The doll world contains within its hallowed halls all kinds of misconceptions that are endlessly tossed around internet chatrooms and collector gathering places. As a seasoned collector and one who has worked in the industry, I find many of them somewhat annoying, really – given all collectors have at their disposal in terms of research and information today, or the laborious tasks many doll collectors undertake to write and publish informing works that can lead the blind to a full-spectrum vision. I blame laziness quite frankly…if you truly love something as much as you profess, then it only makes sense that would want to learn everything you can about it, right? Puddings…are we obsessed, or not? Well, apparently not as the case may be.
There are all kinds of myths. Annual myths like Barbie’s popularity is declining (it’s not) to old myths like Madame Alexander dolls are made in the USA (they are not) to misconceived myths like Robert Tonner sculpts and designs everything his company makes (no, he doesn’t) – even when there is plenty of information to the contrary. What perpetuates these myths is the true lack of understanding within our own industry, and the love of common gossip more than the details surrounding the extraordinary art that exists within dolls. As often as you see simple questions asked, you undoubtedly will find the offerings of ideas, observations, and hearsay in the replies – but seldom do you see facts.
A friend recently shared this article regarding the fashion industry on Facebook, and it reminded me of the early days of internet-based doll collecting, and those that sought to become the experts to which novices could turn for information. Articles such as this and this hold helpful information, but the information is told to the reader much like most published writing in the doll world: sanitized and happy. I love ‘happy’ just as much as any person, but when all you have is ‘happy’, you are left with ignorant bliss that has no distinctive point-of-view with which to calibrate an opinion. Every positive needs a negative to be relevant; otherwise, it’s nothing more than advertising. This is a lesson I learned long ago through my own joyful eyes as a cheerleading collector.
Myths. Stories that have been created out of ignorance and fostered by even more ignorance when they are relayed to another. These are the caveman moments that resulted in Gods and Goddesses, explanations of why the sun rises and sets, and notions spanning the truly ignorant such as Elvis is still alive and the events of 9/11/2001 were staged by our own government. This is beyond stupid, folks…this is wretched obliviousness.
I present before you, 21 of the top doll world myths – there are many others – and we may explore each of them more in future writings…but this is a good start…be informed:
Dolls are creepy – I found it funny that one of the ‘myths’ discussed by About.com’s author was that dolls are creepy. How very, very foolish. This article (although highly outdated) is being read by people who are, at least, somewhat interested in collecting dolls; otherwise, why are they reading your article in the first place? And you remind them that people find dolls to be creepy? FAIL. They’ve just moved on to stamps or coins…and you’ve lost a reader.
Dolls can be creepy, unsettling…even horrifying…but anything can be scary if it is intentionally made to look so. Creating this as a generic group is just wrong. Although dolls can be creepy…most of them are not – actually far from it. But now, it’s all related to the point-of-view of the individual, yes? Of course it is…and this point-of-view begets a stereotype amongst the mouthiest people, or comedians, whichever comes first…and a commonality is created in the same light as Barbie’s impossible figure (and that is a myth I have already covered at great length here).
Doll collectors are hoarders – I hate this myth. It’s right up there with ‘dolls are creepy’ – because these are assumptions made by non-doll people as to how doll collectors must live. And the mainstream media doesn’t seem to have any interest in showcasing doll collectors as lovers of fine things, purveyors of arts and fashion, and possessing of incredible taste and virtue. It’s probably because they read our chat boards.
‘Collectible’ dolls are ‘Valuable’ dolls – Marketing bullshit that has extended to the appeal of people who don’t know any better has created this stereotype. Simply labeling any product as ‘collectible’ means nothing unless it is actually acquired, and re-acquired. That being said, collect-ability is driven by demand, which drives price. If a doll is actually collected and in demand, it can be valuable – but not because some packaging designer or marketing writer applied the term ‘collectible’ as an adjective describing the type of doll contained therein. Anything can be a ‘collectible’ if two or more people collect it.
Tyler’s head got bigger – OK…this isn’t really discussed outside Tonner collectors (and is virtually unknown to the rest of the doll world), but it is a myth just the same. This is a long one because you need to understand the history before busting this myth.
I hear collectors discuss this like it was some huge conspiracy theory, and there is some truth to it, but the conclusions drawn are usually so out-of-proportion, or they come from false observations – and no one ever thinks to just ask the company (which often happens in collector discussions that typically result in most myths). The completely false part of this notion is that the company deliberately increased Tyler’s head size. This is exacerbated by offerings of visual evidence, side-by-side comparisons and allegations of actual measurements taken of Tyler’s head. To understand why I believe this is one huge myth, you have to understand the way Tyler was developed. Of course, there are some who will refuse to believe it – but this is the truth.
You have to put your mind back in the days before 3D imaging and scanning technologies were readily available (and cost prohibitive). Robert Tonner had just released Julia for L.L. Knickerbocker – she was a beautiful 16inch Wannabe based on a fictional romance novel heroine. He also developed Zoe, another 16inch fashion doll in a partnership that ended before the doll was issued. Zoe was clearly very Tyler like in her modernity, but drew more influences from Julia. In my opinion, when you place Robert’s sculpts in a true timeline of when they were actually sculpted, they tend to borrow features from the sculpt immediately preceding a given sculpt (this is also true of other doll sculptors). Dolls are not always released in the same timeline as when they were created, so it’s not always apparent to the collector. This is something you see in almost any artist’s progression. Those who closely follow Tonner as a doll artist, rather than a manufacturer, know exactly what I mean here.
When Tyler was sculpted, Robert knew he wanted Tyler to have a hard plastic body. Hard plastic development is very expensive in up-front development costs – and he knew his dream fashion doll would have more versatility if she had a hard plastic body. Simply put, once you pay for the molds, hard plastic parts are very inexpensive to reproduce in mass quantity. That, and hard plastic also allows for clean precision in articulation which doesn’t inhibit the sculpt. It is also very durable.
The head, however – now that’s a different story. Robert wanted Tyler to have rooted saran hair, and you can’t root hard plastic without it breaking. So he opted to develop the head in vinyl, which is pliable when heated, and ideal for rooting. But Robert discovered something about vinyl when molds are cast from an original sculpt – the resulting vinyl head pulled from that mold shrinks and will be smaller than the original sculpt. Hard plastic has virtually no shrinkage.
