Yes, I do take requests. And this was such a good question posted in the comments of this post, that I had to sit down and think. Really, there are so many reasons why dolls die. Harsh, you say…well, not to someone who loves dolls – because you see, that’s exactly what happens – some dolls die. Some for good reason, some for absolutely no publicly known reason…still others that remain a complete mystery, but it all probably has to do with money. And in the end, don’t fret, there is always a way a doll can come back that doesn’t involve dark magic or worse – a license. Lots of ground to cover here, puddings, so let’s just jump right in, shall we?
I will honestly say there are some dolls that disappear of which I really don’t have an actual knowledge of why it happened, so I will either use sarcasm/humor to explain it…or thinly veil it in the hearsay I already know. Since most of this blog is satire anyway, you’ll have to decide for yourself what is steeped in reality, and what is poppycock. Before we begin, there are things of which I need to provide more elaborate explanation…so bear with me just a second. We have already discussed the business of making a doll here, and the cost/pricing of dolls here (though both have much more discussion necessary to round out any understanding of this crazy business called ‘dolls‘) – so given a working knowledge of these two posts (and not assuming you’ve read everything else in my blog), forgive me if I repeat myself – so many of these topics are interwoven at best.
Pam Danziger will tell you that a collectible has a life span of 5 years, and there’s truth to that. But that is a given product in its marketplace arriving at its peak, and doesn’t take much of its decline into consideration; or the effect change invokes on the product’s lifecycle. Let’s look at Gene Marshall – the life and death and rebirth of a doll icon…
I’m of the opinion that Ashton-Drake knew little about what to do with Gene Marshall in the beginning. After farming his illustrated love child to makers, Mel Odom finally planted his roots at Ashton-Drake (part of the Bradford Group) to make his concept into a reality. Out of the gates, Gene was already different, not only in her look, but her size. And it was her size that made her a success within her adult audience. Gathered largely from the Barbie Community, and a smattering of Madame Alexander’s followers (Tonner was barely a blip on the horizon at this point in the fourth year of his company, hitting his heights with his first mass-produced doll, 14-inch Betsy McCall), Ashton-Drake chose wisely in its Gene Team and cult-like following (ironic that it would also be one of the symptoms in Gene’s mortality, later). And it really was that…a huge group of followers and admirers who all celebrated their idol, not unlike Barbie, herself. But Barbie didn’t really have the depth of story that Gene did (not in the Hollywood oration, anyway), and this created another industry ground breaker, the story card (another little annoying thing for a company to waste money creating, though powerful in its impact). People couldn’t get enough of Gene – well, actually…yes they could. At proclamations of only 5000 piece-editions, did anyone ever think that there were 5,001 Gene collectors worldwide? Pffff – I don’t give a crap what those hand-numbered certificates/labels read.
You see, although Gene was a ground breaker, this doll’s success is more due to its unique design by its creators (both illustrator and sculptor) and her timing. At the time Gene was introduced, there was really nothing other than Barbie to tempt the adult collectors. But accepting such temptation cost one’s soul…and as Gene aged and her world grew, she fell victim to a number of factors that all pointed to the one reason of her eventual downfall – lack of innovation.
As human beings, we bore easily by nature. We are curious, nosey little bastards just waiting for something to take our attention away. For men, it’s sex – for women, it’s more complicated. And since this blog isn’t about the sexes (there are huge insights into how the varying dynamics between male and female play in this business – jump to the end of this post, if you don’t believe me), I will keep us on track by saying Gene bored us early on in her life cycle, and that led to not only a rapid decline – but the virtual death of this movie star. Why? Really…”why“, you ask? Please don’t tell me you’re one of the faithful who just love everything about Gene, can’t get enough of her story, and feel like she should never change. Because you are the reason Gene died in the first place…so don’t go getting all big-headed and all…
There are all kinds of reasons why innovation is lacking in any product. It could be corporate greed, it could be design ego – but largely it’s due to the fact that the executive decision makers are too stupid to follow a Marketing 101 product life cycle, and monitor what your competitors are doing (remember that little bitch called competition? Well, dears…she’s back). Gene was already boring its fan base with cheap polyester and/or nylon ‘shower curtain’ fabric used in costumes ad nauseam, when once was already criminal. Despite the high quality of the clothing’s construction, you can ruin a design by crafting it in sandwich bags. Ashton-Drake was also irritating the shit out of its customers by playing deliberately deceitful games with its product ‘retirements’, editions sizes and relationship with its ‘limited edition retailers’ (or those that would hoard the dolls in advance of its retirement only to play in a horrific game of price fixing). Remember those print ads that would say ‘Call For Price’ – yeah, those. No, no…that wasn’t enough, though…they had to be blind when it came to innovation – and that is what led collector boredom to an ennui that was so critical it made Kingstate’s Micki look like a Sybarite.
