A young woman leads Riley, her 15-month-old son, into a room packed to the rafters with multi-colored toys. Riley gets down to business immediately, pounding a xylophone, testing out a tricycle, herding a fleet of trucks and excavators, and constructing and destroying towers of blocks.
But this is no ordinary playtime; it's an audition. A toy company is looking for testers, and they've put out an open call. While the boy plays, toy experts scrutinize and record his every move. Thousands of other toddlers will enact the same scenario, but only six will be selected based on how well and how much they play. When all is said and done, Riley, a focused, tireless toy-enthusiast, dominates the field and gets the job.
Fast forward a few months, and the doorbell rings at Riley's house — it's a special delivery of two packages. Within minutes, the boy, now a professional toy-tester, is gunning a brand new three-wheeler down the hallway with his mother in hot pursuit, video camera in hand. It's just another day at the office for this hard-working toddler [source: Greenwell].
It's nice work if you can get it, but toy companies rarely advertise these jobs for fear of being overwhelmed with preschool resumes. To get started on a toy-testing career, kids need mothers and fathers who will doggedly pursue any opportunities they can find. It comes as no surprise that, these days, social media plays an important role in the process.
And, of course, Riley's job is only one kind of toy testing. His gig is really a form of market research designed to help toy companies fine-tune their products to meet consumer expectations. But before a toy ever gets into the hands of the Rileys of the world, grown-ups in lab coats must first hammer, crush, dismember and ignite it in a series of stringent safety tests. Now there's a dream job!
Bon Toyage: A Brief History of Toys and Testing
Give a kid a stick, and it instantly becomes a sword. We'll never know what the first toy was, but it's safe to say playthings have been around as long as we have. Not long ago in Italy, a 4,000-year-old stone doll's head was unearthed along with a tiny kitchen set [source: Ari]. There's no shortage of similar finds in museum collections around the world.
In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers — Jean Jacques Rousseau in particular — proposed that children learn best through play rather than instruction. When this idea merged with the beginnings of modern capitalist markets in the 19th century, the result was a golden era for toy development. Miniature soldiers, stuffed animals and mechanical trains proliferated under Christmas trees across Europe and North America.
And while toy manufacturers have probably always tested out their prototypes on their own kids, the whole idea of organized market research didn't really get underway until the postwar boom of the 1920s. Radio advertising, mass production and the growing middle class all combined to create the beginnings of modern consumer culture [source: Burton].
It took consumers a couple of decades to get going, but by the 1950s, a "consumer movement" was growing as people realized that their dollars had power — the power to demand more of the products aimed at them. Specifically, consumers wanted safer products, and that included toys for their children.
Incredibly, it wasn't until 1969 that the first federal safety standard for toys was signed into law. That year, the National Commission on Product Safety recommended banning eight toys, among them the Empire Little Lady Stove, which heated up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit (316 degrees Celsius), and the Bird of Paradise slingshot, which came with missiles so sharp they could draw blood. Meanwhile, scores of kids had already ended up in the emergency room choking on the plastic darts that came with something called the Zulu blow gun. Some regulatory action was clearly required [source: Crossen].
Useful Fun: Different Types of Toy Testing
Regulatory bodies update safety standards all the time, and year by year, the regulations become more stringent as we learn about the dangers of substances like phthalates, which are commonly found in plastic. Add to this the fact that different jurisdictions have different standards, and it's no wonder toy manufacturers often outsource safety testing to specialists.
Companies like Intertek, for instance, have dedicated laboratories where trained technicians evaluate playthings in what is essentially a torture chamber for toys. They try to yank out their little eyes, rip them apart at the seams and light them on fire. The standards in Britain, for instance, demand that a toy burn at a rate no faster than 1 inch per second. This is supposed to give kids enough time to note the fire and run [source: Doughty].
By the time they're done with a given toy, a certified lab will have tested to make sure it can be deemed safe according to all of the major safety regulations, including the American CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act), the EU Toy Directive and China's GB 6675 [source: Intertek].
Once a plaything has jumped through those hoops, the toy can then proceed to round two. The object itself might be safe, but will kids actually play with it? In addition to toy companies, there are several independent consumer groups and not-for-profit organizations dedicated to finding out.
Using a variety of methods that we'll talk about on the next page, the companies or organizations round up some likely youngsters and let them loose. As the kids play, trained observers keep a close record of the session. For instance, The Noise on Toys, which calls itself "An independent consumer guide to the 'bestest' kid-tested toys," scores toys according to six criteria: play value, cost value, design, quality, parent appeal and safety.