When the first parts of Tyler came together, the vinyl head was smaller in proportion to the hard plastic body – the head no longer matched the original sculpt’s proportions. The first prototype of Tyler that was photographed and released for promotional purposes shows this head, and it was hand-painted by Robert. There is much more detail in this prototype when compared to the subsequent production heads – and there’s a reason why.
Today, manufacturers have more advanced methods technologically to overcome such an obstacle…but not so in the late 1990s. Two options were available: sculpt a new head and hope it would be ready in time to even TRY to ship the doll in the same calendar year; or an unconventional approach to soak a vinyl head sample pulled from the original mold in a chemical solution, causing it to expand slightly as the solution was absorbed into the porous vinyl. They had to work quickly and recast a new mold as the expansion would only be temporary. You see, vinyl is very forgiving and has excellent memory once it is poured and cooled – you can distort the crap out of it, but given exposure to the right amount of heat, it will almost always return to its original shape as when it was first cooled and pulled from a mold. Ever have a warped vinyl head, arm or leg? Apply a blow dryer to it, and watch it magically correct itself (there are exceptions to this, so don’t write to me how you ruined your doll at my suggestion).
By using this clever method, Tonner was able to temporarily increase Tyler’s head to a proportion that worked with the body, and he quickly made a mold from it. On the downside, expansion of the vinyl meant fine detail would be softened (reduced, if you will), thereby distorting the sculpted appearance – but what the hell – it was cheaper than developing a whole new head (Tonner did develop a second head, but never put it into production – to this day, it is believed there are only five such heads pulled from that mold – only one was sold to the public as a one-of-a-kind charity doll known as ‘Alternate Universe’ Tyler). Tonner was pleased with the expanded head, and used it for Tyler’s initial production. That is why the production doll differs from the prototype.
When Tyler arrived in the hands of eager collectors some 10 months after she debuted at Toy Fair, people were surprised at her appearance, and a few other anomalies – namely, the ‘hole’ in the back of her head. Those who play with their dolls, and those quick to customize the first Tyler dolls were pleased to see she had a rooted part in her hair, but were dismayed by a mysterious hole they discovered at the crown of her head. Again…so few thought to simply ask the company why it was there, because there was a very good explanation. Rather, many took their uninformed loud mouths to the internet and proclaimed it a flaw – a hideous feature – a damnable slap in the face to faithful doll collectors everywhere. I’m not joking – people had some truly ass-smack, shitastic opinions and theories about this hole – it was amusing to read, really. I wasn’t with the company yet, and like most intelligent and curious fans, I called the company and asked. The explanation was pretty simple, and involved no harm to animals, hell-spawn conspiracies, or manufacturer fraud to speak of – in fact, it made sense when you knew the real story.
Robert Tonner is an avid collector of fashion dolls – he is even known as an expert on the subject matter. Spice this with the fact that he is a sculptor, and well, you’d see his observations regarding HIS fashion doll were pretty tight. One observation, particularly with Gene Marshall (though there were others), was that the head had limited movement at the neck joint. He wanted Tyler to have a wider range in this movement. Most dolls are pulled from the mold by the neck joint, and the neck is retooled later – often resulting in a less precise coupling than could be realized if the neck concave were actually molded, and the head was pulled from the back of the head. The latter method allows for an engineered and sculpted concave that would remain true after the head was removed from the mold…but it leaves a giant, gaping hole in the back of the head, which must then be capped. Since it’s all covered with rooted hair, who would care? Who, indeed…
The cap had a smaller hole in it that was later replaced with a solid cap. I’m not 100% certain that the tiny hole had a function, but there was a reason for it to be there – one that the factory seemed to work through in order to create a solid cap. It was all progression in development – something a company with limited funds could embrace and improve as the product matured. End of ‘hole-in-the-head’ story. But keep this in the back of your mind as we move on (pun intended)…
Two other instances occurred in Tyler’s earlier days that caused collector incontinence at the expense of this poor little doll company trying to make a buck with its artist’s vision. Sydney Chase was released and Tyler’s head got ‘squishy’ (see what I mean by ‘squishy’ here). Sydney was a loser before the new face paint appeared (see below), but Tyler’s head getting ‘squishy’, or becoming so soft to the touch that it could be easily pinched with your fingers, cause such an excessive outcry from the Tyler fans that it fostered a fair amount of therapy for some of the Tonner employees. Some screamed that the company was obviously trying to reduce production costs by adding plasticizer to the chemical mix – one collector boasted her husband had some direct connection with chemical engineering (or some shit like that), and he told her Tonner was trying to rip off their customers by employing this tactic. A band of Tonner Cheerleader Haters used it to begin their ‘Tonner’s quality is plummeting’ campaign. Still another pushed her own “I hate Robert Tonner” agenda (probably someone at Madame Alexander) by claiming it was an obvious and intentional case of ‘bait and switch’ (which would be ironic if it actually WAS someone at Madame Alexander). And yet, the truth – albeit not as sensational or glamorous – was simply that a mistake had been made in vinyl formulation. That’s it…a mistake…by some, poor…human. Gee…I could only wish everyone were as perfect as those loud mouths who were so quick to cast Tonner into collectible hell. They probably could give FOX News a run for their money. Nevertheless, the heads were no lesser quality than the firmer ones…not in one single aspect. If anything, they would be easier to remove and replace, and quite possibly more durable.
By this time…I had graduated from being Tonner Cheerleader to Tonner Employee. I was outraged by the mouthy allegations that were taking place. Seriously…there was some serious hating going on then. All because a mistake was made…a mistake that in no way detracted from the quality of the finished product, in fact – it made things a lot easier for head swappers and re-rooters. We didn’t really think it was a problem as it didn’t affect the long term quality. I even thought it was laughable about the ‘adding plasticizer’ theory. Who ADDS something to a chemical polymer formula to REDUCE cost? Really? I suppose the aforementioned husband and his Age 9+ chemistry set may have had more of an understanding of how the chemistry works – but sweetie, Tonner is a doll maker…not the Department of Defense – there was no mad scientist at play here. And I used to work for DOD for 12 years, so tell me something I don’t know.
