Toy Spotting will updated on the fly whenever I come across something awesome, so check back often!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Geek is Still a Dirty Word

In the last few years, main stream media have embraced “geek culture”. These days, you can watch zombies decimate the human race on TV, gawk at super powered beings doing battle on the big screen and grin from ear to ear as comics regularly invade the prime time news cycle. It would seem the world is an idyllic place for someone who reports on all that could blow a geek’s mind. Sadly, some things never change, and while a great deal of companies express their love of comics, games and toys through their products and enjoy a mutual respect with their fans, there are still executives who see those same fans as nothing more than wallets to be picked clean.

With that last statement fresh in your mind, I’m going to tell you a little story about a company named Mattel.

Last year, while heading back to the train from Toy Fair 2011, I was phoned up by Mattel’s legal department. Straight out of the gate, I was accused of “image theft”, which made me laugh as visions of sneaking up behind a Mattel employee and using my ninja-like thieving techniques to procure a flash drive from his back pocket labeled “The Loot!” danced through my head. I explained that I don’t even know how to go about stealing images from Mattel and since I was out on the street (and not in front of a computer), he would have to be specific as to what images he thinks I pillaged. I was told the items in question were found in an article outlining upcoming waves of Batman Legacy action figures and 2 figure packs. He explained I wasn’t supposed to have the images. I told him he shouldn’t have released them, then, as most people know 99.9% of what we post on Idle Hands (and formerly, Action-Figure.com) could be found online..somewhere. Of course, we do not openly reveal that source as we would give the competition a direct route to the goods, but we have no second thoughts about publishing something already public. As expected, his reply was something in the tone of “Oh.” I suggested, in this instance, his real problem should be with sales, as they have a tendency to send out pictures that turn up on foreign retailer websites, where we happily scoop them up. “Oh” again. It always amazes me how someone will initially come at you with righteous indignation in their voice and minutes later, after you’ve proven you are neither afraid nor a child AND are in the right, they are quickly deflated. This was the case and I returned home to a letter from my Mattel Press Rep for some years now stating simply “I don’t know what is going on, but please give legal what ever they need.”

The images in question were primarily custom figures created by some DC super fans, using Mattel figures as a base. Seeing that they were excellent ideas, Mattel (most likely) decided to make them real and used pictures of these toys for reference. Somewhere along the way, someone got a hold of these pictures and thought they were the actual figures being released and sent them out to retailers for pre-orders, where I plucked them and made it news. Having no idea these were actually someone’s (or rather a couple of someones) customs, I was surprised when toy collectors on a well known forum said I manufactured the lineups, swiped the pictures and essentially lied about the whole thing. I did have a couple of people say this is something Mattel has done before, so it is no surprise, but as usual, the voices coming to my defense were not as loud as those calling me any number of lovely names. With the reveal of the actual figures and lineups at Toy Fair, I was vindicated, but had to actually point out the fact on the very same forum myself, as no one else seemed interested in doing so. At the end of it all, Mattel’s legal department asked me to remove the images and every reference to them, which I did as a courtesy. No one from Mattel ever expressed their thanks for doing so and those from the company that post on those forums regularly said nothing in my defense. To anyone that had just read those pages when the ruckus was at its peak, I may as well have been every bit the cretin they made me out to be.

I’d say “flash forward to 2012” at this point, but I’d like to list some events that further soured me on Mattel’s business practices.

- I had two subscriptions with Mattel; one for Masters of the Universe Classics and another for Ghostbusters. We were encouraged to take on these subscriptions as not to be left out when the figures we want quickly sold out on the day of their availability. We learned that “Sold Out” was a term Mattel used very loosely, as these items would resurface some time later, and at half price. What is your reward for pre-paying for your figures and helping to keep these lines alive? Paying full, inflated prices, apparently.

- For a person attempting to cover Mattel’s toys, it has always been difficult, but at this point communication was at an all time low. There seemed to be some secret handshake involved with being a part of Mattel’s Q&A sessions that I had never learned. I certainly don’t begrudge those sites who benefit from their personal relationships with the company, but when I’m at San Diego Comic Con and am told to return to the booth no less than 6 times to get details on their toys (with 6 being the end number as I gave up after that) and I return home to see epic interviews in private rooms with the whole Mattel team…to say the least, I was frustrated.

Mattel’s smug faced mascot would come to be a focal point for the collective anger of customers being jerked around by Digital River, Mattel’s distribution company for all Mattycollector items. I personally only had one issue with them abruptly canceling my subscription, but it was quickly rectified. Other people’s issues didn’t seem to be cleared up as quickly and some still continue today. One look at the Mattycollector facebook page will tell that story.

