Remember Cabbage Patch madness? The exhilarating time four years ago that combined the fun of medieval bread riots with the socially redeeming qualities of the Hula Hoop?
The height of enthusiasm for the pudgy-faced dolls was reached on Nov. 30, 1983, in Milwaukee. That morning, a local radio team joked that 1,500 dolls would be dropped by a B-29 bomber into County Stadium.
Buyers were supposed to bring catcher's mitts and -- this should have been a clue -- were instructed to hold their American Express cards up high, so aerial photos could be taken of their account numbers. The gag was quickly repudiated and there was a wind-chill factor of 7 degrees below zero, but two dozen hopeful souls still turned up at the stadium.
In those first wild months, 300 shoppers in New Hampshire waited in the cold for up to five hours for a chance to buy a doll, a pregnant woman in New Jersey was reportedly trampled in a stampede, and, in at least one incident, police were called to restore order. Said the manager of this last place, a North Miami Beach, Fla., shop: "People were pressing against the glass. People were crying. They were screaming, 'Let me in. Let me in.' "
A basic rule of thumb in the toy business is that if you sell over 1 million units, you're doing great. To date, more than 50 million Cabbage Patch dolls -- designed by computer so no two are alike -- have been "adopted." But all profitable things must eventually come to an end, which is why the doll -- still doing quite nicely, if no longer inspiring fistfights -- just received its first major update. There is now a talking model, and it was unveiled at a press conference in New York City yesterday.
Here's how the press material from Coleco, the manufacturer, describes Cabbage Patch Talking Kids: A "sophisticated microprocessor system ... allows them to carry on conversations with children ... Their voices are clear and childlike ... Their mouths move when they speak! They have sensors in their faces, hands and body so they can respond to what's happening around them." If you put two dolls together, they will even talk to each other.
Here's how they work in real life: The voice sounds like an actual child's as filtered through water or a long-distance telephone connection. At the moment, the dolls come in eight different voices. Each has a distinct pitch and its own signature phrases, such as "Gee" or "Oh my gosh."
Of course, unless you do what the doll wants, there's little interaction. "Can I have a big hug?" she asks. If you say "forget it," the doll still replies, "Thanks so much. It's so nice to have a friend like you."
Other conversational exchanges are more complicated, and more effective. When the doll asks for a drink and you refuse, it will prompt you with, "Hey! I'm still thirsty." If you continue to refuse, it will drop the subject. But if you insert a special cup into the doll's mouth, it makes some lifelike gurgles.
The crucial question, of course, is the number of subjects the dolls can converse about. Coleco wouldn't offer exact data, but claims that something one doll says won't -- owing to the wonders of computerized randomness -- necessarily be repeated by another doll for 10 years.
In reality, two sample dolls didn't have quite the conversational range of Barbara Walters. There seemed to be a limited number of basic topics, including "favorites," hugging, drinking, food, pets, secrets, singing and pretending, and a limited number of phrases used to discuss them. In several hours of playing time, their singing skills were limited to one tune. But conversational selections did appear random: Any pattern that the dolls were following in selecting topics was not immediately apparent.
One clever stroke by Coleco is to have the doll at a certain point say it's sleepy and beg to be put to bed. If you comply -- and the request is so plaintive that only the most hard-hearted child would refuse -- the doll will be relieved of the necessity to chat for a time, making its limited repertoire a little less obvious.
Coleco won't release its estimate of the numbers of Talking Kids it hopes to sell this year, but it downplays any talk of them sweeping the nation a` la the original Cabbage Patch. For one thing, if crowds do mob the stores this fall, they'll have to be well-heeled. Talking Kids cost anywhere from $100 to $150, as opposed to about $20 or $25 for the nontalkers.
In addition, Coleco won't have this field all to itself. Barbara Wruck, vice president/corporate communications for the company, says it "isn't aware of any product being introduced into the toy market that exhibits this sophisticated a level of technology ... Nothing like this has been available before."
That statement makes Coleco's competitors turn purple -- a most undoll-like color.
