Commercialization of Children's Play
COMMERCIALIZATION OF CHILDREN'S PLAY
The term "commercialization of play" is very contentious, referring simultaneously to the transformation of children's playthings industries, and the critique of those industries as alienating children from authentic play. At its root, commercialization refers to the inclusion of playthings into the marketplace. Yet the growth of toy and game production, from a local craft enterprise to a multibillion dollar global marketing powerhouse over the last century, means that this term hardly does justice to the complex web of play merchandising that linked toy and game production with films, TV, advertising, fast food, theme parks, and toy stores. Nor does it explain why the commodification of play activities, rather than the products themselves, has acquired such a degree of disdain among culture critics who are apprehensive about this destructive force eroding children's natural innocence and free play.
This discussion of commercialization therefore focuses on the history of American children's toy and game marketing emphasizing the promotional strategies that have been developed by children's entertainment marketers over the last century. Among these innovations in commercial expansion are techniques for display and pricing of goods, for undertaking the study and tracking of child consumers, and for distribution deals with other children's merchandisers. Synergistic corporate public relations, media promotion and advertising, and the use of media including television programming, product placements, theme parks, and web-marketing have been part of this transformation of children's play industries. In the process, children's play has expanded dramatically as commercialization of play has given new scope and accelerated pace to the global promotion of toys and games.
As this historical overview will suggest, toy and game marketing has been at the heart of the progressive commercialization of children's culture. This major "'restructuring'" of children's global cultural industries has been so pervasive that it is linked to the strangulation of funds for state educational broadcasters, to the deregulation of commercial media, to the growing funding of films through product placements, the preponderance of new thirty-minute toy commercials on TV, and even the rental of advertising space within educational web sites such as NeoPets. American children have become so accustomed to commercial marketing that 30,000 schools receive television broadcasts from satellite as part of the daily curriculum (under the aegis of media education) while the digital media industries collude to produce a video game curriculum for media-savvy children who have grown tired of reading and watching the news on TV. It can already be seen, in the concern about violent video games, that debates about the commercialization of play are growing more intense.
From Play to Toys
Throughout the nineteenth century, while children were increasingly barred from the sphere of industrial work and production, modernizing nations underwent significant transformation in public conceptions of childhood that gave new force and legitimacy to both children's leisure and learning. Indeed, turn-of-the-century conceptions of play were not intimately bound up with toys, nor were toys considered the preferred means for children's socialization. Nineteenth century play became intertwined with children's natural exuberance associated with learning and with release from the tensions of everyday life.
Friedrich Froebel popularized this romantic view of play, and the kindergartens he proposed in 1837 were intended as "spielraum" to help nourish children's natural instincts for imaginative play. The kindergarten was intended to loosen the social and moral control typical of restrictive pedagogies by imbuing education with the freedom of the garden world of childhood innocence. Rudolph Stiener recommended, for the young, only those play activities that explicitly avoided the association of play with the restrictive world of manufactured toys (exploring, gardening, tag, hide and seek, drawing, simple manipulation and crafts):
Small children can be very pleased with simple things, and they sense the caring that goes into creating something for themselves. They can bring a wonderful imaginative world of their own to surround a simple toy.
Celebrated in children's literature too, this romantic sensibility of childhood innocence expressed an absolute faith in free play that needed few toys.
Although very young children were sometimes given rattles and similar toys as much for the benefit of parents as children (they were sometimes called "child quieters"), throughout most of the nineteenth century few toys were available for older children. While most children seldom had time away from the work imposed by adults for play, because child labor was often intermittent, the young found opportunities to play traditional games and to test their physical and mental stamina. Early American children also made their own playthings with whittled sticks, castaway bits of cloth, and wood. They taught each other to make dolls of rags stuffed with straw or out of cornhusks. Animal wastes provided materials for balls and knucklebones and corncobs served as miniature log cabins or forts. Traditional toys such as hoops (from discarded wheels) pushed along the street with a stick survived until the end of the nineteenth century. And, of course, much play required no manufactured props. Children played without toys or board or card games in a wide variety of chasing, racing, hiding, and role playing activities in unsupervised groups. Their games came in many variations that were passed on from one brief generation to the next for many years. Toys, games, and other commercial playthings were rare, offered to children only on rare festive occasions or restricted to the homes of the rich. In children's books too, is encountered this gold-tinged image of the imaginative child happily occupied in their leisure pursuits without toys, besides those things they "discovered," made themselves (such as bows and arrows, skipping ropes, hand made balls, and fishing rods), or sometimes received as a treasured special gift.
