Like an Adult in a Toy Store: Hasbro Shows Off Its Wares to Collectors

Marketer caters to nerds at expo

The Hasbro Fan Media Day at New York's annual Toy Fair is more or less what it sounds like—a motley collection of bloggers, amateur photographers and fan site administrators whose interest in Hasbro extends well beyond the professional. They are, in a word, nerds, and Hasbro loves them very much.

It also needs them. Hasbro's profits slipped 6 percent this quarter (mostly due to higher taxes), and it's looking to cash in on several film and TV licenses (the summer's The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, the rereleased Star Wars movies and Cartoon Network's The Clone Wars, and its own G.I. Joe: Retaliation flick and Transformers Prime TV series) on the heels of a major stock buyback program. The company needs to expand without spreading itself too thin, and for several of its lines, older fans are key contributors to its bottom line. There's a reason the G.I. Joe films are rated PG-13.

The company is also fighting the perception that traditional toys are on the wane and the children of the future will mostly just stare at a glowing orb manufactured by Apple and designed to entertain and stimulate them into oblivion. Toy store closures and weak sales of boys' toys (more or less everything showcased at Fan Media Day) have analysts and shareholders concerned, and fans represent a way to stave off the decline.

More than any other mainstream toy maker in the industry, Hasbro has embraced the geekiness of this small but important sector of its business, and this day is entirely for them. It's a Saturday, it's snowing a little, and most folks are waiting outside the Times Center in a long line, but no one is complaining—the new toys are here, inside.

Hasbro has discovered that fans do not merely appreciate kids' toys; their annual spend is big enough to justify the existence of entire lines, including the Marvel Universe series of pocket-sized superheroes all manufactured to scale. Toys like the ever-popular Transformers figures attract boys both young and old, but for once, kids aren't the focus today. This cadre of 20- and 30-something men and women are at the forefront of websites like seibertron.com and yojoe.com—bastions of fandom where the impatient go for impressively high-quality snaps of toys that are coming soon to a store near you.

The fan sites are, obviously, great advertising for Hasbro if managed properly, and to show their appreciation, each blogger/photog/reporter is given a screener of the popular Transformers Prime show on Hasbro/Discovery joint venture The Hub. It is, of course, a sneak peak of the upcoming season.

And Fan Media Day isn't just an opportunity to send forth the toy company's most enthusiastic fans with photos of new product; it's also a place where the firm's higher-ups have access to a captive audience of toy collectors on which to test older-skewing advertisements. The presentation of an obscure Marvel character is met with cheers and screams of joy; the G. I. Joe toys receive mostly polite applause, except for a couple of diehards.

Hasbro also has an expanding video entertainment component, so fans also get to vet some material that has been under lock and key until today—first, new footage from Prime, then a gameplay video from the upcoming Fall of Cybertron multiplatform title. Ushers patrol the aisles for telltale red lights indicating a videographer trying to land a scoop (Activision is notoriously a company without a sense of humor). The presentation also includes material from the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation and, oddly, My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic, a series with an improbably huge fan base among 30-something men (seriously, they're called "bronies").

The venue provides a place for the company to gauge interest in both new CPGs and video content. Mattel, too, has begun breaking out its fan-skewing lines into a weekend presentation where the blogosphere can check out the new toys and report back to its readership. It's like advertising, but with no money down.