The robot is four-foot high, has more than 500 parts and an uncanny resemblance to Johnny 5 from the 1980s hit film Short Circuit. It can do a jerky hip-hop dance, tell jokes and help children learn coding.
But the Meccanoid, Meccano’s latest toy for the smartphone generation, will mostly be marketed to boys.
Ben Varadi, vice president of Spin Master, the Canadian toy company that owns Meccano, said the marketing would be aimed “more so at boys because the construction industry has tended to be more boy-orientated”.
However he added that “any smart kid” or “anybody who is into exploration, creativity, building and love of engineering” – boy or girl – would want to play with the robot.
A poster at the London Toy Fair, where a prototype model was unveiled, described the target market as “boys 8+”. At the trade fair, Spin Master was also promoting its ‘Sew Cool’ threadless sewing machines and chocolate makers, which the company is targeting at girls. Air Hogs, the company’s air-propelled toy planes, and ‘Monster Trucks’ are aimed at boys.
Varadi, who is also Spin Master’s chief creative officer, disagreed with the idea that marketing was sending a signal to girls that engineering and construction toys were not for them. “It is like when you see laundry detergent commercials on the TV. They never show a man throwing his laundry in, and yet I buy detergent.”
“Toy companies make what they believe kids will be excited about buying, just like any company on earth. We follow historically what kids have told us or how kids are orientated.”
But he admitted the toy industry was “robotic” in its marketing because it believes that campaigns aimed at boys and girls would be confusing. “We tend to chase the 80% [boys buying Meccano] not the 20%, because sometimes when you try and incorporate the 10% or 20% it confuses the message.”
Jo Jowers at the Let Toys be Toys campaign said the decision to target boys was disappointing, if not a surprise. “All toys are for all children. It is just as likely a girl would get something out of it.” She said some parents could be put off from buying the toy for their daughers if it appeared to be aimed at boys. “It seems a shame to say it is not for girls when something like Meccano is such an inspiring and creative toy.”
The company has not finalised its UK marketing campaign for the Meccanoid, which is due to hit the shops in July. The toy will cost 9 (£262) in the US, but a UK price has not been set.
The robot comes with instructions to be built as a T-Rex, but can be turned into almost anything. The company hopes the polycarbonate kit and computing “brain”, will fire children’s imaginations, just as earlier Meccano sets of metal strips, nuts and bolts inspired British architects such as Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Meccano was created by British inventor Frank Hornby in 1898, who wanted his sons to be able to build cranes like the ones they admired on the port of Liverpool.
After more than two years of development, the latest toy is the great hope for Meccano, which almost went bankrupt in the 1990s and was taken over by Spin Master in 2013. Varadi said Meccano had “totally lost its way” and lost ground to Lego, the Danish firm that became the world’s biggest toy company after a string of lucrative film tie-ins that saw yellow-brick re-creations of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010