Yet lest "idle hands" get up to the devil's work, children's play was also increasingly extolled as an important means of social control and character development integral to socialization in an "enlightened and progressive era." Wellington's edict that the "battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" had long provided a social justification that made sports, wrestling, and structured games of action and strategy part of the preparation for the rigors of life. The idea of controlling youth and guiding their character formation through play was enthusiastically taken up by the playground movement of the 1900s when organized and specialized sports and playgrounds began to dot the urban landscape. Throughout the twentieth century, toys, playgrounds and sports equipment increasingly became visible within the child-oriented spaces and environments. Anywhere that children were socialized or educated—in the school rooms, playgrounds, parks and bedrooms of the modernizing world—play was being linked with the socialization of the vulnerable child in the confusing and rapidly changing modern world.
Toy manufacture in the United States circa 1900 was a quite limited craft industry, and until World War I 90 percent of the toys sold were imported from Germany. Even middle-class children might have only two or three manufactured playthings; for example, a doll that could be clothed and repaired at home, a Noah's Ark play set (often to be used only on Sundays), a set of wooden circus figures, or a cast iron horse and buggy. Wooden puzzles and board games became fairly common in the 1880s and the more affluent might possess "educational toys" (such as the "moving picture" zoetrope, miniature steam engines, or puppet theatres). Many toys, especially expensive breakable dolls, were kept on shelves, admired by adults, but seldom played with.
As the nineteenth century interest in children's socialization and maturation grew, so did a broad reconsideration of the role of play in early education. Play was proposed as the primary work of childhood, and toys or playthings, more generally, the necessary tools of their training and happiness. The acceptance of toys as an educational technology was particularly pronounced among North American educators. The alphabet blocks devised by John Locke for his children were among the first educational toys that were experimented with in some U.S. nursery schools. The ability to learn through performative doing was the central motif in the growing theorization of the maturational benefits of developmental toys that encouraged childrens' eye-hand coordination, problem solving, language skills, or conceptual development. While Milton Bradley manufactured blocks and other educational playthings for kindergartens from the 1870s, Playskool emerged in the 1920s as a leader in this type of toy with their hammer and peg game that became a common artifact found in many U.S. nurseries. In the 1920s and 1930s, the toy makers began working with educators, aligning their claims about the benefits of the perception toys, pull toys, skill toys, and puzzle games with the new theories of play's educational value.
The acceptance of educational toys, playgrounds, and sports as beneficial to children's maturation provided the first impetus for the commercialization of play. The American Toy Manufacturers Association (TMA) was formed in 1916 to help mobilize and lobby on behalf of the toy makers. Because many were small scale craft industries, the TMA was crucial in leading U.S. toy makers to gradually realize that convincing the public that toys were developmentally useful could contribute to the expansion of their industry. Fisher-Price's corporate "creed" developed during this period reflected perhaps the whole industries modernist belief that children's interest in play was sustained by the quality of their toys, which must possess intrinsic play value, ingenuity, strong construction, value for money and action.
The mass market potential for playthings was dramatically demonstrated to toy makers in the late 1920s by the popularity of the yo-yo, the first toy fad to catch the worlds imagination. The yo-yo, a toy found in Egyptian tombs, is a classic toy: it requires practice, patience, and the mastering of basic body motions. Simple and relatively cheap to produce, the yo-yo was a perfect mass toy. The yo-yo makers quickly learned to promote these toys with travelling shows, demonstrations, contests, and star turns, which fueled the growing public fascination with the performance of these simple tricks. The yo-yo's widespread popularity confirmed for some toy makers the need to learn about the mass production and marketing of toys. They began to innovate product lines as they developed new understanding of children's play which motivated purchase.
