Armagideon Time

On the heels of yesterday’s grab for low-hanging gigglefruit, I must admit a genuine fascination with budget knock-offs of currently popular toy lines. It’s not strong enough to compel me towards seeking out the actual items to own, but the mercenary logic behind their existence falls squarely in my cultural history wheelhouse.

These cheapjack imitators have long been a staple of department store toy aisles (back when such things still existed) and still do a brisk business in dollar stores and other low-end retail establishments, but I’m particularly interested in their roles as perennial filler in the pages of holiday season “Wish Book” catalogs.

As a starry-eyed kid, these thick tomes were holy texts, Bibles of Unbridled Avarice to study with single-minded intensity as one finalized their annual demand of tribute from that Right Jolly Old Elf. Now that I’m older and hipper to the consumer economy jive, it’s easy to pick out certain patterns and methodologies at play on the pages. Nothing is random in the risk-adverse realm of marketing. Every line of copy, page layout, an juxtaposition was implemented for very specific reasons.

Toy manufacturers bank massively on holiday season sales. They effectively support the entire industry. That’s as true for the major players as well as the farm league purveyors of molded plastic diversions — except the latter don’t have the advantage of brand recognition, popular IPs, or huge marketing divisions. The best case scenario for these firms was to coast on the Big Players’ slipstreams, diverting a small slice of a take for themselves.

Holiday catalogs offered a perfect opportunity to ride those coattails. Kids may have salivated over the listings, but adults were the ones doing the actual purchasing. Most of incessant chatter about a plaything du jour tends to get lost on older folks. Yes, parents and maybe a close grandparent or two might gain some basic familiarity about a current obsession by way of brute force osmosis, but kids are fickle and the bewildering crap they ramble about starts to blur together over time.

Often the best that could be managed was a vague awareness about “Pumpkin Patch Babies” or “Sgt. Joe” or “Thunderdogs” or “Hot Box” cars and a general idea what they were kinda-sorta about. If you’re talking about a great-aunt in Sarasota, you probably wouldn’t even get that.

It’s not for nothing that the listings for these knock-offs flitted around the margins for the lines they bit from. Their entire deal was to leverage the befuddlement of adults and a cheaper asking price into a respectable revenue stream. One plastic castle with a skull on it should be as good as another right? Especially when one you went for is ten bucks cheaper and seemed to come with a lot more in the box.

What the hell, the brats are just going to break the thing in two weeks, anyhow.

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4 Responses to “Be careful what you wish for”

  1. Mike Podgor

    Castle Zendo actually looks pretty neat.

  2. Adam Ford

    i want most of these. the irony is the knockoffs go for more than the originals on ebay and such these days. i guess more of em broke so theyre genuinely rarer. theres an argentinian line of heman knockoffs that are literally muld-stolen and mixed up pieces of the original toys that are holy grails in some “collector” communities

  3. Michael Loughlin

    I had Castle Zendo! I loved Castle Zendo! It came with a ton of bendable figures, and the monster bird and two-headed dragon were awesome! The two monsters lasted long after the figures and castle were lost or broken, and were usable with any other action figure line. If I were an action figure collector, I’d actually seek them out.

    I had a handful of transformer knock-offs, including a generic green fighter jet robot that looked like Jetfire. Years later, I realized it must have been a budget version of a Macross figure.

  4. Floyd Lawton

    I had Castle Zendo too! Although the castle long outlived the figures in my case. My older sister worked at McCrory’s a five and dime chain in its last legs in the 80s that was another outlet for these kind of toys.

    This is one of many toys I had that I nevered would have remembered if not for pictures on this blog. There should be a word for it like “nostalgenfruede” or something:-)

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