Bullshit. It’s all bullshit…and here’s why…collectors think ‘heavy’ or ‘firm’ means quality – it does not. Integrity Toys uses high-end quality plastics that also happen to be lightweight – even they have had their developmental moments in manufacturing plastics that have led to outcries from its customers. The same can be said of Mattel, Sideshow Toys, Hasbro, and even Lego (yeah – the building bricks). There are always durability and stability issues with plastics, but then there is also the mindset of a reasonable collector who is going to observe such limits when playing with his/her dolls instead of trying to create their own custom version of the Human Centipede. At some point, a plastic is going to fail – trying to determine when is a very imprecise science. Of course, ‘reasonable’ is the key term – and everyone seems to have a unique interpretation of this word’s concept. I don’t care how much a doll costs, if it’s made with plastic, you will always have some type of issue with it – it is highly durable, and quite suitable for doll making in mass quantity, but it is not perfect…nothing is.
There is one final thing you need to know about how a doll is made to better bring this concept home – and that is the reality that molds don’t last forever. With repeated high-volume use, they wear…and eventually must be replaced. New molds are typically made from a set of master molds – or originals that are kept for the purpose of re-creating molds when the time arises. No one re-sculpts the same damn thing to do this – no one. And yes, it is possible there may be some distortion in sizing that may occur – and given modifications to the methods used to cap the back of Tyler’s head will also result in some sizing distortion. But the master head was…and still is…THE SAME. It has never changed…no one ever purposefully increased the head size until Tyler 2.0 was released, which was a completely new head sculpt. And don’t bother with suggesting an original sculpt was re-cast – if anything, this would result in a smaller head…not larger.
I’ve seen side-by-side comparisons of ‘old’ Tyler and later releases – ‘proving’ – ‘without a doubt’ (reasonable or otherwise) – the increase in her head size. Of course…no one was talking about other factors that clearly offset any such claim. Such as the placement of the hair line, factors in modified face painting and even skin tone – things that all contribute to the illusion of an increased head size. I didn’t see a bigger head…I saw larger features resulting from rooting, face paint and vinyl color.
I will place a caveat on all this that will acknowledge there may be some heads out there where some type of actual vinyl distortion may be true. But that is not the norm…and it is not as widespread as the mythological soothsayers would lead you to believe. I would even bet you a Diet Coke that no single or collective person can prove such a ‘big head Tyler’ exists in any number that is significant enough to add even a shred of plausibility to this doll world urban legend. I don’t care what you say – I say, ‘prove it.’ And by asking you to prove they exist, you can still never prove it was an intentional act on the company’s part. But now, I don’t work for them anymore…so they may have a different story. Who knows…maybe I was told all the lies when writing Tyler’s 10th Anniversary Book, and this has all been for nothing – eh, whatever – it’s just a doll head. And if I am wrong, I will happily admit it – but I don’t think I am.
Men who collect dolls are gay – Despite it being the norm, this isn’t true. And this is without including action figures (which are dolls). It’s yet another stereotype that has invaded the doll world culture in an effort to alienate eager novices from strolling in our garden. Not all men who collect dolls are gay – and collecting dolls does not make you gay. Now…there are many gay male (and female) doll collectors, but I personally know many straight men and even heterosexual male/female couples that share the hobby together. Men who are insecure in their own sexuality often feel such threats. Men who do not feel threatened by gay people just don’t give a damn whether not a person is gay, straight, or whatever. And that’s most of the straight men I not only know, but call them dear friends. Many of you might think this is an unnecessary myth to debunk…but you’d be overwhelmingly surprised by the cliché’s of which doll collectors are referred (some actually happen to be true). This is one of the biggest – and one that is definitely a myth.
Repainters are rolling it in – Someone will see an isolated repainted doll on eBay sell for some ungodly amount, and naturally assume that the artist must be rolling in the cash. But what may be the norm of a celebrity repainter or two is nowhere near what most of the other accomplished artists earn. Many repainters who use the art as an income rely on two types of sales: those that come from commission requests and those that come from open sales (whether the sale be in a public online marketplace or via the artist’s own personal website).
Commissions typically cost more depending on the doll and subject matter, as well as the artist’s following. Remember, it only takes two people to drive a price up. Shills exist – though many of the established artists gag at the thought; don’t ever underestimate the power of an ego wanting the world to think one’s shit is worth more than it really is. But even shilling is rare these days…it’s just too easy to get caught.
With commissions however, there is a problem – they often can take more time and effort, hence the premium pricing. There may also be revisions, or complete re-dos to satisfy the customer. Moreover, the subject matter may not be to an artist’s best hand – so it can detract from the public image customers hold of a particular repainter. Remember…everything you do is a brand builder – so if you do soft, romantic child faces, something like vomiting zombies of the sexual apocalypse probably isn’t going to blend well in your photo gallery.
Take into account, as you may, how artists go about branding their work. They circulate images in print and online, requiring extensive photography of their work. They donate work to charities and giveaways to gain exposure. Many travel to conventions and doll shows to set up sales tables so people can see their work in person. Some clever repainters even place their work with strategic owners where sharing is multiplied through the owner’s resources. Even the big-bucks repainters have to work hard to maintain what they’ve built – you’re only as good as your last repaint, and sitting idle simply means another artist will gain ground, making you yesterday’s news.
People who think repainters are earning big money are obviously looking at one or two artists and learning nothing more. Gush all you want as artist fans tend to do, but at least know how to evaluate quality repaints. Painting technique is not unlike hand-writing – it’s a skill…it can be learned and mastered which explains why some people have lovely hand-writing and some have illegible chicken scratch. It is a skill to be respected, but it should not be equated to a specific talent. Talent is more intuitive, and involves creation. Let me put it this way: An artist can copy the Mona Lisa, stroke for stroke, rendering a virtually indistinguishable version to the eye…and yet, it is still a copy. The copy differs from the original because the original was conceptualized, composed and created by another artist. The copy possesses the same skills required to render the subject, but it lacks the talent of being the original. That being said, repaints are usually original portraiture, requiring both skill and talent to achieve the best results.
