OPINION: Play ja vu – Why DreamToys 2020’s ‘slow play’ message is a real head-scratcher for me

This year’s Dream Toys listing has been a showcase of the innovation and creativity that the toy industry has to offer, and a much welcome and well-needed celebration of its resilience in times of trouble. Why then has this year’s proceedings left Kids Industries’ Gary Pope scratching his head? And is it something to do with that quizzical term, slow play?

It’s been a week since the big 2020 Dream Toys reveal. It was fantastic to see some truly incredible toys, but it confused me. And it still does. I want to be 100 per cent clear; I’m definitely a supporter. It’s a great campaign with great purpose and this year – more than ever – it’s absolutely needed.

Despite the pandemic-driven growth enjoyed by some sectors of the toy industry (board games, outdoor toys and crafting kits), retail is struggling (John Lewis announced a further 1,500 job losses as I write) and the impact of supply chain restrictions are being felt down the line. 

Since the Dream Toys announcement, Boris has – of course – kicked us all back into lockdown and closed non-essential, bricks n mortar retail. He claims it’s for four weeks. Gove won’t be drawn on a denial. And those in the know believe that – apart from a much welcome respite pre-Christmas – shops are likely to be shuttered again for the first two months of 2021. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, families are feeling the pinch and household incomes are forecast to get even more squashed thanks to the inevitable swathe of redundancies coming down the line. So, anything that helps drive toy sales this Christmas has got to be a good thing for the sector, especially given NPD statistics showed it has shrunk in value over the last two years.

“It’s hard to understand how we can claim 2020 as the year of Slow Play, when this year’s Dream Toys list is so similar to last year’s and the year before: Monopoly, LEGO, Nerf guns and lots of licenses.”

This year’s Dream Toys came out fighting with two very strong messages for the media to buy into. The first, which focused on supply chain issues and encouraged consumers to buy now to avoid disappointment, was strong and well considered. I’m not surprised it was picked up by many media outlets, including Dan Jones at The Sun. 

However, the second – Slow Toys – is the one that’s left me scratching my head for the last seven days. Let me try and explain why. My understanding of Slow Play is as a movement that began in France about ten years ago and Slow Toys are those quintessentially traditional toys that are handed down from one generation to the next, probably in a musty box and nostalgically retrieved a little too early from the attic. 

They are the fort and soldiers that my Grandad built. The massive box of LEGO bricks that have been enjoyed by three generations. The finger puppets, dolls and teddies. The travel Scrabble, chess set and magic kit. Toys that spark the imagination, that have sentimentality and nostalgia at their core, that enjoy longevity and sustainability and encourage families to play together. We’re seeing this in the Argos ad already.

It may be that this is exactly what Dream Toys were referring to when they claimed 2020 as the year of slow play. When you think how Covid has driven us all on screens and online, a desire for the polar opposite makes perfect sense. 

My head scratching is because of the disconnect between what Slow Toys are and the toys that are on this year’s Dream Toys List. And it’s also hard to understand how we can claim 2020 as the year of Slow Play, when this year’s Dream Toys list is so similar to last year’s and the year before: Monopoly, LEGO, Nerf guns and lots of licenses.  

What I do understand, of course, is why the BTHA and TRA feel a need to label each Dream Toys with a theme, after all, the event’s sole aim is to secure column inches to help sell toys. And again, I am 100 per cent behind that. I’ll be buying some this week as a result of the list. But, I wonder if, instead of feeling the need to present each year as a brand new, never before seen year full of innovative, exciting, trend-led, Christmas toys, perhaps the toy industry should be brave – and proud – enough to just tell it like it is.

There are some truly fantastic toys on this year’s list. Why dress them up as something they’re not to align with a perceived trend? Why not simply be proud that you know what kids want and that you deliver, each and every Christmas?

Gary Pope is the co-founder and CEO of Kids Industries, a full service marketing agency that specialises in the family market.

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