As Gene was hitting her peak, two challengers were introduced that took a real stab at Gene’s market – Tyler Wentworth and Daisy & Willow. Essentially, both Tyler and D-Willow were Gene rip-offs – and I don’t care what you say about this – I’ll smash your sorry little ass into the dust if you even try to defend either competitor here. They were direct responses of two manufacturers to Gene’s popularity. Before you say Robert Tonner was experimenting with a 16″ fashion doll – in the form of hyper-articulated, hand-made, porcelain $1,200 LE50 porcelain fashion models – I will stop you there. You’ve already lost that argument.
Daisy & Willow were a marketing nightmare, because they had three different brand names (Daisy & Willow, The Mod British Birds and Somers & Field – all part of their storyline, but oddly uncontrolled in the dolls’ promotional materials. Tyler was better rounded in her concept and execution, thereby attracting collectors with extraordinary clothing fabricated in real apparel textiles. Moreover, it didn’t matter that these competitors looked very different and represented different eras – they were 16-inch fashion dolls nevertheless – and they were there to take Gene down.
However, Tyler had one thing coming out of the gates that the others did not – a bendable knee joint (though Gene would get one in 1999 – 4 years after her introduction, and the same year Tyler was introduced). At the time, that was a big deal. It didn’t matter that Tyler’s knee joint was unattractive for some – no one could deny that Tyler’s ability to sit with perfect posture was not only brilliant design, it made us think about our own sitting habits when whoring out our time on our computers with those new internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, now didn’t it? Only a fool would dismiss Tyler’s knee joint as ugly when it came to the superiority of its functionality, especially when compared to others of the day.
Tyler also had something else that D-Willow had, but Gene did not – weight. These new competitors were heavier in the hand than Gene felt, and for some psychological reason, heavy meant more, and that created a new standard in well-made plastic dolls (until the advent of Integrity Toys‘ plastics, or Mattel’s Silkstone dolls – which were resin, anyway). The reason was simple: Tyler was made from a combination of solid vinyl parts, hollow vinyl parts, and hard plastic; D-Willow were made from strung vinyl only. Vinyl is heavier than hard plastic – heavier, but not necessarily better. In the case of Gene, I will say that the Ashton-Drake dolls were made from vinyl and a polystyrene-like compound not unlike that used in plastic airplane models – so in this case, Tyler was actually made from better materials, too (can’t say the same for D-Willow)…but that is only a minor point when it comes to the argument of ‘weight’ as a measure of quality.
Ashton-Drake would add more articulation to its star eventually, as would Tyler and the newly emerging Alex doll – one can easily separate the debates for articulation in terms of functionality and aesthetic beauty, but we won’t go there, here – just suffice it to say that Gene’s added articulation with its lack of functionality remains as one of the most heinous war crimes in fashion doll history…I digress…
Ultimately, what would seal Gene’s fate wasn’t her wardrobe made from cellophane-quality plastic or her egregious articulation, but it would come from the thing that made Gene unique in addition to her scale – her face. As beautiful and odd as those medicated blue eyes dreamed, people were drawn to Gene’s face. But eventually, even that bored fans. You may hear all kinds of stories about how Mel Odom disliked his ‘girl star’ being repainted, but it was ultimately the stupidity of Ashton-Drake in not embracing something Robert Tonner already had – that this collectible doll could become a consumable product.
And given the vast despair of its collector base taking paint brush strokes to create their own ‘Gene’ look, you would think Ashton-Drake would see the cash cow when it reared its gorgeously repainted head. Alas, no…even with Ashton-Drake’s feeble attempts to change the screen-painted colors of lips and eye shadow – Gene would not recover from this stroke (no pun intended). It’s funny if you look at it from Mel Odom’s point of view. Gene was designed from a two-dimensional illustration…and as such, when you change the chromatic elements of that composition, they just don’t look the same way as what the artist intended. Perhaps Mel was right.