Yet as they applied the modern mass production techniques, manufacturers found toys could be made more cheaply, with less labor at lower prices. Moreover, these more industrial toy makers realized that if kids didn't play with their toys, then parents and teachers wouldn't buy them. Fisher-Price, a company that started as a maker of wooden pull toys that moved and made noise, discovered that developmental toys also had to have what they began to call "play value." Fisher of Fisher-Price articulated this changing notion of play:
Children love best the cheerful, friendly toys with amusing action, toys that appeal to their imagination, toys that DO something new and surprising and funny. This ideas is so simple it is sometimes overlooked — but if you have forgotten your own younger days, test it out on the nearest children.
They had realized the central concept of mass production that focused on "play values" as the key to the mass-market. So they began to design cuter pull and manipulation toys with unusual movements and surprise actions more for the kids than the adults. Fisher-Price and Marx were among those early wooden toy makers who began diversifying by using metal and later plastic in their products.
These changes in production resulted in an expanding array of toys: novel construction toys (such as Albert Gilbert's Erector sets first appearing in 1913, Lego arriving in the U.S. in 1964), moving model cars, and soft playable dolls and plush animals (manufactured first about 1906) were made possible by the changing materials and techniques of production adopted in the toy industries. The electric train (manufactured first in 1903 by Joshua Lionel Cowen) is perhaps the exemplar of this industrialization of toys. Yet Lionel was also one of the first toy makers to successfully use mass advertising in their marketing plans, especially in boys' magazines. So too, as cultural historians have noted, did the Daisy air rifle (or BB gun) have a special place within American boyhood, not only as the precursor to hunting and rights of individual self defense, but also as the essential sign of maturation. Ads in boys' magazines encouraged children to pester their parents to buy Daisy guns. The task facing these early mass playthings advertisers was to give verbal expression to the values of play in their advertising.
Commercialization of Play in the Age of Television
Roland Barthes' famous critique of "plastic" and other manufactured toys therefore fails to note that the transformed appearance of toys is only the surface symptom of the underlying commercial dynamics of the transformation of craft into industrial mass marketed toys that have accelerated since World War II. Two concepts are central to understanding this new meaning of commercialization. First, the toy merchandisers must come to see children as a viable market in its own right: the notion implies the expanding discourses on children as consumers in their own right. Secondly, they must come to see television advertising as a viable channel for marketing their goods directly to kids. These changes took place first in the 1950s, as U.S. children's toy and game manufacturers turn to commercial television to expand the market for their products.
Some 1950s toy merchandisers did not at first see children as their market: they continued to sell toys to parents. Many were not yet convinced that children watched enough television, or that they were capable of remembering the brands and their attributes shown so briefly in TV commercials. In the United States, then, the growth of toy marketing rested on the incorporation of television into the patterns of family life. The decisive precondition for commercialization was the toy industry's belief in viability of children's television through which they could target children's preferences and saturate children's culture. Indeed with few commercial print channels (a few magazines and comic books), toy marketing to children was rather limited. So the progressive commercialization of the American media must be considered a major contributor to the expansion of toy merchandising.
Few other companies were in as good a position to realize the importance of these changes as that of Walt Disney, who had already cashed in on toy and clothing spin-offs from his animated films since the 1930s (with the licensing of Disney cartoon images on many toys and games). Disney built on that earlier success in attracting children by embracing TV, as was evident in his popular frontier adventure, Davy Crockett. Soon kids everywhere in the United States were demanding coon-skin hats and plastic Bowie knifes. The daily TV show "Mickey Mouse Club" of 1955 that featured a revue of children with which kids of different ages could identify, became the first children's television program to enjoy sufficient audience to attract major advertising support ($20 million for the season). Not surprisingly, the upstart toy producer Mattel was among the first advertisers whose innovative saturation campaigns for the Burp gun proved the fad-creating efficacy of children's television marketing—selling one million units within a month (Schneider, 1987). With the growing reach of television, direct-to-children advertising expenditures on campaigns that targeted and addressed children therefore grew steadily in the United States, from a few million in 1954 to almost $7 billion by the end of the millenium—enough to fund the films, books, magazines, websites, educational and cartoon programming that provide the foundation of children's media culture.
