I'm not trying to be Mr. Scrooge, or throw cold water on anybody's shopping fun. But if you're about to head for the nearest mall in search of a Furby, take a moment and ask yourself this question: Are you trying to buy a special gift for a person who will genuinely appreciate it, or do you just feel frantic and desperate because of all the news stories describing Furbies as a "must have" item?
This latest toy craze is another lesson in mob psychology, much to the delight of reporters all over the country. Each new incident of Furby-frenzied crowds lining up outside store entrances is gleefully recounted by TV anchors who chuckle, and shake their heads in mock disbelief.
But the media itself is largely responsible for inciting this yearly marketplace stampede. Back when Cabbage Patch Kids established the notion of a holiday blockbuster item, the dolls were already a sensation when journalists finally caught on. The added attention propelled them to even greater popularity, and toymakers suddenly realized they had an annual story opportunity that American consumers would love hearing about.
As a result, holiday shopping is now the commercial equivalent of a political campaign, with pop-culture pundits trying to predict the winners before election day. In effect, the media is saying, "What's happening right now is boring. Let's talk about what's going to happen!"
In a political context, this approach can be justified as merely an extension of all the polling and research conducted by the various candidates. But when the focus of speculation and prediction is a product for sale, the boundary separating news from advertising starts to get blurred. Toy companies know this, and they also understand that extensive media coverage is an essential element of any successful marketing plan.
If I were cynical, I would exploit this situation by developing a goofy idea that a friend came up with several years ago. While walking on a beach, my pal found a length of heavy, nylon rope that washed ashore. It was twisted and tangled. His idea was to mass produce the odd flotsam, stick it in a fancy package, and call it "Kwazy Knot."
We brainstormed potential TV commercials that would show little kids laughing and pretending to play with the useless device ("hours of fun" was going to be our slogan). Nowadays, we could save the ad money and promote our faux toy by issuing press releases, and hitting the talk-show circuit. I wonder how much airtime we'd get before somebody caught on to the scheme?
Fortunately, it won't happen. Common sense tells me that now is not the time to get involved with any gift fad, as a buyer or seller. The whole business is just too kwazy.
* Jeffrey Shaffer, a Monitor humor columnist, writes from Portland, Ore.