NOW we can jump to Toy Fair 2012. I was told when the collector event would be and RSVP’d for myself and Heather Buckley. I made sure to express an interest in covering “Girl Toys” as well and since we had no problems doing so in previous years, we didn’t think twice about it. We hit the event, pushed through the throng of “geek reporters” using their iPhones as a camera to shoot the collector friendly figures and then made a B line for the room containing Barbie, Monster High and the like. Fellow writer/ photographer from Cool Toy Review, Dave Myatt, followed me in. We got a demo of Mattel’s newest kid-friendly electronic buddy and as I turned to shoot what was next, I had to grin as I faced a whole wall of new Monster High product. This is a line I was asked specifically by fans to shoot well and in great detail, and I was prepared to do just that. Little did I know, at that same moment further into the room, Dave was being taken by the arm like some child that mistakenly wandered into the back area of a magic show and was told to leave. I, on the other hand, must have been camouflaged within the group of women who were getting a presentation of the newest Monster High products and was allowed to take a handful of pictures as I talked to two nearby press reps who remembered me from some other event. Moments later, I was approached by Rachel Cooper, Manager of Public Relations, who put out her hand in a “Stop” motion as if I’d done something wrong and told me I did not belong there. I said clearly I did belong there, as her press reps know who I am! I wasn’t a stranger or a Sunday afternoon blogger who woke up one day, decided to cover the show and immediately thought I was entitled to the run of the place. I have been covering Toy Fair for over 10 years. I made an appointment and we were there…in the middle of it! She explained my place was back with the “collector press” in the other room. I explained I’d rather not be lumped with them, first off, as I cover far more than “boy’s toys”, and was asked specifically to cover this room and since we’d done so every year previous, I wasn’t sure what the problem was. At this point, two more PR reps joined the conversation, explaining that some reporter years back had ruined it for everyone when they went into a secret room and shot things they shouldn’t have. I laughed and insisted, again, that we shot EVERYTHING last year and no one had said BOO to us. In fact, it was that Barbie coverage that caused those fans to insist we shoot a ton of pictures this year. I was told I had to leave and make a NEW appointment just for that room. I laughed again and said if I leave, I will not get an appointment. Rachel assured me that if I knew my schedule at that moment, she would make a new appointment with me right then and there. We settled on 1pm on the last day of the show, and being the uber-Italian that I am, I made her shake on it.

Now it is the last day of the show. I’m having a conversation with a friend from MTV Geek who tells me they had someone cover Monster High already, but he’d love a crack at them himself to assure MTV has the best coverage possible of this insanely popular line. In my mind, there was no way Mattel was going to deny MTV access along with me, who had a legit appointment, so off we went. Mind you, I had received an email from Rachel Cooper a day or so previous, stating my appointment was now 3pm. No apology for shifting the time and the inconveniences is causes in the middle of my very packed schedule, but it was important to me, so I made adjustments…again. All day I felt odd about it. My mind told me to show up at 1 just to make sure there would be no shenanigans. I calmed myself, stressing I had far more to cover beyond Mattel and stuck to my schedule. I did show up at Mattel with my MTV friend in tow, a half hour early, just to play it safe. The woman at the desk looked disappointed for me. “Oh Paul…your appointment was at 1! I’m afraid you missed it!” I insisted it was moved to 3 and repeatedly assured her I could pull it up on my phone to prove it. After all, we live in the future. I was told it was switched back and she showed me several arrows on the page proving the jerk around. I asked if they were in the habit of changing people’s appointments without telling them and she explained I was, indeed, informed. I laughed. This was not the case. I asked her to please go back and find me Rachel Cooper, with whom I made an appointment for this time. She returned minutes later looking very unhappy. “I’m very sorry. They say your appointment was at 1 and they are now packing everything up, so there is no way you could possibly shoot anything. I’m…very sorry.” My poor receptionist looked down sheepishly, expecting to be yelled at. I told her I don’t hold her responsible for this extremely unprofessional behavior, but I wanted to confirm she was indeed told to turn away someone with a legitimate appointment, accompanied by a reporter from MTV? She said yes. She was clearly not happy about it. I told her I was sorry she had to be the one on the receiving end of this, as Rachel could not be bothered to come out and tell me herself, but treating anyone like this was beyond unprofessional. I was shocked and angered beyond further words, but what can you do? I’m not the type of person who shoots the messenger just because they are there. Instead, this is my recourse.

I sent an email to Rachel Cooper expressing my extreme disappointment with the way she handled me, making false promises to shoo me out of her show room and asked for some explanation as to why I had to be treated in that way. After a week with no reply, I sit here writing this. I’m not writing purely from a point of anger, though I’m still burned by the event. More than anything, it saddens me that things like this kill my love of collecting toys. Why am I meant to feel like I am doing something wrong when I give free publicity to a company? More often then not, we even go so far as to buy the toys we’d like to cover, as it is quicker than trying to squeeze a free sample out of a multi million dollar outfit. Shouldn’t they be very happy we are so enthusiastic about their products? If they are forced by their bosses to squeeze 100 of us into a room all at once to shoot their toys, shouldn’t they be doing their best to assure that THAT experience is as comfortable, polite and smooth as it possibly can be? Hearing a fellow writer was actually handled when he was simply taking a picture of a Barbie doll is insane. Being lied to just to be rid of me when my intent is only to give further attention to dolls they are trying to sell is complete lunacy. Beyond that, it is entirely unprofessional. Why is it ok to treat me like this? Because I am with the “collector press” or the “nerd herd” as I’ve heard reps call us. I’m a geek, and my love of what they produce only makes me fodder for ridicule in their minds. Does it matter that I began the week interviewing the cast and crew of the movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance? Not a bit. A Mommy Blogger gets more respect. I’ll never be able to put logic to it, or see the situation through their eyes. All I can do is wait until these short sighted individuals are replaced with people like me…the geeks…who are very good at treating fellow fans with respect, listen to what they truly want to buy…and at the end of the day, make their bosses a ton of money.