Consider the ignorance of collectors that compare a repaint to a manufactured doll. I’m not talking about casual conversation, mind you…but the ones that seriously say, “If the manufactured doll looked like that, I would have bought her.” What an imbecilic, foolish comment to make – do your words have no meaning to yourself? If the manufacturer could afford to paint her like that, they would – and happily pass those costs onto you, the customer. This is just a vacuous expression which basically says the speaker doesn’t care about what they say, and he/she likely feels clever for saying it hoping someone else will agree or find it amusing – or that it will flatter the artist. Sheer stupidity like this is why the art of meaningful conversation is dying.
Repaints walk a fine line in this arena. It’s one thing to repaint a doll sculpted in the likeness of Johnny Depp, and make it look like Johnny Depp. It’s quite another to take an everyday Pink Box Barbie, and turn her into Madonna. A good make-up designer could repaint the Statue of Liberty and make her look fabulous, but a good artist could take anything and make it art.
Even then, how does the repaint compare when viewed at different angles – in different lighting? We’ve all seen the Seinfeld episode where the girlfriend appears completely different given the change in lighting – well, angle and lighting are litmus tests for a quality repaint. Add other factors like changing a sculpt through subtractive or additive techniques to fabricate an entirely different face or expression – well, you begin to understand where I’m coming from. There are many myths involved in repainting…one day, I’ll explore this subject at greater depth…but don’t wait for me! Start looking at repaints with a new eye…scrutinize them more. Is it a copy of a person’s portrait (which is just fine, mind you) or does it involve extra steps to build a character from something more generic? Knowing and understanding these elements of repainting and makeover skills create a better comprehension and appreciation of the work that goes into it.
All-in-all, repainters work just like everyone else, what they don’t achieve in high profile sales, they make up for with commissions and stock sales. It’s a job, like any other – and it may come with a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean it also comes with a Cartier tiara.
Dolls are overpriced – How in the hell do you know? Did you make one just like it for less? Or are you comparing it to something another company has made with different resources available to them. The matter-of-factly word ‘overpriced’ implies you know something about the costs, yes? The answer is often ‘no‘. It’s an over-used term in the doll world. What you really mean is your perception of what the doll should cost…nothing more, and don’t read into that. Perception is one of the driving forces that shape a doll’s price, and it works both for and against the collector – as I explained here, a strapless ballgown may cost substantially less to produce than a tailored suit, but the collector thinks the ballgown is more substantive – ergo, it will probably carry a higher price, and the suit’s prices will be reduced to reflect that it doesn’t look as big as a gown. Collectors have created this madness for themselves, and the doll makers sit back and watch. Which brings me to:
Doll companies listen to their customers – No…they don’t, really. At least not the way you think they do – not if they want to stay in business. Or rather, they may listen to their customers (such as customer service quality issues), but they don’t hear much of what is said. A company representative will listen to a person praise or complain – they may even take notes – more in an effort of respect they allow the customer a chance to be heard. But little of it actually comes back to the company with respect to business ideas or planning. Oh yeah…they will throw you a bone now and then, but this comes more from realizing they made a mistake, or correcting some other wrong, or they were already working on it. It’s more coincidence than anything else.
Decades ago when I bought those accursed Franklin Mint porcelain Gone With The Wind dolls, I wrote them a letter suggesting which outfits I thought they could do next in the series – like any normal fan would do. I was shocked when a couple of weeks later, I was sent a release form to sign and return. Apparently, the Franklin Mint must have thought I was secretly the legal owner of the film and it’s rights – otherwise, why in the hell would they care if a fan wrote them a letter asking for more shit to buy from them? There may be some legal precedence for this (in pre-war Nazi Germany, maybe)…but it was just stupid and bad customer service when a ‘thank you’ letter would have been much more appropriate.
You’d be surprised how fearful companies are when it comes to even a hint of idea stealing, and other intellectual/design property theft – they don’t WANT to hear your ideas…or you may have to sign a waiver to get their ears open. Oh sure…idea theft has happened, but it’s just not that common. Innocent collectors are unaware of this…they just want to offer their input – input that may result in a beautiful doll they will want to add to their collection – it really is that simple. But this has been poisoned by the assholes out there that get so upset when a company rejects their idea, or openly accuse the company of stealing a simple idea – companies have no choice but to protect themselves. There is no gray here. They don’t want to hear your ideas…period.
Companies are listening to the people they pay good money to generate ideas and strategies. That’s why they pay them. Many of the people in the more astute companies who do this type of work are very well researched, and stay on top of trends. Some of these ideas can be influenced by customer input, but that doesn’t mean the company is listening to them. In most cases, the company is really listening to chief decision makers who in some cases, can be so amazingly removed from customer perception that it makes you wonder why in the hell they haven’t gone out of business. Or, one egotistically thinks they can create or influence doll trends in some way, shape or form – when they really have an ulterior purpose to express their own individualistic creativity, rather than make money for the company/employer.
So the next time you’re in a Q&A session with a doll maker, or when you whore your sketchbooks to company representatives thinking they may actually be interested, or if you believe you found the next best thing in the dolly universe – do it yourself, because the companies really aren’t interested unless you bankroll it, you are on their payroll, they approach you, or – yes – if they want to rip you off. As always, there are exceptions…but know what a company’s idea submission policies are, and leave your ego out of it.
All doll artists are doll makers – This may seem like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people think that the terms are interchangeable. Doll artists don’t really care…but doll makers care very much, especially when they are held in the same light as the doll artist. Simply put, doll artists are artists who work with dolls as a medium – but don’t actually make the doll. A doll maker actually makes dolls. A doll maker can also be a doll artist, but rarely is the doll artist also a doll maker.
Typically, the doll maker is a sculptor, usually creating a doll from clay, cloth, wood…you name it. In order to make a doll, you must apply some working type of art to make the doll a reality. A doll artist is an artist who works with dolls, they may even participate in the making of a doll, but they are not the doll maker per se.
As I discussed here, this isn’t as much of an issue today as it was many years ago…because artists can realize their dreams and visions using many newer types of methods to bring their doll idea to market. But you will find among doll makers there lacks a mutual respect for doll artists because they haven’t actually made a doll. Some used to think the same of the fashion industry, and like the article that inspired this post, it is interesting to compare this to fashion designers who don’t sew. The same can be said of doll company ‘designers’ that really don’t design anything, they are more product planners and supervisors of sample/pattern makers. That being said, these designers must have a working knowledge of design, or they wouldn’t be able to function in their job.
