The Washington Post
September 2, 1984, Sunday, Final Edition
Toys With Double the Fun;
High-Tech Robots Have Split Personalities
BYLINE: By Sari Horwitz, Washington Post Staff Writer
SECTION: Business & Finance; G1
LENGTH: 1724 words
Hit the deck, G.I. Joe.
Run for cover, Cabbage Patch kids.
And yes, Michael Jackson dolls, beat it.
GoBots and Transformers are invading America. They’re taking over kids’ minds, moving into the nation’s living rooms and invading the shelves of toy stores across the country.
Tonka Corp.’s GoBots and Hasbro Industries Inc.’s Transformers are colorful metal and plastic “2-in-l” robot toys. They’re made in Japan, range from about $3 to about $29 and are promoted as “male-action figures” – dolls for boys.
With a few intricate twists and turns, the robots can be reshaped into sports cars, trucks, helicopters, fighter jets, trains, tanks, motorcycles, cassette recorders and guns, and then back again.
They’re the hottest new high-tech toys of the year.
Just ask Josh Levy, a six-year-old, erudite action-toy aficionado who obviously appreciates the finer points of marketing these sleek new toys.
“GoBots and Transformers are terrific!” said Levy, who lives in Bethesda. “They’re really well-made, and they’re two toys in one. It’s not hard to put them together. So, I think they’re going to be around for a long time.”
Levy is one of millions of kids across the country who are being swept up by the GoBot/Transformer phenomenon.
“It’s the year of the robot in the toy industry,” said Paul Valentine, leisure-time analyst at Standard & Poor’s.
Tonka, based in Minneapolis and best-known for its motorless trucks, expects to sell 15 million of its GoBots this year. GoBots hit the store shelves in January, and by August they were ranked as the third-best-selling toy of the month by Toy & Hobby World, one of the toy industry’s trade magazines.
Hasbro, of Pawtucket, R.I., is known best for its G.I. Joe. Advance orders for the company’s Transformer toys already exceed those of any other nonelectric toy in the industry’s history, said Stephen D. Hassenfeld, Hasbro’s chairman. Transformers reached toy stores in May, and by the end of July Hasbro already had shipped 3 million of them.
Hasbro expects the phenomenal success of the toys so far to help boost its revenue to $400 million or more this year, Hassenfeld reported at the company’s annual meeting in June. He said Hasbro earnings for the first half of this year alone are expected to exceed the $15 million total of 1983.
Each of the two manufacturers predicts that its GoBots or Transformers will have the most successful first year ever for a new toy. The toy robots already are threatening to make the record $60 million sales of Coleco Industries’ Cabbage Patch dolls look like coleslaw. Both Hasbro and Tonka say they have each received orders of more than 00 million for the toy robots, more than their Japanese plants can produce.
And retailers report that GoBots and Transformers are selling out faster than they can get them on the shelves.
“They’re selling like hotcakes,” said a saleswoman at an FAO Schwarz toy store in Georgetown.
“We couldn’t buy nearly all the GoBots and Transformers we wanted,” said John Hall, manager of Lowen’s toy store in Bethesda. “There’s no way we’ll have enough for Christmas. If anyone has bought too many GoBots or Transformers, they should bring them to us and we’ll exchange them for other toys.”
Some stores even have asked Tonka to quit advertising GoBots because demand is so high they’re forced to turn potential customers away, a company spokesman said.
The success of GoBots comes at a good time for Tonka. Pretax losses from continuing operations soared from $3.4 million in 1982 to $4.5 million in 1983. Tonka was slow to diversify from its basic toy truck line and was hurt by persistent start-up problems at its new plants in El Paso, Tex., and neighboring Juarez, Mexico.
In February, Tonka dismissed its former chief financial officer, Martin LeBus, saying he had invested $2 million of the company’s funds, apparently improperly, in a firm that went out of business. Tonka was then forced to add an after-tax $1.34 million write-off to its 1983 loss on operations, and its stock price dropped $3.75 to $23.12.
But the GoBot success has revived Tonka’s stock price. It was $30 a share in early March and closed Friday at $38.84, below its peak of $46.75 in early August.
Meanwhile, in the first six weeks after Hasbro’s Transformers hit America in May, retailers reported the toys sold out as fast as they could stock them.
Hasbro’s Transformers were developed by Takara Co., and the Tonka GoBots are made by Bandai Co. Ltd., both leading Japanese toy makers. Bandai sold between 10 million and 20 million of its toys over the past three years in Japan, Europe and Australia, where the robots have been a great hit. Bandai introduced the toys – then called Machine Men – here in 1983, but they languished on the shelves for a year before Tonka bought the marketing rights.
Tonka says the problem was that the Japanese manufacturer didn’t effectively market its toys with a story line.
“The Japanese weren’t successful because they were unfamiliar with the U.S. market,” said Raymond E. McDonald, Tonka’s director of marketing. “They weren’t prepared to support the introduction of the line in the same way as Tonka. And they failed to develop a story line.
"We provide the names and the information, and the kids run with it,” McDonald said.