Marketing in a Mass Mediated Culture
From the early 1960s onward, most major toy marketers realized the importance of marketing research for providing insights into children's motivations and preferences for toys. Fisher-Price sponsored a nursery school's tracking of favorite programs on television, monitored children's requests in shops, and assessed their allowances and influence within the family. Children, they discovered, knew a lot about their products, and how to get the things they wanted. Not only were children demonstrating their influence within the post-war family, but many had discretionary spending, which made their own product preferences and life-long brand loyalties an issue for marketers. Given the rapid increase in children's allowances, influence in the family, and television viewing to about 3.5 hours per day, it is easy to see why during the 1960s and 1970s American children's merchandisers began to intensify their advertising to the young.
It doesn't take advertising to make children desire toys, as the makers of yo-yos and Lego (who advertise little) know; but advertising and point of purchase display can increase the popularity and recognition of particular toy lines, significantly increasing sales. Susan Small-Weil notes that advertising builds relationships "between toy manufacturers and consumers which create an immediate demand for a specific product." (Playthings, 1990). It was during this period that children's peer advertising formats were tested and the power of television proven in the United States. Since children did have some trouble remembering the attributes of branded products and brand names, advertisers began to employ recognizable characters or brand persona (Tony the Tiger; Snap, Crackle, and Pop) for maintaining the child's interest in products and increasing brand recognition and requests. Marketers also learned that children's consumption was rooted in a logic of desire and judgment, highly influenced by peer processes and oriented by media.
It was during the 1960s and 1970s that toy (and food) merchandisers really learned to use TV advertising to generate excitement and brand awareness of their products. Television was an excellent storyteller, with the ability to not only to make people aware of the product but also locate it within a symbolic field. Introduced in 1959 by Mattel with a high profile advertising campaign, Barbie's immediate success showed that understanding this dimension of symbolic design was fast becoming the crucial tool of children's toy marketing. Although Barbie was fabricated in Japan, her style was clearly American in spirit and design. The television ad was not only intended to furnish Barbie's "backstory" as a fashion model but also to stimulate little girls' fantasies about teen life that research had revealed grounded the fashion play activity. Barbie, Mattel learned, was not just a faddish toy such as hoola hoops and yo-yos, but a new way of thinking about the meanings and fantasy processes that motivated girls to play with symbolic toys.
Projected through saturation advertising, Mattel's ability to gain acceptance of Barbie's novel fashion doll pretext among young girls crystallized an emerging commercial dynamic of kids toy marketing. Mattel learned to build on its initial product concept to maintain Barbie's fashion-doll stature in children's culture by constant symbolic makeovers. Fine-tuning fantasies to fight off her rivals, Mattel has been able to parlay their original advertising investment, achieving both continuity and saturation in the U.S. market, where between 90 to 95 percent of young girls have at least one Barbie doll and many have two or three. At the same time, Barbie has been transformed from a unique fashion doll into a lifestyle concept at the vortex of an expanding the range of accoutrements and accessories that include couturier clothing, lifestyle clothes, home furnishings and cars, bedding, and curtains on a global scale. Comprehensive marketing of toys, Mattel found, promoted symbolic universes or ensembles of playthings rather than specific toys or personalities, establishing a new promotional efficiency in children's marketing.
When Mattel introduced Barbie in the 1960s to Europe and Asia, it was not successful. Symbolic toys proved more culturally sensitive sells than faddish hoola hoops or universal Lego. To Britain of the sixties, Barbie's American style proved brash and unattractive. Yet after the opening up of European and Asian commercial television (through cable, satellite, and deregulation) Mattel has expanded its global merchandising efforts, spearheaded by Barbie. The company has learned that to market a world product similarly around the globe is not easy. So Cindy, as she was re-dubbed, required a slightly different back-story, and a much different hair and wardrobe array to achieve moderate success in England. But in the process Mattel learned to re-position Barbie in a more culturally diverse world with explicit internationalized themes. In the United States, the Barbie line has been expanded to include a UNICEF Barbie doll, and Mattel sponsored a "children's Barbie Summit" in 1990, which flew forty children from twenty-eight countries to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York to discuss world peace. Barbie is so well established now around the world that Mattel is negotiating with global retailers for Barbie Boutiques.