This may all seem like semantics to you, but it is a very real concept and class division in our doll world…particularly where doll makers are concerned.
The prototype should match the production – Well…yes and no. I have spoken about this here, but there are some things to consider when assessing the validity of this myth. The first thing is: does the company have any mechanism in place to ensure prototypes look like production items in the first place – that is, materials shortages, mistakes, or design changes? Lots of things can go wrong in making a doll, but when a company fails to inform its customers about any changes made to what they initially promoted (using the image of the prototype), that is when you have the real problem. It’s not the mistakes they make – it’s how they deal with them.
Some collectors disagree, believing that if a doll doesn’t match its prototype, it shouldn’t be released. And man…that’s a hard reality – inflexible to say the least. The most valid concerns come from those who rely on pre-ordering because so many doll shops have disappeared, and there is no practical way to see the doll in person. It’s not enough that a doll maker may have a great doll hospital or a return policy – no, this is about crushed expectations, which can happen even if the doll is exactly like the prototype.
When Tonner released Mover & Shaker and Firebird Sydney Chase dolls, the factory accidentally swapped the face paint designs for the two dolls in production. The suited doll was supposed to have a soft color palette – the evening gown, a dramatic makeup design. Instead, they were produced the other way around. They were released, and the fallout was huge. The company’s solution was to create 100 heads that would replace the Firebird doll’s head through the doll hospital IF AND ONLY IF the collector directly requested it. Now…how stupid was this, really? It would take just one falling into those rabid online bitches’ hands – and that’s it, baby. The absurdity of this entire scenario isn’t what happened or how it was handled – this type of customer service was still a bit new in those days, and they at least tried to do something without making a big stink over it. No…the truly stupid part was that hardly a single soul complained about Mover & Shaker’s changed face paint. Inconsistency destroys any argumenta validity, in my own humble opinion.
I would later discover that Sydney wasn’t originally a hit with collectors based on the first prototype doll and ‘Black & White Ball’ – they hated the sculpt and her face paint. But when Sherry Miller had transitioned into the face paint design role, and Sydney shipped to collectors with a new face paint (again, without even notifying the retailers or collectors), she was such an unexpected and beautiful surprise. So ironic when the change works in favor of the product, no? The Sydney collectors became a force to be reckoned with – they had a loud voice, high expectations, and they weren’t having any of Tyler’s ‘sweetness and light’ for their Sydney Chase – oh, no…they wanted their bitch to be fierce. But man…watch the number of redheads you offer up to them…they count!
It was Sydney that changed the momentum with the Tyler doll and clothing collection – and in her wake, she created an acid-tongued fan that, given life on the internet, became a customer service nightmare. And we would see many more prototypes change over the years…sometimes we actually were able to re-photograph and publicize…and sometimes, no. And each and every time, the customer service people answering phones and email caught the brunt of it…but that’s their job, right?
So I suppose it is a great goal, “the prototype should match production” – but it can be an easy mark to miss, and in conditioning your customers to expect such surprises – well, that’s a killer when it comes to pre-ordering and overall brand loyalty. The prototype should match production, but when it doesn’t, act quickly to let your customer know – then find out why the mistake happened and install devices to ensure it doesn’t happen again – but hey, I’m a Demings Quality Theory purist…not that anyone is asking or cared anyway.
Mattel stifles its competition – Mattel is a business…it’s their goal to outsell their competitors. Sometimes, they even respond directly to a new product in order to not lose any of its market share (Barbie and the Rockers and My Scene come to mind). Some say this is playing dirty, and that they are bullies because they have loads of operating capital. But you don’t become ‘Mattel’ by sitting around hugging and kissing your competitors.
It always starts the same way with any company – competition begins with protection of a brand, in this case – Barbie. Barbie was a hit with Mattel, and with a handful of other little toy gems, they accomplished what other businesses didn’t or couldn’t do. But as soon as Barbie became a blip on the toy radar screen, companies were instantly trying to copy the concept. As time progressed, the Barbie 11.5inch size would become the norm for girl toy dolls (there are some notable exceptions – but nevertheless, out of the ordinary). Legal battles would rage between Mattel and Hasbro – eventually extending to MGA Entertainment over the Bratz creation issue – and Mattel would undergo huge critical commentary and observation for doing what any normal capitalist market business would and should do – protect its brands to maintain that competitive edge. You may not like it, but honey – this is business – and there’s no other way to make it ‘polite’. If somebody starts sniffing around your litter box, you swat them quick and hard to leave them with a lasting impression to not do it again. Other businesses do it all the time, with little more than a yawn from the public – but these are toys, and as such, they are expected to be just as playful and innocent as their end users. Wake up, biscuits…you’ll never last with that attitude.
If anything, Mattel would want to foster competition – because that gives them a chance to shine. When companies compete, it’s a process by which they examine their product and the products of competitors – why does a competitor’s product appeal to its audience, and why do they choose that product over another? This is an opportunity for companies to improve upon their offerings, so that its product can overtake another on the competitive playing field. Anyone who underestimates its competition, will ultimately lose – no questions asked.
In all honesty, if Mattel truly stifled its competition, you’d see far less doll companies innovating in the marketplace (Integrity Toys is a prime example). And if they ignored it, you would never have seen innovations such as the BFMC Silkstone dolls. So suffice it to say, there is a push and pull in this industry, and Mattel to Barbie is not too different from sunshine to chlorophyll. Oh yes…there are always ugly stories when it comes to this subject matter, some even seem unfair – but again, business is not a pretty game.
Limited editions are absolute – As I explained here, there is a game in the limited edition numbering scheme of things…and it’s mostly honored by the companies who actually publish edition sizes. But because companies don’t want other competitors to know their actual numbers, the editions can be exaggerated to project something larger than it actually is. If you publish an edition size of 1000 dolls, but only make 300, then it sends a very skewed message when those 300 sell out – one that implies ‘1000’ actually sold, thereby creating a sense more sold than what really did. This creates a matter of urgency on the part of the collector once they hear a particular doll has ‘sold out’ – especially when the next edition is released. I think this can be just as deceptive as making more than a published edition size because it suggests a false sense of demand. Ask yourself how many were actually made and sold – not ‘what size is the edition‘.