Worlds of Wonder, for instance, has just introduced Julie. The company says their doll's voice-recognition technology enables it to say more than 100 sound-activated, intelligent sentences -- all in response to the child's statements. Julie costs about $100 to $130, depending on the store.
Says Bob Goldberg, executive vice president/marketing: "The technology of Julie is significantly more advanced than the technology in the talking Cabbage Patch. Julie is the most sophisticated consumer product -- not just in the toy area, but among all consumer products -- on the market today."
There's also Jill, available from Playmates for about $150 to $200. Among other talents, Jill can ask a child a question -- for instance, "Does 2 plus 2 equal 3, 4 or 5?" -- and then respond differently, depending on the answer it receives. To do this, Jill uses cassettes; each has up to 150 words that can be recognized by the doll. Says Playmates marketing vice president Richard Sallis: "Jill is far and away the most technologically advanced interactive doll on the market today. More important, she's the most fun to play with."
Competition, it seems, is tough in the interactive doll world. The toy industry as a whole had sales of $12.5 billion last year. Electronic and musical plush -- basically, interactive animals and dolls -- accounted for $426 million of that. The companies involved hope to better that level considerably this year.
"The industry is very hungry for a big new item. We haven't had the kind of spectacular, megahit that Cabbage Patch was that first year or two, or Trivial Pursuit," says Frank Reysen, editor of the industry journal Playthings.
He doesn't, however, think interactive dolls will be it: "The early signs haven't been anything to make us really excited. It will bring in some dollars, but the widespread appeal won't be there, because of the price."
There's also the issue of over-high expectations by consumers. With the interactive toys that have been on the market -- including many of the pets -- there has often been a problem with performance. "The technology isn't as easy as some of the manufacturers thought," Reysen points out -- a statement that could be confirmed by spending an hour in a toy store.
Finally, while these dolls are initially engaging, it's unclear whether children will continue to play with them. "One of the things I've heard," says Reysen, "is that the play value of some of this kind of merchandise is really not as long-range as people thought. Kids love it for a while, and then it runs out of gas."
The high point of a Cabbage Patch Talking Kid's life is when it meets another of its kind. This could happen to your child in an airport, supermarket, shopping mall or preschool center. If you buy two dolls (and Coleco surely won't object if you do this), it could also happen in your home.
In fact, it's most likely to happen in your home. While the dolls supposedly will notice each other from about 10 feet, this doesn't always immediately happen -- and it didn't with the two test models. But, as with some children themselves, when they finally did start yakking, you couldn't shut them up. They rattled off a whole conversation, running through their repertoire of topics and singing together, first in rounds, then in a duet.
The first time you see this, it's rather astonishing. But it might also make some parents uncomfortable, which brings up the issue of how beneficial interactive dolls really are.
"It seems to me that if they do work, they're wonderful gimmicks. But I wonder if they'll really be as satisfying to children as the more traditional dolls -- or as good a vehicle for fantasy play," says Joan McLane, a child-development specialist with the Erikson Institute in Chicago.
"One thing many children do with their dolls is vent all kinds of feelings, including their anger at parents or siblings. It's very satisfying to spank the doll, or speak crossly to it, or give it an injection if that's something you have to go through. I'm not quite sure how an interactive doll fits into that."
Another parental worry might be that talking dolls would restrict a child's imagination. "To an extent these dolls might initially stimulate the imagination, but in the long term it's hard to imagine how their mechanical capacity would keep on being interesting," McLane adds. "To have the responses so confined might be ultimately quite frustrating."
Finally, she points out that, no matter what the various manufacturers may claim, "a doll is not something that has its own intentions, feelings or ideas. They have certain responses that have been programmed in ... Suppose a child is very angry and hits the doll, and it says 'I like that' or some other inappropriate response. That could be quite confusing to the child, and possibly disturbing in the long run."
If you do decide your child should have an interactive doll, how to sort out the competing claims? First, don't blithely swallow any advertising. Second, don't be pressured into springing for the money if you think your child will get bored after three days.
Says Playthings editor Reysen: "You're going to be swamped by commercials, so beware of exaggerated expectations. The better retailers will allow you to examine these products -- they lend themselves to demonstration. Look at them for yourself."