9 comments :

  1. I feel for you Paul that is just not right at all I have been reading your blogs for sometime now and love the coverage you have for the shows and toys that come out keep up the good work

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  2. That definitely was not right of them at all. I think it's sad and ironic that they promote the line as being about embracing differences and expressing yourself and then they turn you away because you typically cover "boys toys" and lump you in with "collector press" only -_- Rachel Cooper acted very unprofessionally too. You'd think with Mattel being one of the largest toy companies in the world, they'd at least have the decency to confront you face-to-face rather than lie in an e-mail and put a poor receptionist on the spot to take the heat...
    Still, thank you for being the bigger person and still sharing your stunningly clear photos with us despite all of this. :)

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    1. Thanks Jay and Alex. Not posting the pics wouldn't benefit anyone. You all asked me to shoot so I got what I could. Just be sure to post a link to this article where ever you know fans of the toy lines are. Everyone should know who they are giving their money to.

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    2. Paul - I'm somewhat relieved to read your story, but frustrated as well - really astonishing to read about your total experience. I was kicked out of the 'extended' Mattel display on Sunday also, right along side of Dave. Much like you, I've covered the full Mattel gallery for the past several years with no problem - in fact it has been a real highlight, full of fun, enthusiastic demos by their display reps of tons of great products. As in years past, I finished up with the 'collector event' and went to get some shots of Imaginext, Monster High, Hot Wheels and Barbie, and was rudely removed first by one of their PR people, and then chased down by a gigantic angry security guard who demanded I delete my pictures. Not feeling like a fight, I deleted the paltry 10 pics I'd taken of Imaginext and promptly left the event altogether, with a very sour taste. From the sound of it, I'm glad I didn't bother trying to reschedule anything. I was a huge Mattel supporter in recent years, but as you mentioned, this sort of thing is not a way to get good press, certainly not from me. -- Charlie (parrygamepreserve.com)

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    3. See...this is exactly what I'm talking about. Would Mattel allow this to happen to someone from a publication they deem worthy of their respect? As I was sitting at a table across from the entrance to the "off limits" area, I saw two friends led in by the rep who told us NO ONE was getting access to that area. I just don't get it. What criteria made them better than the rest of us? And to be so bold as to do that right in front of us? Not even being sneaky about it and telling them come back after the crowd had thinned out? That, to me, says, in bold letters, "We just lied to you and we honestly don't care about it at all. What could you possibly do about it." I just should have realized it before I shuffled my schedule several times to accommodate them on the last day. I even said to them "If I leave today, I'm NOT going to get an appointment." They laughed at the notion. Ridiculous.

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  3. Punch line to the whole story. As Mattel finally let us into the back area with the "collector" items, Daniel from Action Figure Insider, with a giant, not happy smirk on his face, said "Hey everyone..take your time shooting. It's all up on Mattel's facebook already. No rush now people!" So after all the bother to coral us into a small area all at once, they scooped us on their own toys. Fun.

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  4. I have to appreciate the irony of Mattel calling you up to accuse you of stealing a picture they had stolen from me in the first place. That's nice.

    I also remember the arguments over you manufacturing the lineups, I'd seen the pics some months prior (a friend had ensured we knew Mattel had swiped our pic) and tried to help set the record straight. What a ridiculous affair. We contacted Mattel about the (mis)use of the pics, but were forwarded to one person after another and it ultimately went unanswered, not even the "we won't do that again" that we were aiming for.

    I have a lot of the same feelings covering certain companies, particularly ones that seek to compete instead of cooperate with the various sites.

    I'm sorry this happened to ya, Paul. Even if the big giant head won't treat you with respect, know that we do respect & appreciate the work you put in to the site.

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    1. Thanks! It means a lot. Sorry for what you had to go through. I can't say it enough...it's F'n toys. There should be nothing but joy involved in collecting them. And thank you for telling your story. That is more than I'd hoped for and I'd love it if people keep finding this article and come to tell their stories. Having them all collected in one place would be fantastic, as would the day some higher up Mattel muckity muck actually discovers this article, gives a crap and decides the company he works for needs a major over haul. Keep reposting this folks!

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  5. For as much grief as they give the consumer, there is always a dozen or so unsolicited fanboys to run to their defense. It boggles the mind. I can accept being a glutton for punishment but I'm not going to praise you while taking said punishment. I don't think most of us are asking for anything outrageous. A little competence when handling your products, tact with your consumer base, nothing big.

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