Into the Merchandising Stratosphere
This is where the commercialized media become important not only for advertising the products but for the promotional saturation of children's culture with media characters and narratives. Certainly, many in the U.S. toy industry didn't fully appreciate the scope that mediagenerated promotion offered in until Lucas Film's 1977 Star Wars, and the eventual Star Wars trilogy, met enthusiastic children's audiences around the world. The $1 billion world wide sales of Tai Fighters, Darth Vadar dolls, and R2D2 robots were a timely eye opener for many children's marketers especially in the United States and Japan, stimulating a new interest among merchandisers in licensing spin-offs from highly popular children's fantasy world films and cartoons. Because conditions that allowed for promotional marketing on television emerged first in the Japanese and U.S. markets, the major makers of toy and game majors in these countries got a head start in developing the new marketing techniques and infrastructure.
As the demographic echo created by the baby-boomers reached their child-bearing years, significant renovations were undertaken in the major toy marketing practices. With the 1980s deregulation of television, toy merchandisers began to co-produce or affiliate with each new animated television serials (the thirty-minute commercial) or in some cases to produce films or TV specials featuring the back-stories of a host of licensed characters. The "tie-in" marketing of animated characters required a comprehensive promotional plan forged around licensing agreements that created affiliations between media and product producers. It also required a new breed of children's culture impresarios who could design hit properties and manage the cross-marketing and distribution deals. The new entrance barrier to the children's toy market became the cost of producing a successful animated film or syndicated television series ($20 million to $40 million).
In the 1980s TV cartoons featuring the Transformers, Go-Bots, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Sun-tots, Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles, Jem, Barbie and the Rockers, Care Bears, My Little Pony, Power Rangers, and Kermit populated the children's mediascape with a succession of promotional persona who won the hearts and minds of children. The cross-marketing and licensing arrangements had a profound impact on the American toy industries as toymakers concentrated on these promotional toys " to realize massive volume sales of products with little intrinsic appeal, but with a strong marketing and fashion content." (Playthings, 1987). In fact, many of these cartoons were developed for the toy companies to promote their product lines of action figures and other sets of playthings, and thus they were called "program-length commercials." Between 1982 and 1986 American toy sales swelled from 4.6 to 12.3 billion dollars, but it was licensed toy sales (action figures, plush and fashion dolls based on TV shows) that rose most quickly from 20% of total sales in 1977 to about 70% of the 18 billion dollar US toy and game market in 1992 (Playthings, 1992).
Toward the Global Playground
Although films were only fully commercialized in the United States recently, they have long been vehicles for character marketing too. Disney's pre-eminence in the children's entertainment market is similarly based a succession of movie hits from Snow White to Pocahontas. The 1992 Aladdin, for example, illustrated the new scope and pattern of global marketing through media promotion. This mega-hit took a traditional folkloric tale and charmingly animated it for about $25 million. Brought to the cinema with about $20 million of promotional hype, Aladdin achieved ticket sales of $200 million in the first twenty-two weeks of its North American release, and has since generated another $250 million from videocassette, DVD, and product licensing spin-offs (dolls, pyjamas, Nintendo video games), not to mention becoming a popular new exhibit at Disneyland. The subsequent global launch netted an additional $250 million worldwide in seat, admission, and product sales. The Lion King, which cost $50 million to produce, garnered $780 million in box office receipts and another 1 billion in global merchandise sales in 1994. Theme parks now account for 45 percent of Disney income while merchandising adds another 20 percent. The new Disney merchandising chain is therefore just another step along this path to realizing the merchandising and spin-off potential of popular media megahits. Indeed it was the growing profitability of Disneyland Enterprises that revealed the downwind benefits of careful management of the global merchandising spin-offs of Disney's global media exposure.