Flash forward to 2005 and Gene’s 10th anniversary…which was more of a requiem, really – because Ashton-Drake retired Gene. Afterwards, the property was offered to various doll makers (yes, you know who), until she finally landed at Integrity Toys. Integrity did an admirable homage to Gene with a new body, gorgeous clothing and sumptuous packaging – even a 12-inch version – but it just wasn’t enough. First of all, it just didn’t look like Gene anymore…and that is a brand killer.
Others had proposed to re-sculpt Gene based on Mel’s original drawings, but it’s unknown if that would have really worked. Why, you ask? Because after Gene died in 2010 – it wouldn’t be until 2013 that she would rise the phoenix (literally) – in a new form that looked so much like the original, that it can only be hailed as genius. This new Gene, made from high-end resin by Angelic Dreamz JAMIEshow, is a fitting end to Gene’s story, because the whopping price tag and tiny editions of this resurrected Gene would be perfect for the die-hard collector, and the businessman who wanted to bring the old bitch back without making a mammoth monetary investment. I am blinded by the balls it took to accomplish this…and it makes me feel that any dead doll has hope.
So what this story does is explain the product life cycle, particularly with a collectible. Upon introduction, the doll maker must make a big splash to get her name out there. To get the doll into growth and maturity, the doll maker will rely on every level of whoring hell to get the brand noticed. To keep the brand alive, the doll maker will try to reinvent the doll to extend its maturity stage, and when they can’t do that anymore, this slag’s spike heels will break, and it’s into decline she falls – without a hope of resurrection unless she gets some serious antibiotics and a transfusion by someone with money and imagination to make it so. We’re watching a new girl be born right before our eyes, here…so it goes without saying that Kingdom Doll may serve as a good model depending on where they go with their new ladies. We can only watch and wait…
The original question sparking this blog post is probably more in query to those dolls that get shown for a year, maybe two…and then disappear forever – and yes, Tonner is one of the more notorious makers guilty of doing this, but not alone in its practice. On one hand, you could say these doll makers are so amazingly creative, and their creativity knows no bounds…so they explore each of them in an attempt to exhaust a personal appetite for expression, and/or diversify product lines. Or, you might say the doll maker lacks focus, and can’t really decide exactly where he or she wants to go. It’s numbing at those dolls that came and went so fast – spent like a cheap one night stand with nothing but a couple of bruises and a hangover to show for it…well, or at last I am told, anyway…
But, it’s not always as simple as ‘no one bought it’ – it’s sometimes really about a doll maker’s ignorance when it comes to pricing its doll to sell. More often than not, success is gauged at the quantity of the dolls sold at full price (because it’s the quantity you sell at a discounted rate that matters here) – rather than distributing a single product’s total revenue amongst its combined company’s total revenue to equalize successes and failures. More dolls might live longer if this were the case. Not following? Let me illustrate:
If you have an edition of 300 dolls that sell from the manufacturer at $150 each, you should realize $45,000 in revenue. However, if you sell 150 dolls at full price ($22,500), but must discount the remaining 150 at a factory sale, selling them at $75 each (total of $11,250), you’ve only made $33,750; or a loss of $11,250. What compounds the problem even further is when you have no concrete pricing structure – so your bottomline is even further reduced by being ignorant to your actual costs (as I explained here). Now, when I average it out – my 300 piece edition would have an average selling price of $112.50 each. Stop for a second and think – if this doll originally sold for $112.50 when first issued (despite the standard 20% OFF offered by most retailers, or $120 in this case) – don’t you think more people would be attracted to buy it at $112.50? Maybe – and then, they might have even sold more dolls at the lower price, thereby increasing their take. But that’s the risk doll makers must face when looking at the latter pricing rationale. I won’t even go into the damage caused by retailers in the 90’s and early 2000’s (what in the hell DO you call that decade?) that built their businesses on deep discounts, much at manufacturers’ lament – which almost single-handedly conditioned its buying market to expect such discounts, devalue its collectibles, and drive some out of business entirely (both manufacturers and retailers).
