Whether it was a baby doll, an action figure, or just a simple stick, everyone had a favorite toy growing up. But behind those nostalgic memories there’s a weird world of lawsuits, protests and top secret government missions. There are quite a few iconic toys with strange stories to tell.
10. Major Rip-Offs
We’re willing to bet that everyone reading this list has played with Lego. Named one of the hundred greatest toys by Time magazine, those little plastic bricks have gone from simple building blocks to international movie stars. However, the history of Lego holds a dark, dark secret: everybody’s favorite brick is actually a complete rip-off.
Before they were churning out Batman video games and Bionicle action figures, the Lego Group was a simple shop in Denmark. In 1916, Lego was made up of carpenters who built little wooden toys… until someone told them about Kiddicraft. Over in England, a guy named Hilary Fisher Page had started a company that created little plastic blocks with studs on top, perfect for interlocking with one another. These bricks were patented, but Lego couldn’t care less. They swiped the Kiddicraft design, added little tubes to the bottom to make locking easier, and became one of the world’s biggest toy companies. As for poor Kiddicraft, well, no one heard from them again.
Of course, Lego isn’t the only company that snatched someone’s idea. Anybody remember Cabbage Patch Kids? Those eerie babies, wildly popular in the 1980s, were supposedly the brainchild of Georgia businessman Xavier Roberts, but they were first created in the 1970s by a woman named Martha Nelson Thomas. She even came up with the idea of having kids “adopt” the dolls instead of buying them, something Roberts also ripped off. Fortunately, Thomas took the fake Cabbage Patch creator to court and won a settlement in the late ‘80s.
9. The Lamest/Coolest Christmas Present Ever
Whether or not you’re a George Lucas fan, you’ve got to admit that he’s a savvy businessman. When filming the original Star Wars, the young director turned down $500,000 in exchange for a $150,000 salary, control of any sequels, and all the merchandising rights. At the time merchandising wasn’t a big deal, and 20th Century Fox thought Star Wars would be a massive flop.
Star Wars earned $12 billion in toys alone and made George Lucas obscenely rich. Star Wars action figures still fly off the shelves today, so you can imagine the demand back in 1977. In fact, so many kids wanted to play with Han Solo and Darth Vader that toy production company Kenner was caught off guard. They didn’t expect Star Wars to become a blockbuster, so they hadn’t made enough toys for the Christmas rush. It was a Jingle All the Way situation of galactic proportions.
That’s when somebody at Kenner dreamed up the lamest/coolest idea in the history of the holidays. Instead of getting actual toys, kids would get an empty box. Known as the Early Bird Certificate Package, the box came with a certificate promising kids four cool toys (Luke, Leia, R2, and Chewie) in the mail as soon as they were released. Despite the fact that they were only getting cardboard, a sheet of paper, and a couple of Star Wars stickers, the Package was wildly popular. And if you happen to own an unopened box, you might be able to sell it for a couple thousand dollars.
8. The Bizarre Bobo Doll Study
Toys aren’t just for play — thye’re also great for running experiments on unsuspecting children. Take the Bobo Doll Study, for example. Conducted in 1961 by Stanford professor Albert Bundura, the test involved three group of preschoolers and an inflatable plastic clown known as a Bobo Doll.
The first group watched a video of a rather angry adult taking out their frustration on the creepy, ever-smiling clown. The adult would punch it, throw it, and even hit it with a hammer. All the while, the adult muttered threats like “Sock him” and “He keeps coming back for more.” Meanwhile, the second group watched an adult who completely ignored Bobo and spent their time peacefully playing with another toy. The control group didn’t watch anything.
After the videos were done, the children were turned loose on Bobo. Unsurprisingly, the kids from the first group went full-Rambo on the poor clown. They kicked it, they smashed it, they threw darts at it and shot it with toy guns. They tried everything they could to kill that clown, while the children in the second and third groups were far less aggressive.
So what was the conclusion? Bandura realized that children learn by observing others. While that might seem obvious, it was groundbreaking at the time as most researchers thought children learned through a system of rewards and punishments. Thanks to Bandura, parents started realizing the impact of their behavior on their kids, and lawmakers started discussing how violence on TV affected young minds. So the next time you feel like getting angry in front of your kids, just remember Bobo.