Troubles in Toyland
Clearly one of the important consequences of this promotional restructuring of the children's cultural industries is the growing concentration of ownership and increasing reliance on a very few innovative promotional characters for profitability. The accelerated fashion cycle of promotional marketing, however, meant that not all new character lines could succeed in the competitive, cultural, and faddish children's market. By 1987, the saturation of the U.S. toy market, flooded with competing Japanese promotional toys, resulted in new uncertainties for toy merchandisers. At its peak in 1986, the U.S. toy market accounted for 70 percent of total global toy sales although only 3 percent of the world's children between three and ten years of age participated in this market. Yet as commercial media spread through Europe and Asia, the toy industries expanded. By 1990, global trade in toys had grown to $30 billion as the European toy market increased by 12% between 1985 and 1989, with the Netherlands growing by 41% and Sweden by 30% (Playthings, 1991). Per-child expenditures on toys in Germany even exceeded those of U.S. families at $429 (compared to $383 in the U.S.). For this reason, the years since 1999 have seen a dramatic shift to the international marketing of children's products by the world's six leading toy makers.
But perhaps more important, the playthings market was being transformed by the rapid development of the video game medium. As early as 1972, Nolan Bushnell was using new microprocessor technology to introduce his Atari. Originally an arcade game machine, in 1975 it was adapted to the home TV with a minicomputer console. When Atari and others introduced the arcade machines, entrepreneurs were quick to follow. Tico Bonomo placed his Time Out game parlors in malls in the Northeast and made them parent-friendly by using orange lighting that created mystery for kids, but did not produce the dark and dirty look of bars and lounges. By 1981, $5 billion in quarters were being spent in video arcades. While some health experts and more parents believed that Pac Man and other video games were addictive, the video game industry was surprised to find that, in 1977 and again in 1983, bored kids passed by arcades and overflowing bins of home game cartridges, leading major companies such as Mattel and Magnavox to abandon the video game industry, and for major makers, especially Atari, to go under. While this craze died in the early 1980s, the much-improved graphics and action of Nintendo brought the video game back.
In 1986 Nintendo had become the leading survivor in this novel playthings market by spending $30 million on its marketing. By the early 1990s, video game consoles were found in more than one-quarter of U.S. households, and the rapid development of this play technology led to intensified TV marketing battles between Sega and Nintendo, who relied on TV advertising to merchandise their play systems. The game makers were spending $100 million on advertising annually as the cost of doing business in the market. Both Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog and Nintendo's Mario Bros. became stars in their own promotional film and TV series. Nintendo Power also became the leading commercial magazine in the children's market, and Internet sites featuring tips and gamer deals were proliferating. The Pokemon brand, launched in Japan in 1997, has been sold around the world through saturation advertising campaigns and two promotional films, and is the most successful playthings brand ever, grossing more than $3 billion for the company. With competition from the computer gaming industry, along with Sony's Playstation and Microsoft's X-box, which invested $500 million in launching the product line, the video game sector has become the fastest-growing and most-commercialized sector in the entertainment market, with gross global sales approaching $30 billion.
Starting with modest advertising of toys in a few magazines in the 1900s, playthings have become intimately bound to the expanding global reach of children's promotional industries. The progressive transformation of children's commercial media into promotional outlets for the merchants of playthings appears to be an unstoppable global trend embedding common regimes of symbolic play in leisure around the world: kids in the early 2000s are fascinated by the same characters in movies, repeat the same stories from TV, and play the same games. Children have more opportunities to play and learn than ever before; yet an estimated 80 percent of children's play is designed, produced, and sold by only twelve leading multinational corporations, mostly Japanese and American. Some will celebrate this impact of progressive commodification of play as helping to establish a globalized digitally connected culture where children play in "perfect harmony"; others will lament the passing of traditional pastimes and local folkways seemingly eroded by the markets expansionary pressure to cultural convergence. But no one can deny that the commodification of play over the twentieth century marks a profound transformation of American play cultures.
See also: Board Games, Childhood and Play, Children's Museums, Commercialization of Leisure, Computer/Video Games, Disneyland, Fads, Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Leisure, Walt Disney World
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