One of the biggest mistakes any business can make is trying to control the sales price of its product to its consumer. Kind of. There are always ways to make this work, even in a new age of MSRP. But you must be consistent, and mindful of your product’s pricing – and I don’t mean its perceived value ‘price’. This is a double-edged sword at best, and to reduce it to a mere paragraph as I have done above – is scraping Bonneville with a toothpick to season your grits.
Consider a more chilling theory. It’s not just Gene, Tyler, Barbie – or any product itself that is suffering from product life cycle theory – look at it more globally and ask yourself if fashion dolls as a whole might now be suffering from a lack of innovation. After all, aren’t we all waiting for the next ‘new‘? Whoever lands the next ‘Gene’ will experience success in ways they never dreamed, and I hope they are up to it because they will have to contend with collector expectations unlike any doll maker has ever experienced before – not with Barbie or Gene or any doll that followed in the wake of their success.
What kills a doll? Well, as we have already explored at length, it’s the natural product life cycle a business experiences. For some dolls like Tyler Wentworth, variety just isn’t enough. The artist finds another muse (Ellowyne Wilde), and poor Tyler’s lifeless plastic body is found in the dumpster behind some factory sale fallout festering with the bits of Janet Lennon, Kitty Collier, Monica Merrill, and oh-so-many others. Dolls don’t last for different reasons, though. Some dolls are created for no other reason than to satisfy the ego of those associated with the character – it helps if they sell, but more often than not, they don’t – and its off to the dolly morgue for her.
Some dolls are created in direct response to competition, and they don’t last because they are ill-conceived, poorly made…and lack focus enough to take attention away from loyal fans of other dolls. Some dolls are created by people who aspire to be known as a doll artist, and might even actually know a thing or two about making a doll, but collapse under the weight of the lies and broken promises they have spun to validate their unprofessional actions to the public and to other business partners. The doll world outside Barbie is very incestuous, and we talk to each other…
Some dolls are created with true inspiration – summoned from a sea foam birth; and these dolls are well-made at popular price points. Alas, not enough of the doll actually sell to make it worth the business decision to continue production. This is where the collector has to bear some of the responsibility. I have always found it bile-inducing funny to see some schmuck post online after a new collection is released with some matter-of-fact statement such as ‘Did We Ask For This?’ when seeing something they did not like…or well, didn’t ask for. You, sir…should shut the hell up – because no one cares what you ask for. Askin’ ain’t gettin’…and more importantly, if it makes little business sense, then not only no, but hell no. Why didn’t Tonner change Tyler’s knee joints when so many collectors lamented on how ugly they were – because it made even less business sense than running around catching farts at a chili festival. Not enough people really gave a crap to make it matter – least of all, the doll maker, who was perfectly fine with the knee joint as it was. Well that, and it would have cost several thousand dollars to change a knee joint rather than create a new twisting waist or bending arm. Pick your battles baby, and fight them with just as much of your budget you scrape out of your American Model sales…oh wait…hmmm. Do you now see what a dilemma there is when trying to decide where to put your money (or lack thereof)?
Some dolls get cancelled because of more important issues happening behind the scenes – such as copyright infringement, or other legal matters. On the other hand, some dolls that should be discontinued, keep getting made – which is probably some greater extortion implicated by a deal with Satan, himself.
In the end, dolls usually die because they just aren’t making any money for the business. In response to a collector asking if a dead doll was ever going to be made again, the doll maker responded in cheek with a statement implying ‘never say never‘ – but then returned with, “if you had bought it in the first place, I’d still be making it.” And that’s the truth…if collectors buy a doll, the company will continue to make it…when buying stops, the company stops and the doll is subject to ‘retirement’, which we all know means uncertain death. Oh yes, dolls can be brought back, despite the maker’s ‘retirement’ of the doll, or the promise to not make it again – but as long as they say ‘by popular demand’, it’s not a lie…it’s marketing. Why else would a business turn its back to the raging desire of its customers? Why, indeed.
One last word regarding the voice of the collector. You have more power than you might think, despite the loud mouths out there from which there is no escape online. Nope…there’s no ‘shut the fuck up‘ button on Facebook. Understand that when you participate in any online forum or social media outlet, there are a hundred silent people for every single loud mouth. That works not only for you, but against you, too. It helps when your voices speak in true numbers and you can rally into a common message to manufacturers to get what you want from them; but it mortally wounds you that so many lurk, don’t participate, don’t even read, or worse yet – simply ignore the idea of sharing your thoughts and desires with each other.