The story line goes like this: There are good GoBots and bad GoBots, and they are all from the planet GoBotron in a distant galaxy. Good GoBots are led by Leader-1, who can turn into an F-14 fighter plane. The enemy GoBots have just escaped from prison and are out to invade Earth. Their leader is Cy-Kill, who can be reshaped into an ominous-looking motorcycle.
To disguise themselves, each of the bad GoBots has taken a shape familiar to earthlings – a car, a plane, a cassette player. Their most fearsome weapon is Zod, a mechanical monster shaped like a lurching alligator, with moving jaws and an appetite for good GoBots.
But not to fear … the good, “mighty” GoBots discovered the enemy plot, and they’ve come to earth similarly disguised as “mighty vehicles.” Their supreme weapon is the GoBot Command Center, a mobile fortress that can turn into a vehicle and into a Star Wars-style land walker. It comes complete with a revolving head, an alarm sound system and chromatic “scanners” for identifying enemy GoBots.
There are 24 kinds of regular GoBots; they stand about 4 inches tall and sell for about $3.50. In addition, there are six Super GoBots that are five inches tall and sell for about $10.00. The robots are geared to children ages 5 to 11.
Hasbro’s Transformers also have a story line of good and evil robots warring for control. Transformers are either Heroic Autobots (robots that turn into cars or trucks) or Evil Decepticons (robots that turn into guns, planes or cassettes). They come in 27 different models with names such as Frenzy, Ravage, Bluestreak and Optimus Prime. They sell for prices ranging from $3 to $29.
Each Transformer comes with a biographical card and a Tech Specs chart, which rates its strength, speed and skills. The specifications can be deciphered using a special decoder found in each package.
One Decepticon called Soundwave looks like a portable tape-cassette player until it’s unfolded to form a robot, whose story-line motto is “Cries and screams are music to my ears.”
“We’ve been told that little kids try to transform the evil Decepticons into good-guy Autobots – that’s encouraging for the world of tomorrow,” said a Hasbro spokeswoman.
It’s not clear which company’s line of robot action figures will be most successful at capturing kid’s hearts in this latest extension of the toy wars.
“It’s hard for me to believe that Hasbro can ship more than we can ship,” said Tonka’s McDonald. He noted that GoBots reached the market before Transformers and that Tonka’s Japanese supplier is a larger company, both of which should help Tonka outpace Hasbro, he believes.
But Hassenfeld is equally confident that Transformers will be the leader by the end of the year. “I think we’ll ship $75 million to $80 million,” he said. Based on his review of Takara’s plans for the line, Hassenfeld said Transformers will “have more staying power.” A spokeswoman for the company attributes that staying power to the wide variety of robot models offered by Hasbro. “Kids will keep coming back to buy more,” she said.
Both Tonka and Hasbro plan to spend about $8 million each this year to advertise the new high-tech “male-action” figures. In addition, Tonka is syndicating a five-part GoBot television show in October, produced by Hanna-Barbera. Hasbro will run a three-part miniseries featuring its Transformers in September, produced by Sunbow Production Inc.
Both toy companies have robot-theme comic books and broad-based product licensing programs. GoBots and Transformers will appear soon on watches, books, party goods, sneakers, balloons, children’s socks, Halloween costumes, mugs, cups, plates, bowls, jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts, stationary, swimwear, umbrellas, sunglasses, headbands, backpacks, lunchboxes, belts, earmuffs, scarves, kites, pencils, pens, billfolds, walkie-talkies, clock radios and underwear.
Some companies are following Tonka’s and Hasbro’s lead with various 2-in-1 robot figures, many of them modeled after Transformers and GoBots.
In addition, other companies are spinning out toys with the robot theme, including Milton Bradley’s robotic building set, Tomy Corp.’s Starrions and CBS Ideal’s Roboforce.
Author and robot enthusiast Robert Malone believes playing with robots is good for children. “There’s something magical about children’s fascination with robotics,” said Malone, curator of a robot exhibit at the American Craft Museum in New York, who has been on a promotion tour for Tonka. “It’s as if they really do sense that this is the future and they want very much to be part of it.”
Stephen Shank, president of Tonka, believes the popularity of his company’s GoBots centers on their “Rubik’s Cube quality.”
A Hasbro spokeswoman called the new toy robots “a step beyond the G.I. Joe or Masters of the Universe. They conceal, reveal.”
That quality is part of the attraction for Levy.
“From these robots and stuff, I’ve learned to never trust anything from its appearance,” Levy said. “Because things are just not always as they seem.”
GRAPHIC: Picture 1, Josh Levy, 6, of Bethesda plays with Tonka’s GoBot Command Center, which can be turned into a spaceship. By Larry Morris – The Washington Post; Picture 2, Tape recorder becomes a villainous robot in Hasbro’s Soundwave Decepticon “2-in-1’ robot toy. By Kathy Jungjohann – The Washington Post; Tonka’s Crasher Robot Race Car and Road Ranger Robot Long Haul. By Harry Naltchayan – The Washington Post
Copyright 1984 The Washington Post