing gambit had parents muttering
for months. As promotions go, it seems unusual: "They're
positioning it as a bonus, clouding the issue," says
Michael Kamins, assistant professor of marketing at USC. "It's
not really a bonus, and as a strategy, it's manipulative.
You only need a can of Slime, and you have to buy two figures
to get it."
result was some profiteering: In spite of the "Not for
Sale" label, some retailers sold their free cans at prices
running from $2.99 to almost $10. "It should be a simple
matter to make these refills available at a nominal cost,"
grumbled one father. Another was more annoyed that the Slime
Pit package said nothing about the availability of refills:
"When you buy your Slime Pit," he says, "you
expect to be able to get more Slime."
whole discussion surprises Mattel, which only wanted "to
build momentum on Masters figures," says David Capper,
until recently Mattel's group director of product management,
and the company didn't think the two-figure purchase onerous,
having originally "talked about making it three or four."
Besides, Capper adds: "It's such a short-term promotion."
Things Should Be Sold
Superficially, the debate seems unimportant -- these are,
after all, only kids and the product in question only Slime.
But it calls up interesting questions -- questions asked less
often now than in the consumerist 1970s -- of how things should
be sold, particularly to children, which really means promoted
to children and bought by their parents, often under pressure.
Slime Pit and its Slime are like the age-old razor-and-razor-blades
principle: Sell the razor and make the consumer buy blades
forever. But with Slime, a twist was added: Suddenly the owner
couldn't get new "blades" without making another
"tie-ins," too, are a tradition -- sometimes premiums
(purse-size perfumes with each cologne purchase), sometimes
specially purchased goods sold at cost to consumers who made
other purchases. Even the toy industry has occasional mail-in
specials on items not otherwise available -- Kenner Products'
"free figure offers," for example, such as a free
Clark Kent for buying two $4 Super Heroes.
however, the incidental bonus product may be "the one
you really want," says Brooke Warrick, a consultant at
SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute). What's more, he
says, the Slime is not incidental but integral to the Slime
Pit: "They usually don't make you buy something only
to get an item you need to complete something else."
might simply refuse, of course, to go along with the promotion,
although, ironically, if Slime were a nationally advertised
adult product -- with similar restrictions on obtaining necessary
refills -- they'd probably do more than refuse. Children,
however, are different, or so says one side of a debate that
has raged since the world of Barbie revolutionized toy selling
in 1959 -- dolls, clothes, props, playsets, all (dread words)
"sold separately" -- and television revolutionized
were made the industry's salesmen, bombarded directly by what
Gerald Lesser, Harvard professor of education and developmental
psychology, calls "the visual equivalent of a simple
declarative sentence -- 'Here's a product, remember it' --
so that if they see it, it'll be instantly recognizable. Kids
don't have any money: The pressure must be on the parent."
have no resistance either, so the pressure is instinctive
and considerable. "Children are unique consumers and
not just short grown-ups," says Rita Weisskoff, director
of the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of
Better Business Bureaus in New York. "They're not as
prepared to make judicious decisions."
a while, parents fought back, organizing against war toys,
sexist toys and unsafe toys. In 1968, Action for Children's
Television was formed to fight against unfair hard-sell advertising
on children's TV, and even against the content of the shows,
and for a while in the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission,
and therefore the networks, advertising agencies and toy companies
consumer agitation isn't "in" this decade, the FTC
is less active and there are problems more important than
children's toys, and certainly more than Slime. There are
only occasional complaints about marketing to children, very
little public discussion of what's being sold children and
how. And the Slime promotion may be the least of it.