Be that as it may, manufacturers won’t be bullied, either (well, most of them won’t anyway)…and the strongest won’t negotiate with doll world terrorists – because that’s what many of the loud mouths are…people who spread vile crap, hate and lies so thick – that it eventually desensitizes collectors into a mindless non-interactive collective of laziness and insignificant discussions. And you wonder why the manufacturers don’t read your online forums for their marketing research. Well, it’s largely because they don’t have time, or their ego thinks you will buy anything they smear on the wall – but it’s also largely because the discussions are boring, lack vision or cohesion, and are simply lazy ramblings of people glued to a computer screen using their disembodied voices to ‘change the world’. No, sweetie…the world is changing you – and the doll makers are left scratching their asses wondering what exactly do you want?
To those that make it a point to create and engage in thought-provoking discussions, imaginative play and appreciation for the diversity you possess within your community, and those that just like having fun – kudos! Now that is something a doll maker would like to hear.
A final word on the subject, please. I was recently in Sarasota, FL attending a regional doll show and sale. I stayed for about 15 minutes. Not only were the group of antiquated, walking dead hosts running the show completely devoid of any practical skills associated with promoting or hosting such a doll event (is this Collector’s United?) – but I was also amazed at how many of the people selling there didn’t even know who Robert Tonner was, let alone what a Tonner doll was. This happened to me frequently when working for Tonner, and I still see it all the time. Even when attending Barbie National Convention and United Federation of Doll Clubs – I was utterly paralyzed at how many had not even heard of Tonner, Tyler…hell, even that heartless bitch, Ellowyne Wilde! Is this the fault of Tonner and its branding, or the media and its coverage of the names dotting the doll world landscape – maybe. But quite honestly, I place part of the responsibility on the collectors who sit back and lurk, instead of being more active in the doll world. Wouldn’t you say it’s more rewarding to share your interest in dolls so there’s more people who share your passion, or are at least aware of it – rather than those that the public thinks are doll collectors by watching shit like this. And to think, Ellowyne’s big debut on world wide television was seen as one who projected her ennui so deeply in her owner, her human was on the brink of losing her husband, family, home…wow…just wow.
Ask yourself why geeks can come out of the wood work and evolve into mammoth media-hyped events like this; and the best doll collectors can lather up is this. Sexism largely comes into play because action figures are more of a man’s world, and dolls are more of a girl’s realm (note I said ‘girl‘ and not ‘woman‘). The action figure world seems to care so very little about quality – if you are a Superman collector, you want to own anything that DC has licensed as a ‘Superman’ product – despite its quality. Oh yes, they will criticize things they don’t like, and bully others who own such ‘inferior’ items while hypocritically dusting off that very same item of critique in their own collection! They may not like it, but they will still buy it, and add it to their pile of hoarded memorabilia in the privacy of a Doritos-littered home waiting for Papa John to drop off dinner. I have loads to say about sexism in the doll and action figure world…more on that another time, dumplings.
Doll collectors, despite those that also hoard fashion draped mannequins amidst their snack food paradise like the action figure stereotypes, predominately focus on quality and loyalty. Well, loyalty that comes at a price, sometimes alienating them from other collectors so fiercely loyal to their beloved brands they can’t see their nose for their ass sitting on his or her shoulders. Which is a shame really, because those unfortunate loyalists are missing out on new and exciting realms to be explored. I suppose that in this wham-bam-on-to-the-next-glam world, not many people really want change as much as they profess. And think what would happen if new collectors started to swarm into our coven? What an influx of demand might do to doll makers and artists – and hell, even the crap creators dwelling in the crevices of opportunistic corporate collectible vaults readying the next ‘heirlooms’ for consumption. We might see a new ‘Gene’ arrive yet in our lifetimes…
So it should come as little surprise when a doll is discontinued. Ultimately, it’s because the masses didn’t think it was worthy anymore, more or less – either to the collector or the maker. They’ve crowned a new queen which is really just yesterday’s shadow. And the discarded…they might still be worthy of love, but lack enough children clapping their hands to keep them alive.