NEW YORK -- Toys R Us is expanding its effort to help parents find toys that are fun and developmentally beneficial for special-needs children.
The retailer has produced its annual Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids catalog, featuring California first lady Maria Shriver as spokesperson, since 1994. This year it has tripled distribution to 3 million copies and beefed up the Web presence at toysrus.com, including answers to questions about toy selection for children with disabilities and a guide that categorizes toys by parameters including skill-building and age.
"We're making a bigger commitment," says Toys R Us President Ron Boire. "It's an important piece for us and the parents in our stores. There's a lot more awareness that many different toys can help differently abled children with everything from motor skills to fundamental learning. Parents really appreciate an organization helping them make smart decisions."
Toys R Us puts together the guide in cooperation with Lekotek, a non-profit organization that specializes in helping parents with therapeutic development and play for special-needs children. Lekotek reviews the toys in the guide and assigns them with code symbols for the developmental skills they aid.
Among them are the V.Smile Baby: Infant Development System ($34.99). The board with easy-to-press buttons help kids learn shapes and colors and aids thinking, visual and language skills.
There's also the Brilliant Basics Walker-to-Wagon ($24.99), which can double as a walker or pull-wagon and helps fine and gross motor skills.
Toys that can be adapted for special-needs development — mainstream toys at everyday prices — are a growing concern among parents, especially as diagnosis rates for conditions such as autism continue to rise.
Learning and development toys also are one of the growth segments for Toys R Us and the $8 billion toy industry, which has struggled to increase sales in recent years. Toy sales are 3% for the first half of this year, with learning toys among the categories outpacing the industry. While doll sales are flat, for instance, infant and preschool toys rose 4%, youth electronics jumped 8% and arts and crafts increased 6%, according to retail tracker The NPD Group.
"All parents are interested in helping their kids develop better," says Anita Frazier, toy industry analyst for NPD. "Regardless of special needs or not, a parent wants to know if a toy is appropriate for their child. The more that any toy manufacturer or retailer can help, the better."
How Toys R Us is promoting its guide this year:
•Shriver, whose mother Eunice started the Special Olympics in 1968 with support from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, is the guide spokesperson and appears on the cover of the catalog.
"The toys featured throughout the guide provide a wonderful way to inspire children with special needs, encouraging them to have fun while learning everyday skills," Shriver said in a statement. She says the toys can harness "the power of play."
•The 586 stores this month will showcase some of the toys and the guide near entrances.
On shelves, toys are flagged with one or more of 10 color-coded symbols to highlight skills they can help, such as auditory, fine or gross motor, social or tactile.
• Toys R Us has mailed the guide to members of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and sent materials to groups such as the National Down Syndrome Society, Muscular Dystrophy Association and Autism Speaks to promote it to members.
Instructors at Lekotek, which has 35 U.S. locations, tests the toys by putting them in the hands of hundreds of children who use Lekotek facilities. Instructors help write the toy descriptions and the ways in which they can aid areas of development.
"Toys for us are serious business," says Diana Nielander executive director of The National Lekotek Center. "We hope to give parents more information to make the best match for their child. We want them to have a fun, recreational foundation of play and through the process they may learn something."
NEW & NOTABLE
The giant crop symbols that appeared in a field near Lawrence, Kan., last week were not a prelude to an alien invasion (Mel Gibson can relax), nor were they a prank by students from the town's University of Kansas. They were the work of "crop artist" Stan Herd, hired by Sara Lee to promote its Soft & Smooth 100% Whole Wheat breads for back-to-school. The work — the brand logo, a sandwich and a lunchbox — was created in a four-acre wheat field using 40 bales of wheat straw, 23 tons of crushed limestone and 50 bags of red mulch. Sara Lee was big on wheat all summer — promoting how many of its breads are "100% whole wheat" vs. rival breads at www.thejoyofeating.com (click on "joy of lunch boxes").
Getting it off your chest.
A new Playtex bra campaign includes TV and print ads, as well as the now seemingly mandatory social networking website where marketers hope we share our thoughts, e-mail our friends and post videos (i.e., market to each other). At playtexfits.com, visitors can see the print and TV ads, which feature women humorously dishing details of their bra likes and dislikes. Additionally, visitors can vote on ad punch lines, consult a virtual bra fitter named Roz, create funny e-mail, submit home video and watch more Playtex clips, such as a blooper reel from the ad shoot. Among them: a clip with the ad women titled "What Do You Call Them?" Their answers range from the flip ("boobs," "ta-tas") to the affectionate ("my girls") to individual names for their bosom buddies ("Lacey and Casey," "Betty and Jane"). Later this week, TV Guide Channel's Lisa Rinna posts a personal bra video. Talk amongst yourselves.
Competition in "enhanced" beverages — feel-good drinks with healthy additives — is heating up as Coke gets behind VitaminWater from its new Glacéau unit. That has Pepsi looking for ways to pump up Gatorade — still outrunning the sports drink pack with an 80% share but hitting the wall on growth this summer.
Coming is G2, a soft-rock version of Gatorade aimed at folks who aren't working up a sweat. It's designed to be a sporty drink in non-athletic settings where folks might pass on grabbing regular Gatorade. G2's 25 calories and 7 grams of carbs per 8-ounce serving are half the heft of Gatorade.
Pepsi also will boost Gatorade's Propel enhanced water line with mildly caffeinated Propel Invigorating Water.
One group that will need real Gatorade: Pepsi distributors sweating to get shelf space when the new brands roll out starting in December.
ASK THE AD TEAM
Q: Is it just me or am I seeing a lot of the same faces in commercials for different products? It seems like I've seen the guy from a Coors Wide Mouth Can commercial in the one for Stanley Works tools in which two construction workers joust with a tape measure. And is that the former Mr. Wendy's playing the "Dinner" character in a Jack in the Box commercial?
A: It's not just you. It's actor Kyle Bornheimer in the Stanley Works tools ad as the victorious jouster and in the Coors ad as the guy enjoying the rolling river.
VIDEO:Bornheimer in ad for ... Coors Light | Stanley Works tools
Also, it is indeed actor Roger Eschbacher, who was the "unofficial spokesman" for Wendy's and now is playing "Dinner" in ads for West Coast burger chain Jack in the Box.
VIDEO:Eschbacher in Jack in the Box ad
You've got a great eye, considering Eschbacher as "Dinner" is costumed as a burger, with a bun on his head and tomato on his tummy.
Multiple ads aren't that unusual, however. Last year, Nate Torrance had a triple play with ads for Volkswagen's Jetta, Capital One and Enterprise car rental. And two years ago, actress Irene White appeared for Clorox, T-Mobile, Staples, McDonald's and Hallmark.
Why does it happen? "Let's face it, there are a lot of actors seeking roles. This demonstrate that good talent prevails," says Jennifer Golub, director of broadcast and content production for commercial production company Cutwater.
But marketers can draw the line at an actor from their ad appearing for a rival brand. According to the Screen Actors Guild, producers can pay a "holding fee" to keep an actor out of ads for competing products for up to 21 months (roles as extras, unidentifiable voices and spokespeople excepted).
"There is otherwise no limitation or SAG policy with regard to actors appearing in multiple commercials," says Ray Rodriguez, the union's deputy national executive director of contracts. "In fact, SAG supports its members in their efforts to work in multiple commercials. … That is the way they earn their living as professional actors."