NRFB Dolls are Most Valuable – In cases where the doll was never meant to be removed from the box in the first, place, there is merit here – but hear me out. Dolls that are removed from the box can easily be worth more if there is an oddity discovered such as staining, or some other packaging disaster that is never seen unless the doll is removed, and in some cases unclothed. Look at all those Gene Marshall dolls that were kept NRFB and were later discovered to have yellowing bodies. Not all these dolls were affected; so it seems reasonable to assume that one might have saved an otherwise beautiful doll from a fate rendering it worthless and unsightly.
Still more truthful is exactly what definition does one place on ‘value’. Even if you mean its monetary value, there are many factors that will affect a dolls ultimate value – the first and most important being demand. If nobody wants a doll you are selling, it doesn’t matter how much money you paid for it. And yet, even popular dolls dependent on its packaging for condition assessment, such as Barbie, can be worth quite a bit of money out of its packaging if someone really wants her. This practice comes into play when the NRFB snobs have priced NRFB dolls beyond the reach of loyal collectors who simply don’t have the means to pay top dollar for a doll. So they lower their standards, and they search for dolls out of the box, or loose clothing, observing condition and other factors when deciding if this doll is worth the price attached to it. It is true that the NRFB doll may bring more money to a seller, but that doesn’t mean that a doll kept in fantastic condition outside its packaging is worthless…not as long as there is demand.
Staining is caused by manufacturer irresponsibility – staining is a reality, preventable in many cases, but so completely mysterious that many doll makers are often stunned when they learn staining has occurred on their doll, despite measures taken to prevent it. Many have argued that for the price of certain dolls, staining should never occur – but it just isn’t that simple. It’s not just the dyes that become problematic when dealing with vividly colored and dark hued fabrics…but the materials of the doll, the environmental conditions, even the packaging can all have some effect on colors transferring to a doll. In some cases, this effect won’t even be visible for a significant amount of time.
Many fabrics are designed for human wearing apparel, and not for use in doll making, and few fabric mills could care less about dyes leaching from the fabric they create. Doll manufacturers don’t really create their own fabrics – and even if they did, they would still have to contend with thread, zippers and other notions/trims where color can transfer onto a doll.
The true solution is not to use certain colors ever…but this is not realistic. The better solution is to put preventative measures in place, and have great customer service to help when staining is observed. Notifying your customers immediately is another great practice, but often avoided because it causes panic, and because of the people who take advantage of such situations. Some people just don’t care…especially if the doll is never to be removed from its box, or if the clothing is not to be removed, keeping a doll pristine. But having a zero-tolerance on staining is highly impractical.
Online doll groups are the voice of the community – Really? How many do you follow – reading only (lurking), or as an active participant? Somewhere in between actual discussions of dolls you’ll find all kinds of talk about family, pets, health, kids, life problems, etc. For some, such off-topic discussions hold the cement of a community together, creating friendships and relationships that rise above the hobby of collecting dolls. That’s all fine and good, but the reality is it creates such a diversion from the chat board, building a reputation for tolerating such dialogue that people exercise more than their right to ‘scroll on by’. They leave the environment altogether, taking with them intelligent points-of-view, observations and information that is critical to how our community operates in the first place. It is also another reason why more and more collectors gravitate to places like Facebook, where they can filter what they choose to see.
I’m happy that people feel their lives have amazing milestones in it – we all have them – and we want to share them with our friends. I get it. But one’s insistence of creating a world of social connection that is all encompassing, and dumping that into the confines of an environment created for the discussion, edification and entertainment based on one limited subject matter is rude to other members of the group, even if it is condoned by the polite people that show interest in such posts – that doesn’t mean the polite people want to read it. It also says that you really don’t have much of value to share that is on topic, so why are you there in the first place? That is the real question…and one that will persist as long as we have dedicated online forums that attract members based on a common interest, dolls or otherwise.
Used to be that companies read these boards, if nothing else, for amusement (though they all deny it). But now, despite membership numbering in the hundreds, even thousands – the truly active participants number in the teens. As a marketing professional, I used to be greatly distressed when false information was passed to others by means of such forums – some may know better, but then there are the lurkers, who just skim and read – and pick up incredible amounts of false information because they rely on a group’s membership and its collective knowledge. I don’t worry so much anymore, because those that truly crave information know exactly where to find it. But it does make me a little sad for those that selfishly insist they have every right to do what they do. This isn’t about rights…or even permissions…it’s about relevance, and my mother always told me if you don’t have anything relevant to add, then best to keep quiet (it’s OK if it’s not nice, as long as it’s relevant).
Resin is a superior material in doll making – it can be, just like plastic can be a superior material in doll making, but as with all polymer compositions, the spectrum of variation in plastic/resin quality is so wide, that again we fall victim to an all-encompassing stereotype perpetuated by ignorant people.
Used to be that porcelain was considered the premium material, but direct mail companies and would-be ‘collectible’ doll makers discovered that it is one of the cheapest of production methods, and creating very fine porcelains and china compositions can be a costly process – something avoided by mass doll makers. Here’s the thing – doll artists who also happen to be doll makers (see above) are very particular when it comes to selecting the right materials with which to render their work. In human representation, the skin is a very important consideration (it is the largest human organ, you know). An artist will agonize over the texture to meet personal ideals reflected in their portrait work. When you have to translate your work into something from which several copies will be created, or manufactured – then you find that using the same materials you selected in the initial process just doesn’t cut it cost-wise – or even for durability confines.
That’s the case with resin…it’s the new porcelain. It requires little start-up costs to cast, and in exacting and expensive formulations, it can be quite exquisite as a medium. Resin is also very heavy, and quite limiting when you need to create functional jointing – so much that industrial strength elastic cording needs to be used to keep the damn things operational. And when it does operate, it always seems one or two joints are reliant upon the tension of another – one is pulled, the other must give – affectionately known as ‘kickiness’ – an annoying trait considering how much they cost. Some collectors will replace elastic cords with heavy duty wiring – which instantly devalues the doll, and is not a good permanent solution as most available wires will break with overuse. There are space-age materials that will one day be employed in such jointing – but at that expense, just make the jump to plastic, already.