7. The Battle Over Mutant Rights
Ever since they first showed up in 1963, the X-Men have bravely fought against prejudice and struggled for equality and mutant rights. And then Marvel stabbed them in the back.
The betrayal began when a group of trade lawyers discovered an odd loophole in the American tax code. As we all know, a lot of toys are made overseas and then shipped into the U.S. The American government used to divide these toys into two distinct categories. There were “dolls,” which represented human beings, and then there were “toys,” which represented non-humans. And for some reason, dolls were taxed at 12% while toys were taxed at 6.8%.
Realizing Marvel action figures were classified as dolls, the lawyers took the matter to court and argued the X-Men (as well as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man) aren’t really humans at all, but rather totally different creatures. While Charles Xavier would’ve been disgusted, the Marvel lawyers won their case. In 2003, Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States ended with the judge declaring characters with superpowers must be “something other than human.” Naturally, Marvel executives were thrilled with the decision, but fans weren’t pleased. After all, it violated everything the X-Men stood for. But just a few years later the whole toy/doll distinction was done away with, and the X-Men got their humanity back.
6. The Barbie Liberation Organization
The Christmas of 1993 was an awkward year for both Barbie and G.I. Joe fans. Kids looking forward to their new “Talking Duke” action figures or “Teen Talk” Barbies were in for a surprise when they opened up their presents and pressed the “Talk” button. Instead of rallying the troops, G.I. Joe turned into a ditzy blonde, squealing phrases like “I love to shop with you” and “Let’s plan our dream wedding!” On the other hand, Barbie turned into a blood-soaked commando, grunting and barking threats like “Vengeance is mine!” and “Eat lead, Cobra!”
So what happened? Was there some sort of mix-up in Santa’s workshop? Well, not quite. It turns out that the creators of Barbie and G.I. Joe, Mattel and Hasbro respectively, were the victims of the Barbie Liberation Organization. Comprised of worried parents, feminists, and anti-war veterans, the BLO decided to strike a blow against gender stereotyping and the glorification of violence by conducting a raid on toy stores across the country.
Angered by a Barbie that chirped “Math is hard,” the BLO sent its members into toy stores where they legally purchased action figures and dolls, only to take them home and switch out their voice boxes. After a successful surgery, the buyers then snuck the toys back into the store, leaving them on the shelves for unwary parents. When kids finally got their gifts, they found G.I. Joe was concerned with his wardrobe, and Barbie really wanted to kill a few bad guys. They also discovered a letter asking adults to contact local media outlets and tell them about the BLO’s scheme. Parents who agreed with the group’s message informed their local TV stations, and soon the Barbie Liberation Organization was making headlines across the country. As for the kids, well, they might’ve had a horrible holiday, but at least they came away with a good story.
5. The Teddy Bear Invasion
Belarus probably isn’t the best place to spend your summer vacation. Ruled by the tyrannical Alexander Lukashenko, this Eastern European country is affectionately known as Europe’s last dictatorship. The landlocked nation is essentially a police state, ruled by a government that suppresses human rights and locks up anyone who disagrees with the president. But not everyone takes Lukashenko’s dictatorship lying down. Two years ago, Belarus was invaded by a wave of protestors… all of whom were adorable teddy bears.
In July 2012, stuffed animals rained down on the capital city of Minsk. Around eight hundred bears with signs proclaiming “Belarus freedom” and “We support the Belarus struggle for free speech” parachuted into the streets. Embarrassed, the government tried to cover up the overly cute coup, but when people started posting videos and photos onto the Internet Lukashenko finally admitted his city had been overrun with freedom-loving teddy bears.
The masterminds behind this brilliant demonstration were the folks at Studio Total, a Swedish agency that specializes in orchestrating PR stunts. Working with a Belarusian group called Charter 97, Studio Total members donned fuzzy bear masks, flew into Belarus in a single engine plane, and showered Minsk with stuffed animals while miraculously escaping detection. Obviously, Lukashenko wasn’t pleased that a bunch of activists could just fly into his country, and he angrily fired the heads of both the air force and border guard. But believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time toys had taken a stand against the dictator. Earlier that same year, hordes of stuffed animals “gathered” in central Minsk, defying the government and demanding social change. They might be using toys to send a message, but these protestors certainly weren’t playing games.
