Originally published in Maclean’s, January 28, 2009
It’s a familiar scene in Gillian Green’s Toronto home: her five-year-old daughter, Pascale Bonnardeaux, and a friend huddle around a pile of Playmobil toys. Construction workers mingle with farm animals, fairies sit next to the Baby Jesus (a new favourite from a recently acquired Playmobil nativity set), and all are patients in the doctor’s waiting room that Pascale and her friend are creating.
If Green lived in Germany, the Netherlands or Switzerland, there might be an odd addition to that tableau: armed airport security guards. That would be thanks to the Playmobil Security Check Point, a toy not available in Canada, that consists of an airport hand-luggage X-ray machine, metal detector, two guards and a passenger with suitcase. The item was released in the U.S. in 2004 but withdrawn in 2006, says U.S. marketing manager Michelle Winfrey. It’s still available on Amazon.com, and product reviews posted on the site have recently been making the rounds on Twitter and email, as much for their colourful criticism as for the toy itself.
“Thank you Playmobil for allowing me to teach my five-year-old the importance of recognizing what a failing bureaucracy in an ever-growing fascist state looks like,” wrote Zampano from New York City. “There’s no brown figure for little Josh to profile, taser, and detain?” queried a user from Tremonton, Utah. Loosenut from Seattle wrote, “My five-year-old son pointed out that the passenger’s shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger’s scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said, ‘That’s the worst security ever!’ ”
Playmobil traditionally has a more benign image, one the German company, a frequent winner of toy awards, has cultivated with great success. The latest sales figures from its parent company, Brandstätter Group, show 12.5 per cent annual growth, with global sales of $641 million. Still, the company’s preoccupation with detail and hyperrealistic settings has produced some curious offerings: safe-cracking jewel thieves, jail cells and police tracking dogs. Catalogues for Germany and Switzerland show Playmobil police headquarters featuring arms lockers stocked with tiny rifles and handguns.
Playmobil officials would not confirm when work began on Security Check Point, but said it typically takes three to four years to bring a new toy to market. It was “retired” in the U.S. not as a result of negative consumer reaction, says Winfrey, but as part of a normal rotation of stock.
So why is the offering generating such a strong reaction? Toy expert and author Stevanne Auerbach, a.k.a. Dr. Toy, suggests the juxtaposition of the round-headed, smiley-faced figures with the realistic sidearms and security apparatus may be partly to blame. A non-Playmobil Scan-It Operation Checkpoint Toy XRay has prompted far fewer comments on Amazon, and more explicitly violent toys such as Transformer SWAT Team and plastic AK-47s rate no comments at all.
This isn’t the first Playmobil toy to run afoul of consumer politics. In 1997, the Christian Science Monitor reported on a muzzled bear toy, part of a set of medieval troubadours, and a set of medieval hunters, sold with a deer they’d killed. Both sold well in Germany but failed in Britain. Anti-hunting sentiments in the U.K. were to blame, Playmobil founder Hans Beck said at the time.
Auerbach, who describes Playmobil as a “conscientious company,” says the corporation misstepped in offering the checkpoint as a separately sold toy in a politically charged post-9/11 North American market. Still she believes it should be sold as part of full airport sets since it is a “realistic detail of the airport experience,” and could be useful in teaching children what to expect on an airplane trip—a use the company is actively promoting in its “At the Airport” lesson plans, offered to U.S. teachers through a partnership with academic publisher Scholastic.
But in the end, kids use toys as they want to. Green’s seven-year-old, Ethan, uses his Lego to build guns, and on a recent car trip transformed the backseat drinks console into a gun mount. “Parents can’t wrap their kids in cellophane and protect them from reality,” says Auerbach. She wonders if the fuss over the toy says more about parental baggage than play value. “Every one of the Amazon comments is a political statement,” she says. Still, even she is indignant about one aspect of the toy: the price. “Fifty-five dollars is outrageous!”