The Least Successful Toy in the World
Toy companies are known for cynically jumping on bandwagons. As soon as a new fad starts, there’s a race to produce products that fall in line with westerns, spaceships, sponges or whatever other imaginary world has captured the elusive attention of five-year-olds.
Sometimes these cynical ideas pay off. For instance, when Hasbro tried to find a way to trick boys into playing with dolls, they struck gold by renaming them “action figures” and giving them a military theme. Dolls for boys was a billion-dollar idea that built an industry that now has grown men playing with dolls. Of course, they also had to add the word “collectible” to attract adults, which adds another layer of genius on top of an already brilliant idea.
But things don’t always work out. Sometimes the cynicism of the idea is so blinding that nothing else is visible. Enter Lionel Trains.
Perhaps we can forgive Lionel Trains for trying to come up with a train set that appealed to girls. They were desperate in 1956. Collectors had come to prefer smaller HO scale trains to the O scale trains that were Lionel Trains’ bread and butter. They were still profitable, but the bottom had dropped out of the market and their sales were in free fall. I imagine that heads rolled, alcohol was consumed, marriages ended and the entire company was plunged into a desperate malaise.
What could they possible do except call an emergency meeting? Again, in my imagination, there’s a young go-getter who stood up with a chart that shows that 98% of their sales are to boys. They’re only selling to half the market! What they need to do is start selling to girls, fast.
This room full of men nodded; there may even have been some light applause. Sure, market to women, double the sales! Then, a voice spoke up. “What exactly is it that girls like?”
Silence. The estrogenless room echoed with the sound of desperate thinking.
Another voice said, “My daughter loves to dress the dog up in clothes. What about selling clothes for trains?”
They give the idea a moment of consideration, but it’s dismissed. Putting a dress on a train is the kind of thing that got you kicked out of the army, if you know what I mean. What would they say at the club? Surely there’s a better way to do it. They ran through cooking, cleaning and gossip. All the things that girls love.
That’s when the young genius turned over the final page in his presentation. “Gentlemen, you are over-thinking the issue. Why don’t we just make it pink? We won’t have to even change the mold!”
This got huge applause, his back was slapped and drinks were had. The plan was put into motion.
Of course, no actual girls were asked about the train. Probably no wives were asked about the train. If they were asked, their input was dismissed. After all, what did women know about what women liked?
When the pink steam engine appeared in stores, with a collection of pastel colored cars for it to pull, one can only imagine the grumpy hobby shop owner’s confused reaction. What in the hell was he supposed to do with this? They put forth an honest effort, the train was available in stores for two years, but almost none of them sold. It is widely considered the worst toy disaster of all time.
Those pink trains stayed on the shelves as surely as women stayed out of hobby shops. There are no actual sales figures available, but the rumor is that store owners re-painted them black so that boys could touch them without getting cooties.
Today, they are huge collector’s items with one set selling for over $15,000. Lionel got sold off after their release, but their new owners have reissued the pink train twice, once in 1991 and again in 2004 as “collectible replicas.” These were scooped up by adult men and sold out their entire run. Genius.
Surely no company will ever cynically try to appeal to girls like that again.
Image courtesy of ibuyoldtrains.com.