Just because it’s resin does not mean it’s good – as in not all porcelains are good, not all food is good, and not all dolls are good.
Antique doll collectors hate modern dolls. This is a myth perpetuated by some ‘mean girl’ folks within the antique doll industry that turn their noses up to anything made in modern times – except dolls made by the hands of gifted doll makers in small artist editions, and exclusively for a subset of people who can afford them. This myth just isn’t true. Most antique doll enthusiasts are most interested in doll history, and they consider modern dolls history in the making…these are also the same people who don’t use dolls as a status symbol.
Ball-jointed dolls are innovative – ugh. I hear this one so many times I want to vomit. No, they are not…they’ve been around for centuries, and the only reason people use ball jointing is because they don’t have the money to develop engineered jointing for more durable materials like plastics, where they can refine the jointing to make it less like a ball, and more natural. There are beautiful dolls created by artists that rely on ball-jointing to create articulation in their dolls, because other methods are cost-prohibitive, and there are many fans of this genre that encourage artists to continue making them using the same materials. But the truth is, BJD makers are limited by the medium of which they choose to make their doll (resin – see above – or porcelain) because of the lack of durability to create more refined and engineered jointing which are cleaner in appearance and stronger in functionality. So they are stuck with themselves, and show no signs of yielding – they’ve made peace with the ball joints’ appearance, and they concentrate on faces, the characters created, and the fashion finesse of which some companies are most celebrated. But it is NOT for the innovation in body articulation.
Chinese factories are sweatshops – work standards in the Chinese factory landscape that dominate much of southern China need a good PR firm to work on some image branding. More often than not, what we see as sweatshop, child labor or substandard working conditions are not actually in China…they are in other countries and assumed to be China because you see Asian workers in the pictures. This is more an atrocity of racism than anything else. Yes, there are abuses, as there are in any system – but you cannot judge an entire industry on the select few that mar the landscape.
Truth is, many factories in China are held to very high work conditions and safety standards. Critics would compare what a Chinese worker earns, and the amount of hours one works in a day to that of workers in America – but China isn’t America. Earnings in Yuan on a Chinese economic backdrop simply do not equate to US Dollars in America – or anywhere on Earth, for that matter. This is not an apples to apples comparison. A vast number of Americans are unemployed because they simply won’t do they type of work that the Chinese do in their factories – or work in fast food, clean hotels, you name it.
Living in England, I found it interesting that the lady who cleaned my house taught me a very important lesson about ‘work’. I asked her if her daughter might be embarrassed because she cleans homes for work. She was baffled at my question. “Why?” she asked me. I explained that Americans can often judge people based on the type of work they do…it can be hard on children because of peers – you know what I mean. No…she didn’t. In England, she told me, you work or you don’t – and for those who don’t work, you are either homeless or you are nobility. The world doesn’t think like we Americans…and it can be quite embarrassing to assume they do.
When I visited China during my Tonner years, I was very impressed with the operations I visited in Dongguan and Shenzen. Air conditioning was not present in most of the factories, unless electronics were being produced, or to provide comfort for Western visitors. I found that to be virtually unbearable. But then look at it from their point-of-view – they don’t know air conditioning – I grew up in it. You don’t really miss what you don’t know, now do you? Ventilation is effective and consistent, and it is improving. Just because the Chinese have cleverly assimilated manufacturing used as a common joke on American late night television, does not mean they are inhuman, or incapable of caring for their workers.
Every working industry does have its problems – but don’t judge the Chinese based on misunderstood ideals, and those that are actually prevalent in other countries.
Advertising promotes a doll brand. Published media and those relying on advertising dollars are understandably cautious with all the tender egos in the doll world. If a doll maker counts a competitor has more dolls featured in an issue than your own – well, one little threatening call to the publisher would take care of that ( I know – I have regrettably done this before). And forget any type of critical commentary – including intelligently written objective critique that adds color to journalistic writing – nope. It would seem the doll world wants none of that. I often find that doll magazines should be more like entertainment media…a reporting vehicle that openly embraces critique, and even encourages it in an attempt to guide their readers into making more informed decisions (dare I say influencing them). Such observations keep the entertainment industry focused and fully aware of the reviews. In fact, the magazines that have the more consistent reviews of popular films, books, etc. tend to be the go-to for readers who desire accurate predictions (not unlike the weather). Of course, people love to further criticize critical review and as a result, an interesting conundrum is created: what is more interesting, the subject or its written review and the subsequent opinions praising or condemning said review?
Fashion magazines revolve around an editor’s (and/or publisher’s) opinion of what their readers will enjoy…or should enjoy. Advertising plays a big part in this, as it does with the entertainment world…well, hell…ANY media, for that matter. But when you look at those industries, there is a much larger pool of advertisers and the money they spend that it creates an inner level of competition to drive those funds on which the media relies so heavily. Not so in the doll world. To be more precise, clawing your way through an advertising budget is brutal, considering many doll makers deal with daily decisions like ‘who will actually get paid this month‘, rather than ‘what is our advertising goal‘.
During my days in the doll industry, I was working on an advertising strategy for a new playline doll based on a soon-to-be released movie that had star appeal. This had all the pepper and promise of a hit (as they all do), but it also was an incredible opportunity for brand building to a larger audience outside the doll world. Every doll maker dreams of getting noticed by the mainstream media. This really goes without saying, but let me add some math to it. If you have 100 collectors who buy everything you make in Tyler Wentworth’s world, that’s a reliable source of revenue. These are collectors who have to HAVE everything. But now let’s say you make a single doll that resonates with a much larger audience – say folks who aren’t doll collectors, but they want that one, single doll because they love what it represents. They only want the one doll…but there may be thousands of them (Harry Potter? Lord of the Rings? Star Wars? Yeah…those people). Which group would you want to sell your dolls: 100 of a doll to a core group of collectors – your faithful so-to-speak – or a thousand dolls to a broad range of customers worldwide?
