Life on earth is revolting, and no aspect of it is more undignified and disgusting than having to take care of a body, particularly your own.
“Who is it doing all this for, if not for me?” novelist Sheila Heti wrote about her body this year. “And what do I do for it? I mop up its blood. Then I mop it up again. I never feel grateful.”
It’s horrible. It’s an injustice that never goes away. Unfortunately, the only way to get out of dealing with your own bodily functions is to become rich and somehow rid yourself of all shame, enabling you to be the sort of person who pays someone else to wash their underwear and suck blackheads out of their face. Hardly any of us are this wealthy and terrible, and children never are. So, for them, it is lucky that the horrors of the human body have now been made into dozens of games.
According to a report released by eBay at the start of the holiday shopping season this November, “pimples, poops, farts, and slime” were among the most popular toys of the year. The platform reported that sales of Hasbro’s Don’t Step In It, a game where you avoid stepping in dog poop, had tripled between September and October, and that it had sold an average of 24 Poopsie Surprise Unicorns — a unicorn that poops glitter-laced slime — per day for the previous two months.
So what’s driving this trend? Why is gross suddenly okay to call “fun”? In large part, because of YouTube. And because toy companies that need viral hits are finally willing to give the least mature of us (very young kids) exactly what they want (toilets).
There are several strands of the gross toy trend, a variety of causes and switchbacks and catalysts that led us to this super-gross moment.
According to David Norman, the president of Goliath Games, which makes several gross toys, the first viral iteration of the trend was just fake vomit, which has been around since at least the 1950s. As far as mass-produced, big-box retail-targeted games, the first he can recall was Gooey Louie in 1995. (You can watch an explanatory video, or just enjoy Norman’s description: “You reach into this big oversized schnoz of this guy. If you pull out the wrong green booger, it shoots out a few feet in the air.”)
“Gooey Louie was a game that everybody passed on — Hasbro passed, Mattel passed. They said like, ‘It’s so funny, it’s hilarious, but there’s no way that the American public and the retailers would ever let us put it on,” Norman says. “But lo and behold, it was a huge hit. Pressman Toy Corporation sold millions of pieces.”
Goliath Games was an early adopter of gross, launching Doggie Doo — “Feed your doggie, squeeze the leash, and after he makes his gassy sounds — plop!” — in 2010, to wild attention. The noises Doggie Doo made (and yeah, Norman does a pretty good fart noise over the phone) were so funny, the game was featured on Chelsea Lately, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and The Late Show with David Letterman. “It became a viral hit just because of how funny it is, that noise that gets louder and louder.”
Goliath Games also owns Gooey Louie, having purchased the Pressman Toy Company in 2014.
“We had a pretty good stranglehold on gross in that moment,” Norman says. But due to YouTube and unboxing culture, this changed.
“Unboxing people started playing with [Doggie Doo, back in 2010], and they had real reactions to it. Those reactions created hundreds of millions of views. We had more competitors get into gross, and it started in games and went into everywhere,” he says. “There was even a Barbie thing, where Barbie’s dog was pooping jelly beans.” (While the dog does poop things that look like jelly beans, you can’t eat them.)
Norman is mostly right: Even the biggest toymakers want to play. Hasbro launched its plunger-based Toilet Trouble game in 2017, then the floor game Don’t Step In It this year, alongside a Play-Doh “Poop Troop” set, which encourages kids to recreate the popular poop emoji or customize their own poop monsters.
There’s Mattel’s Flushin’ Frenzy, a game in which children flush a toilet handle to roll a die, then plunge a toy toilet based on the number they roll, and can concoct really no strategy to evade the randomized result of poop “flying out of the toilet!” Plunge It, by Alex Brands — the company best known for inventing the teddy bear and manufacturing the Rubik’s cube — works in an opposite fashion, wherein the winner is whoever successfully plunges poop out of the “toilet-shaped play area” and into their possession.
As Norman says, the gross trend has “obviously erupted over the last couple of years.”
Speaking of erupting: pimples! (Not funny, but I tried.)
Husband-and-wife business duo Bill and Summer Pierce came up with the idea for the Pop It Pal — essentially a flat chunk of plastic with a bunch of poppable pimple capsules — in 2015 when, they said, they were driving around trying to come up with basically any idea for an invention.
This was during the big year of pimple-popping videos on YouTube, and the Pierces were fascinated by them — especially Dr. Pimple Popper, also known as Dr. Sandra Lee. They created a company called Unique Obsessions to sell the Pop It Pal, and it got a $250,000 investment from Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary.
Though the team says they’re not quite on pace to hit their $940,000 sales goal for the year, it’s only because they’ve struggled to find a manufacturer that can make the toys properly. (Right now, everything is made in their house.) Turns out the physics of fake pimples are as confusing as those of real ones.
Pop It Pal officially launched in January, a month before the International Toy Fair in New York, which was full of gross toys. To hear the team tell it, it’s been a wild 2018, and the gross toy trend is one of the better things to have happened to anyone. Pop It Pals are so in-demand as stocking stuffers, they insist, they are packing up shipments even during our 11-minute phone call.