Read on to find out how one toy tester earned millions of fans.
On Becoming a Toy Tester
In the introduction, we talked about how a toddler named Riley was one of six chosen from thousands who auditioned to become pro toy testers. This can happen occasionally: A company will advertise through conventional media and conduct a massive try-out for a limited number of spots. A few kids will be selected and, like Riley, they'll earn salaries in the form of free toys.
But in recent years, toy manufacturers have been using social media like Facebook as their means of getting the word out. Mattel, for instance, maintains a Facebook page dedicated to their Mattel Imagination Center in Los Angeles. The banner on the page reads "Toy Testers Wanted," and a typical update might advertise the need for boys between 7 and 11 who like playing with action figures. A common reward for participating in one of these tests is a gift card and a toy [source: Mattel].
Another good way to become a toy tester is to have a mom with a blog. While "daddy blogs" are a growing phenomenon, for now, "mommy blogs" have established themselves as a major cultural and commercial force. According to Forbes magazine, the top 15 mom bloggers influence more people than The New York Times!
One of those power-brokers is the site Coolmompicks.com, which has a whole category dedicated to toys. Kristen Chase and Liz Gumbinner run the site and state that while they're not compensated directly for their reviews, the site does have ads and affiliate links that generate revenue.
There's also the option of testing toys on TV. Yes, it's true, there's such a thing as a celebrity toy tester. The Ellen DeGeneres show regularly features Noah and Tre, two kids with the task of putting a bevy of new toys through their paces and then delivering their reviews to millions of dedicated viewers [source: EllenTV].
However, your kid probably has a better chance of winning the lottery than getting this job, and think of the toys he could buy then! Failing that, you can start up your own YouTube channel. One energetic 8-year-old has his own channel called EvanTubeHD where he reviews toys and games for a large and growing audience.
For some, it's hard to believe that toy testers can really give unbiased reviews if they're getting paid, even if the payment comes in the form of free toys. Luckily, for the skeptics, there are not-for-profit organizations like the Canadian Toy Testing Council and The Noise on Toys. These reviewers use only volunteer testers, donate the bulk of the toys to charity after testing and reject any form of compensation from the toy companies.
Toy Testing in the Digital Age
Classic toys like stuffed animals, tricycles and alphabet blocks are still going strong, but as any modern parent knows, there's a whole new frontier of digital playthings on the market now. And the information-age toymakers are eager to ensure their products meet kids' expectations.
In California, where the latest gadgets and apps spill forth at a frantic pace, a 9-year-old kid named Elliot Cowan headhunted some friends and hired them out as product testing consultants. Elliot and his friends charge toy companies a minimum of $300 a session plus the brand new toys and games they play with. Cowan's team is in hot demand as they kick the tires on everything from prototype karaoke apps to animation programs.
Along the same lines, a digital start-up called Launchpad Toys holds weekly testing sessions at the San Francisco Children's Creativity Museum. The turnaround is lightning fast — if the kids find a flaw in a product, the company can correct it and bring the app back for more testing the next week [source: Dotson].
But kids aren't the only toy testers who are turning into stars in the digital age. We mentioned EvanTubeHD, but another YouTube channel called DisneyCollectorBR isn't just popular, it's a phenomenon.
With as many as 55 million views in a single week, the channel is consistently in the site's top 10list, and in the U.S. has come in ahead of massive celebrities like Shakira and Katy Perry [source: Cohen]. This is jaw-dropping considering that the site consists of nothing more than an anonymous woman opening toys, one after the other. All you can see are her creatively manicured hands unpacking items like Angry Birds egg surprises and Cookie Monster figures.
It doesn't get any simpler, but somehow the format is a massive success. It's estimated that the unknown woman earns as much as $13 million a year in ad revenue! Her main audience? Toddlers [source: Reinsberg]. It makes Riley's job sound downright old-fashioned — not to mention underpaid.
But if one thing is clear, it's that when it comes to toy testing, the job descriptions and rewards are as varied as the world of toys itself.
Author's Note: How Toy Testers Work
My son turned 4 the other day, and the sudden influx of new toys has caused all the organizing bins and boxes to overflow. While it's tempting to think of getting free toys in exchange for testing them out, my first thought is: Where would we put them all? Donating to charities is a great option, of course, but what if the toys are broken? I'm waiting for a line of biodegradable toys I could throw in the compost after they've lost half their wheels and the novelty appeal has worn off (i.e., after a week). Now that's something I'd be happy to test!
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