By Daniel Bukszpan, CNBC.com
Whenever parents put on amateur Santa Claus hats and try to choose toys for their children, they're often in for a difficult task with several volatile factors. Will the toy make loud, irritating noises? Is it too expensive? Does it have small parts that are destined to be lost forever under the couch?
While choosing toys for a child poses many challenges, designing them presents even more. Will it be sold in an eye-catching package? Is it a tie-in with a movie that nobody wanted to see? Will it burst into flames when it's turned on? Does it have small parts young children might choke on?
These are all factors that toy manufacturers must take into consideration, and as with any other business, none of them can bat .1000. Even companies that have dominated the market for decades have rolled out products demonstrating a shocking inattention to safety, an utter lack of taste, or a premise that causes potential buyers to wonder aloud if the toy is actually some kind of unfunny joke.
What are some of the children's toys that failed spectacularly?
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Hasbro Easy-Bake Ovens
The Easy-Bake Oven has been delighting amateur pre-tween cupcake chefs ever since it was introduced by Kenner in 1963. Before the 20th century was over, more than 16 millionhad been sold, with no end in sight.
Hasbro began manufacturing the ovens in 1993, but in 2006, it changed the design to the front-loading approach used by real ovens. Unfortunately, just like a real oven, it also exposed its young users to extreme heat when they inserted their hands into the opening. Five injuries were reported, and the model was recalled in 2007.
Burger King Pokemon Container
Since 1996, Nintendo has been doing quite well for itself with Pokemon, one of the most successful video game franchises in the world. All of the Pokemon characters have been merchandised in one form or another, including books, trading cards, and toys. Fast-food chain Burger King decided to get into the act, releasing its own set of miniature Pokemon toys in a multimillion-dollar 1999 promotion.
The toys were extracted from spherical "Poke Ball" containers and put in children's meal boxes. The promotion was so successful that 10 days into its eight-week run, Burger King was forced to run full-page advertisements in major metropolitan newspapers to apologize for running out of the toys.
In December 1999, horrified parents learned that the two halves of the Poke Ball were the perfect size to pose a suffocation risk. Burger King agreed to a voluntary recall, and parents were told to confiscate the toys from their kids and return them to the restaurant. In return, they received one small order of french fries.
Homeless American Girl Doll
The American Girl line of dolls debuted in 1986. The dolls depicted figures of various ethnicities and attributes that were instantly popular with children and collectors. A line of books was released, as well as a clothing line and various accessories, all to excellent sales.
One of the dolls produced was named Gwen Thompson, and her unique attribute was that she was homeless and lived with her mother in a car. It is hard to say who was the intended target audience for this doll, but it wasn't on store shelves long enough for anyone to find out. Gwen Thompson disappeared from store shelves after just a few months.
Happy Family Midge
The Barbie line of dolls contains characters beyond its perky blonde namesake. There's the dashing Ken, who has served as Barbie's love interest for decades, and there's also her best friend, Midge Hadley. The Midge doll has been sold in multiple iterations, such as Wedding Day Midge, who allowed young girls to daydream vicariously about their future nuptials. However, one controversial version of Midge was introduced in 2002: The very pregnant Happy Family Midge.
The Happy Family Midge doll featured a protruding belly which was attached magnetically to the body. When removed, a gestating infant doll could be snapped out of the plastic womb and dressed up in play baby clothes. Outraged Wal-Mart customers complained on a nationwide scale, and the doll was removed from shelves, along with the entire Happy Family line, including Midge's husband Alan and toddler son Ryan. A USA Today article from December 2002 also quoted Philadelphia toy shoppers, who voiced uniform horror at the toy and said that it "promotes teenage pregnancy."
Sky Rangers Park Flyer Radio Control Airplanes
Sky Rangers Park Flyer Radio Control Airplanes were toy jets manufactured in 2005 and 2006 by Estes-Cox, which has been in the model aircraft business since the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. This particular toy had an impressive, 14-inch wingspan and a rechargeable battery to power it. Unfortunately, due to a design flaw, hydrogen leaked from the battery and would ignite when the power was switched on. In other words,when you turned it on, the plane would sometimes explode.
Estes-Cox received multiple complaints, including reports of burns and lacerations. The company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of the toy in 2007, and the CPSC press release spelled out the hazards in stark terms: "The airplanes are launched by hand and can explode near the consumer's head, posing a risk of temporary hearing loss and injuries to eyes, face, and hands."
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By Daniel Bukszpan, CNBC.com