Toys “R” Us Presents: An Unsustainable Toy Story for the Holiday Season

toys r usNathan Shedroff, the Chair of the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts explains that one of the most difficult challenges designers, business people and pretty much everyone else face is that we don’t know what a more sustainable world looks like.

Now, I’m not sure I know what a more sustainable world looks like, but I have a pretty good idea what an unsustainable world looks like. I just saw it in the new Toys “R” Us holiday season commercial, “Make all their wishes come true.”

According to Toys “R” Us, the story is how the company “surprises some lucky kids by letting them pick any toy in the store. Toys “R” Us is making wishes come true this holiday season.”

The company is somewhat modest – the storyline is a bit more creative. We see children on a bus on what they believe is a school field trip to a forest. Their “guide” is trying to teach them the names of some trees, but the children seem bored and some even fall asleep. Then he explains (while taking off his park ranger shirt and showing his Toys “R” Us shirt) that “I’m a big fan of trees, but we’re not going to the forest today. We’re going to Toys “R” Us, guys. You can choose any toy that you want.” And the children go wild, screaming, smiling and generally looking like they won the lottery. Now, you don’t need to be Don Draper to guess how this ad goes on.

The ad is part of the company’s effort to remind us that it is time to start thinking about the holiday season. Why so early? As The New York Times reported, Toys “R” Us, as well as other retailers, are worried about predictions that consumers will trim holiday budgets by about 2 percent, and have therefore started their promotional efforts earlier than usual.

The Times reported that the commercial was filmed over three days with three buses that brought more than 200 children to a Toys “R” Us store in Middletown, NY. Norm Bilow, managing director at Escape Pod, the agency that created the campaign, explained, “I’m a parent; there’s nothing better than seeing happy kids.”

Peter Reiner, senior vice president for marketing at Toys “R” Us, added that the idea behind the campaign was to “find a compelling way to communicate the joy, when kids come to Toys “R” Us.” Interestingly though, while Toys “R” Us is the source of this joy, Reiner doesn’t think the company is the hero in this story – the retailer just “makes it really easy for Mom to become that holiday hero,” he said.

It reminded me of Jonah Sachs’ presentation earlier this year on the power of storytelling at the Sustainable Brands conference, where he explained how smart brands shift their stories to show that you (the consumer) are the real hero who has the power, not the brand which is here just to facilitate your greatness. I was wondering for a second if Reiner saw the presentation and was influenced by it, but on a second thought, I doubt it.

After all, this ad exemplifies the unsustainable business landscape that Sachs describes, where companies offer the moral that to be a good citizen is to be a good consumer. In this story, the moral for parents is very simple: if you want to be a good parent, then you need to make your kids happy by buying them new toys.

Now, although Reiner tries to portray this story as one where the parents are the heroes, it actually looks much more like the stories where the brand is the hero. In a way, it reminds me more of ads that Sachs talked about such as Whopper Freakout, where the customers’ brand “is the hero and they’re kind of losers until they get in contact with the brand.”

I find this ad irritating because it tries to communicate a message that is inherently unsustainable to both children and their parents. To children it says that true happiness lies in buying new toys and the subtext is that their wishes should be focused on asking their parents for new toys. To parents, it says that if they want to make their children happy they should buy them toys because this is what they wish for. This ad perpetuates everything that is wrong with the current unsustainable economy – from the notion that more stuff means more happiness to the idea that the holidays are about shopping to the idea that learning about and interacting with the environment is tedious and unimportant.

I was even more irritated that this ad portrays a field trip to the forest as a boring experience for children that has nothing to do with fun or joy. This is a bit like another ad for Kellogg’s cereal, Apple Jacks, that Michael Moss describes in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, where the company portrayed fresh apples as the bad guy. “It drove nutrition advocates crazy because here they were trying to encourage kids to eat more fresh fruit and Kellogg was giving apples, however purposefully, a bad name in their eyes,” Moss told Fresh Air’s host Dave Davis.

In this case, it’s not forest lovers who should be upset about this ad, but anyone who believes in the need to have a more sustainable world and knows that even though we still don’t know what it looks like, it doesn’t include ads like this one. Maybe Toys “R” Us can take it as a challenge and ask kids to draw their ideas of what a sustainable world looks like. It will be fun for kids, will really make them the heroes of the story and even give Toys “R” Us something to put on its empty sustainability page.

[Image credit: David Reber, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.