DAVID SMITH: Artistic licence

Lewis Tyler

By Lewis Tyler

May 18th 2012 at 11:19AM
DAVID SMITH: Artistic licence

Is there a magic formula needed to create a successful licensed product? ToyTalk owner and editor, David Smith, thinks he may just have found it?

Sometime in the mid ’70s (when Lee Majors was one of TV’s biggest stars and bionic was a new, exciting word for kids all over the country), I received a Six Million Dollar Man action figure for my birthday.

The 13-inch figure was crammed with features – including a wide-angle lens tucked away in Steve Austin’s left eye and removable bionic modules in his right arm.

There were lots of things I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know, for instance, that the figure was Kenner Products’ first successful TV tie-in. In fact I was much too young to even know what licensing was. 

All that mattered to me was that this was an action figure of one of the best TV characters around, and that it was convincingly bionic. Convincing enough for an eight year-old boy, anyway.

More than 30 years later, licensed properties are big business. A quick glance over the shelves at your local toy shop will reveal how many toys and games rely on the added appeal of licensing, and while the 13-inch Steve Austin was a relatively new phenomenon, it’s harder now to find a programme or film that doesn’t have an associated line of toys.

But licensed products don’t all work, so what is the magic formula? It’s fairly easy to get it right when you’re dealing with an action figure. As long as it looks vaguely like the character and has enough relevant features, you can hardly go wrong.

Licensed toys and games cover a far broader spectrum than this, of course, and the best have a degree of synergy with the original entity. Sticking a logo or characters on a box doesn’t mean you’ve got an effective licensed product on your hands.

Too often, the launch of a children’s TV show or emergence of a new pop star triggers an all-too predictable and fairly depressing avalanche of licensed products. Often the same basic game or toy is offered in a multitude of guises, simply changing the packaging and pictures to attract the disciples of various pop groups, films or TV shows.

The best licensed products do much more than this. They capture the essence of the brand, rather than simply piggybacking it, and consumers, under pressure from kids to buy gear featuring their favourite characters, will be grateful for this.

Homer Operation: a match made in licensing heaven?

In recent years, the perfect example has appeared for anyone wondering how to find the perfect combination. A Simpsons version of Operation might, at first glance, appear to be exactly the sort of soulless makeover that is all-too prevalent, but surprisingly, and wonderfully, this isn’t the case.

The original Operation game has been a classic since it launched in 1965, but for my money, The Simpson’s edition actually improves it.

Not only does Homer look comical laid out on the operating table in his underwear, the many sound bites he utters as youngsters practice their surgery skills (including my favourite: ‘I’m awake! I’m awake!’) are hilarious, and much better than the original, simple buzzing. 

Here is an example of licensing enhancing an already established product because the two mesh so perfectly. Homer Simpson is always blurting out amusing phrases, while Operation calls for regular outbursts of noise when things go wrong. 

It’s a match made in licensing heaven.

David Smith runs the consumer-focused toy news site ToyTalk and is author of the book 100 Classic Toys.