4. The Action Figure Hostage Crisis
After America invaded Iraq in 2003, insurgent groups developed a really bad habit of kidnapping foreign troops. While some of these incidents ended in release and others ended in tragedy, none of them ended quite like the kidnapping of John Adam.
In February 2005, journalists found a disturbing photo on a site frequented by Iraqi terrorists. The picture showed an American soldier with his hands tied behind his back and an assault rifle aimed at his head. The photo was accompanied with an ominous message, warning that “John Adam” would be decapitated if America didn’t release enemy prisoners.
Only there was something weird about the whole scenario. The military didn’t have any records of a missing soldier, and there was something off about the photo. A group of bloggers pointed out that the victim’s face was strangely blank and that the machine gun looked kind of plastic. And that’s when folks at the toy company Dragon Models USA Inc. realized the “hostage” was actually one of their military action figures. As it turns out, the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by a bored insurgant. If only they all spent that much time trolling.
3. Furbies Were Banned By the NSA
There are no neutral opinions on Furbies. You either love them or think the creepy little Mogwais need to come with a permanent “off” switch. The NSA definitely falls into the latter category — in the late ‘90s, the intelligence agency considered Furby a threat to national security and outlawed the big-mouthed furball from NSA offices across the country.
Did NSA officials think the little hamster-owls might turn evil and go full-out Gremlins on everyone in the building? Well, not quite. The NSA was actually worried Furby might turn out to be a double agent eavesdropping on secret government conversations. Believing Furbies could record and repeat whatever they heard, the NSA decided to ban all the toys from NSA offices.
Of course, their fears were totally unfounded. According to Roger Shiffman, co-founder of Tiger Electronics, “Furby has absolutely no ability to do any recording whatever.” In fact, the toy can only say two hundred words, one hundred of which are Furbish, and can’t learn any others. Although it’s possible the NSA actually knew that and just wanted to get rid of all those long-winded dolls people kept bringing to work.
2. The Tale of Billy Possum
Everyone knows the story behind the teddy bear. Theodore Roosevelt was hunting in the Mississippi woods when his guide wounded a female bear and tied her to a tree, an easy kill for the twenty-sixth president. But when Roosevelt saw the hurt, confused animal, he refused to shoot it… and had someone put it down with a hunting knife. The last part of the story didn’t make the papers, but the legend of Roosevelt’s “sympathy” spread like wildfire, inspiring the creation of the famous stuffed animal.
But as Roosevelt’s second term came to a close, toy manufacturers figured the teddy bear would fade away. Eager to come up with the newest fad, businessmen turned to Roosevelt’s Republican successor, William Howard Taft. Before his inauguration, the portly president-elect attended a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia and dined on the most stereotypically southern dish imaginable — “possum and taters.” The eighteen-pound marsupial was spread out on a platter of sweet potatoes, and by all accounts Taft ate so much his doctors told him to slow down.
After finishing dinner, the president-elect was presented with a stuffed doll, a little critter affectionately named “Billy Possum,” and was promised it would be a bestseller. Indeed, everyone seemed to think Billy would take the nation by storm. Hoping to get in on the deal, companies started making possum postcards, possum posters, possum pitchers, and someone even wrote a Billy Possum ragtime tune. Of course, Taft’s toy never caught on. While a dismal first year in the Oval Office played a role, the real reason the Billy Possum failed was its lousy origin story. Roosevelt mercifully “spared” a bear from death. Taft ate a lot of food. Clearly, one was more compelling.
1. The CIA Created An Osama bin Laden Action Figure
The CIA has come up with some pretty crazy schemes, but one of the strangest involved action figures, evil spirits, and the world’s number one terrorist. The year was 2005. The American government was cooking up weird ways to discredit Osama bin Laden, and someone decided it was time the CIA got into the toy business. Working with G.I. Joe co-creator Donald Levine, the agency created a 12-inch bin Laden action figure. The plan was to distribute the doll throughout Pakistan and put it in the hands of al-Qaeda friendly kids… only there was a diabolical twist.
After boys spent a few hours playing with Jihad Joe the face paint would peel away, revealing a horrifying demon face. Osama’s true form, dark red skin with black stripes and green irises, was meant to scare kids straight and swear off terrorism. Sadly, Project “Devil Eyes” never got out of development hell. The CIA only created three models before scrapping the entire program. None of the toys ever made it to the Middle East, and nobody ever got to play with the coolest action figure in the history of agitprop.