There are few other pimple-popping toys on the market now — including one from Dr. Pimple Popper herself, in conjunction with Spin Master Toys. Called Pimple Pete, this one involves pulling pimples out of the face of a man named Pete, and is a game of caution: “Pull too hard or too fast and you will trigger the mega-zit plunger. If you do, the liquid of your choice filled inside the mega-zit will squirt on you.”
Unique Obsessions is staying ahead of the curve by iterating on the Pop It Pal quickly. They are “expanding the pus line,” at the request of their Shark Tank investor, who wanted to see bloody pus. They recently leaned into the glitter trend by introducing the Glitter Pal and glitter pus compatible with the basic Pop It Pal.
“We’ll stay in the gross product category,” chief marketing officer Kayla Roof tells me when I ask how long the company can stay on the pimple bit. “If you hang out on YouTube long enough, you will find more of our sources of inspiration. If you hang out in those related videos, you’ll see. We have a lot of ideas.”
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These ideas are a secret. They might do something edible. However, that is where their interest in the gastrointestinal tract ends; they will not do poop. “Pimples is about as gross as we go right now,” says Roof. “There will be no poop products.”
To each their own bodily function, I suppose.
What is oddest about gross toys is not how gross they are, but how fun they seem. For example, the Canada-based SmartLab Toys, which describes its president Dave Manga on its website as “Arguably the smartest man in North America,” offers a science kit called “That’s Gross!” which comes with some typical scientific accoutrements, as well as “a motorized toilet bowl mixer with flushing sounds,” a “garbage can shaker,” a biohazard cup, and three “gross molds” in the popular shapes of barf, maggot, centipede.
“Experiments look gross, smell gross, and feel gross for hours of fun,” according to the product description. Scientific Explorer sells a similar “Disgusting Science” science kit, which purports to help children learn about their hideous bodies by creating “a stinky intestine, slimy snot, and fake blood,” among other things. I would like both!
Then there’s KD Games’ Snot It, a game in which you use a strand of snot hanging from your face to pick up boogers from a bowl. Amazing?
See also: What’s in Ned’s Head, a game in which you reach into Ned’s head and pull out a rotten tooth, an old gym sock, a rat, etc. And Gassy Gus, a game in which you feed Gus “gaseous foods” until his belly swells and he must fart.
Most toymakers I spoke to traced this new gross toy trend to a broader internet trend of “surprise” — popularized by toy unboxing videos and by the general breakneck plot twists of popular children’s YouTube channels. What is more surprising than a fart? What is more surprising than most things your body can do?
To capitalize on both of these trends, Mattel has recently launched Pooparoo Surpriseroos, which are collectible cartoon figurines that you feed, then squeeze until they poop. Food capsules are stored in the tank of a toy toilet, while Pooparoo friends are stored in its bowl. They come in multiple colors, as bunnies, pandas, bears, unicorns, monsters, and Corgi dogs (each sold separately), and in surprise packs.
“Toys that have an element of ‘unboxing’ or blind bag surprises were [a] huge trend this year,” says Tammy Smitham, an executive at Spin Master, explaining her company’s similar Flush Force bathroom action figures. “The act of removing a mystery toy from a blind bag is almost more exciting than the toy itself.”
As for why the mystery toys live in a toilet, Smitham says, “Bathroom humor ranks one of the highest amongst boys age 5 to 7, so when it came to launching a new line of collectibles, the theme was quite obvious.” She credits the rise of the poop emoji and the popularity of Dreamworks’s 2017 adaptation of the Captain Underpants comic books for recent acceptance of poop as play: “It normalized the bodily function and made it more mainstream.”
Every major toy company has been impacted in some way by the failure of Toys R Us, a fact that is plainly obvious from their third-quarter earnings reports.
With brick-and-mortar retail partnerships meaning less, and anything and everything available on Amazon, it’s even more important to stand out from the crowd with viral hits. YouTube is the place to find them, so it stands to reason that the best toys are the ones that already make sense in the environment of YouTube.
“[YouTube] used to be an extra bullet point on a marketing campaign,” Norman says. “Now it can be the center of your campaign. There’s fewer TV viewers and more viewers of YouTube. Kids’ main source of content is YouTube.”
Next year, he says, Goliath’s big game will be something called Dirty Diapers, which involves passing a baby around like a hot potato until it makes “something a little gross or really gross.” It’s too late for them to jump on the pimple bandwagon, and most other body fluids “have already been done,” but this will still be a new frontier of gross. (Baby poop is grosser than adult poop, based on my experiences with popular media.)
Still, according to Mattel executive Lori Pantel, the average life cycle for any toy is only about three to five years. For trend-capitalizing toys, that can be even shorter. Factor in the freewheeling nonsense of YouTube, and it’s a guarantee that kids will be on to the next outwardly bizarre activity soon, if they aren’t already. Though Norman is clearly enthused about the diaper idea, he suspects that the time for “gross” to live in the spotlight will be brief.
“I can’t imagine it will be as big in next years,” he says. “If you want something gross, now is the year to get stuff in stores.” Alas, there will be no relief from how gross it is to be alive. And when this trend dies, there will be fewer ways to laugh at it.