Given this potential, you would think that advertising in mainstream media would be your choice? Well, it certainly was for direct sell companies like The Franklin Mint and Ashton-Drake in the 1980s and 1990s – their ads were everywhere! But understand that direct market companies invest a mammoth amount of time and resources in direct sell assets like mail lists, catalog production and advertising so that they may realize a tiny percentage of return. If you mail out one million catalogs and only get 1% of these recipients to place orders…well, honey…that’s still 10,000 people ordering from you, names collected and added to your mail list, and with an average product sell through rate of $50 – bitch, you just made $500,000. In reality, I’ve simplified this to make it look much sweeter than it is…considering mail lists, printing and national advertising carry unbelievably high price tags…but you get my point.
Now…with that understanding – I would have thought the placement of one mainstream direct sell advertisement would do the trick. How fickle was Tommy. At the time, a one-time placement of a full page color ad in Nickelodeon Magazine would cost $65,000. Really. Puddings…that was virtually my entire annual advertising budget! You see…doll print ads are a mere fraction of that…in and around $1,500 – $2,500 – some were even a little higher, some lower. Whatever…it certainly wasn’t $65K! I don’t know about you, but doll collectors seem to think the doll companies casually drop advertising dollars all over the world…without having a single speck of understanding as to the reality. And when you look at the company’s realization that there is often very little return on that advertising investment unless it’s a direct sale ad (which is now rendered pointless because of the internet’s reach) – that is, what has the advertisement bought you that you couldn’t accomplish to your own audience via a website or email list? The promise of new collectors? Nope – that is highly unlikely because doll publications are struggling to hold it together within their own industry, let alone promoting to new readers. Advertising in the doll world is often thought of as ‘supporting each other’ in a very small community, because it doesn’t really buy the advertiser very much. Don’t blame the doll publications, though…they are using everything they possibly can within their means to stay in business in this ‘gotta-have-it-now’ information age. The fault for this lies with the customer, and its relentless yearning for speed in reporting rather than quality – and ‘pretty pictures’ philosophy rather than interesting reading. Partner that with customers’ misconceptions about the doll industry and the obstacles it faces every day. And to be fair like the true Libran I am, doll makers sometimes take advantage of collector ignorance when marketing to them, as we have explored here. It’s a little give and take, no?
There should be more doll stores. Yes. You are right…there should be more. But there aren’t, and there never will be again. The days of the free-standing bricks and mortar stores are gone with the wind brought on by the internet retailer. Two things destroyed the doll store as we knew it – rampant discounting of dolls by online retailers that could survive on less profit margin, and mismanagement of retail stores in general. Let’s take a look at each, shall we?
Discounting is probably one of the biggest evils in the doll world resulting equally from causes set in place by retailers and collectors. It’s really hard to find the exact origin of it, but discounting arises from simple competition between businesses. Doll companies could do little to control it because of price fixing legalities; however, some makers were clever to simply cancel accounts for those retailers known for unfair discounting practices (usually known to the company through information received from another retailer). Many retailers would regularly turn in other retailers when they in fact, were also discounting. It was a true witch hunt. But then some retailers brought it on themselves through the use of ‘Call For Price’ advertising tactics in print publications made popular by the rise of Gene Marshall, and the creation of Gene doll retirements by Ashton-Drake. The resulting frenzy meant retailers could virtually name their price, inflating secondary market prices and quoting criminal figures to customers over the phone. This practice had more and more retailers creating toll free numbers, so it was easier to call around for those prices. And when collectibles went bust during the dot-com crash…and the internet recovered into a more viable shopping alternative, those prices now became published if the retailer were going to take advantage of website self-serve shopping carts. The rest is a blur…although there are more legal protections for manufacturers when it comes to controlling its retail pricing, discounting is still a reality unless the product is in very high demand (as Gene was back then). But the simple concept of discounting is made more unfair when it comes to a bricks and mortar store realizing higher operating expenses than someone with a storage locker and a computer. It’s the ‘internet-only’ retailer and the customers that supported them that caused irreparable harm to the free-standing store establishments. But that’s not the only stake in these retailers’ hearts…
If you’ve been to many retailer locations as I have, you would immediately see problems that drove many out of business – due to mismanagement, more so than discounting. The problems vary, but all seem to fall within general categories from poor location, inadequate use of local advertising to build a local audience, poor planning for events, ineffective product merchandising (not always the retailer’s fault as high-demand dolls never stay around long enough to create solid display stories), and one of the biggest faults, lack of product diversification within the store to attract a wider variety of buyers, and not just doll collectors. Many retailers weren’t business people at all – instead, they opened their businesses to support their own doll collecting habits – so virtually all of these concepts were purely foreign ideas when it came to managing a collectible retail business. Today, it’s worsened by the buyer who walks into a retail store and sees a product, only to look for it later online for the best possible price, or forget about it altogether. Some of this comes from an economy that discourages impulse buying, but that’s just not enough. For a retail store to truly thrive, one needs a dazzling product mix, engaging environment with regular instore events, loads of local support, and a ‘something for everyone’ mentality that becomes a destination more than the products showcased therein. Sounds impossible? Honey…nothing is impossible…but highly improbable is fairly accurate. Sure – there may be such fortunate establishments out there that have maintained a presence, but they are not common…and they are not many. I would even go as far to say that it’s highly unlikely you will see any new establishments created for the purpose of retailing dolls. It’s not that dolls aren’t in demand – it’s that there are simply too many factors out of a retailer’s control to manage and maintain a strong retail environment based on dolls and other collectibles. So if you are fortunate enough to still have a doll store near you…enjoy it, give it your patronage…because they are a dying breed that are likely to disappear within our lifetimes. Think about that the next time you buy a doll (or anything) on the internet, or say you wish there were more doll stores.
There is a hypothetical solution to this, however…but it’s not anything one single person can do, and it won’t happen quickly. If more and more people changed their views on dolls as a whole (instead of ‘dolls are creepy’ and ‘Barbie destroys self-esteem’ – or doll myths like these in general) – you’d see people are more inclined to love dolls as we do…more makers would rise to meet the demand, and shop owners would come forward to make their stores into destinations where people could enjoy dolls, action figures, and the worlds from which they are born. Collecting dolls is a highly personal experience ensconced in fantasy, fashion, whimsy and beauty. Isn’t it a crying shame that no one has pieced all of these into a destination in which we can indulge? There is Disney, but that costs $100 bucks just to get in!