A Tale of Two Toys

Zwarte Piet toys

Some retailers and manufacturers have responded to the debate surrounding Zwarte Piet by stopping making or selling toys portraying an all black Zwarte Piet. This issue was raised in 2014 on Twitter account MAD Mothers NL, a network that fights for the interests of multi-cultural kids.

The American toy company Fisher-Price replied with these tweets:

We understand why you’re offended by this product & have dropped it from our line. Soon it won’t be available at any stores.
We originally created it based on consumer requests for a complete, traditional Little People Sinterklaas figure set.
However, we’re sensitive to how the character is being perceived and don’t want to support a negative stereotype.

The Fisher-Price sets were introduced in 2012 and production halted after 2013, with the company later saying it was because of limited demand.

Playmobil, a German company, also announced they wouldn’t make Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet anymore, though the figures would be available as long as stock lasts:

Playmobil keeps a close eye on the public debate surrounding the Zwarte Piet discussion. But with regard to the Sinterklaas theme of our play sets, it was always the intention to make a one-off production. For us the theme was complete with four sets. And for a one-off production: up is gone.

The ‘one-off production’ lasted four years. The first set including Zwarte Piet was introduced in 2010. It’s popularity led to adding more sets. “This was due to an increasing demand from children for a play set with the theme Sinterklaas,” said a company spokesman. So a new set was produced each of the next three years. First was the steamboat set, then a set with three Zwarte Pieten, and finally a Sinterklaas Advent calendar.

Zwarte Piet toys
The second set was nominated for Stichting SpeelGoed Nederland’s “Toy of the Year” in 2011
Following these announcements, the toys quickly sold out; said to be flying off the shelves.

The Playmobil steamboat with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet was nominated as a toy of the year in 2011. The SpeelGoed Nederland Foundation said they would consider whether this was still appropriate. “The question is whether we should interfere in the ‘black-piet’ discussion. We need to talk about this and think about it.”

Other companies have simply, quietly let Zwarte Piet go away without comment.

The Belgian Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (Interfederaal Gelijkekansencentrum Unia) issued a statement saying even though the Zwarte Piet type of racism was not illegal, they called for the figure not to be represented as “a stupid, subordinate, or dangerous black man.” This was a position against negative stereotypes about black persons.

Playmobil continued to offer the St. Nikolaus and Christkind set in Germany and elsewhere.

Playmobil St Nikolaus and Christkind
This set was introduced in Germany in 2010
Most toy makers quickly discontinue items that get negative feedback on social media and in the press. However things seemed to change in 2018 when two Playmobil sets with Zwarte Piet appeared in several toy store chains in the Netherlands. Playmobil’s marketing manager said they had been made available in response to a few retailers’ requests. These sets still featured Zwarte Piet the same as they were before: completely black, with red lips, and gold earrings.

Playmobil Piet sets
The first set from 2010 is on the left; the set of Piets was introduced in 2012.

The Zwarte Piet sets were sold by the Colruyt and Dreamland toy stores. A spokesperson for Colruyt said “It is a very popular product, there is a lot of demand.” Echoing the pro-traditional Zwarte Piet activists, he continued, “We hope there will be no controversy, because for us Sinterklaas is in the first place a children’s party.

The sets were also sold at Bol.com’s webshop Speelgoed-liefhebbers.nl. The owner stated that the sets were not from Playmobil’s new collection, but, rather, old stock, offered as a one-off, as long as supplies last. He said, “We now sell about 5 to 6 pieces every day. They have become real collector items … There is a demand for it. And trade is trade.”

Other shops selling the sets included De Poppetjesshop and ColliShop.

Not all shops responded the same way. Intertoys webshop will not carry them, saying, “We have a policy that we not sell images that can be experienced as hurtful.”

Marketing expert Paul Moers believes more and more brands and retailers will say goodbye to Zwarte Piet in a quiet way, showing more Sinterklazen by themselves:

No company will now fully make a statement. The marketing interests are too big. There is a hard search for smart ways to deal with this Zwarte Piet discussion, without taking a position. Only displaying a Sint is a safe choice.

SOURCES
• “Playmobil maakt weer Zwarte Piet-poppetjes”, TTR, November 15, 2018
• “Playmobil blijft in zwarte pieto-poppetjes geloven, by Naz Taha, AD.nl, November 16, 2018
• “Playmobil verkoopt weer Zwarte Piet-poppetjes, Economieredactie,” AD.nl, November 15, 2018
• “Playmobil maakt weer Zwarte Pieten,” De Telegraaf, November 15, 2018
• “Playmobil stopt met Zwarte Piet, De Telegraaf”, September 16, 2014
• “Playmobil schrapt productie Zwarte Pietoo-poppetjes”, Joop, September 16, 2014
• “Playmobil: we stoppen met Zwarte Piet”, Ondernemer, September 16, 2014
• “Playmobil stopt met Zwarte Piet”, omroepwest.nl, September 16, 2014
• “Playmobil gestopt met productie Zwarte Pietjes” by Bianca Brasser, MetroNieuws, September 16, 2014
Mama-life, September, 8, 2014
MAD Mothers
• “Ook speelgoedpoppetjes Zwarte Piet onder vuur” by Marijn van Beeten, AD.nl, September 9, 2014
• “Holland declares war on Fisher-Price”, Geenstijl, August 9, 2914
• “Run op ‘verbannen’ Zwarte Piet Fisher Price, Playmobil-Piet wankelt,” Asser Courant, September 11, 2014
• “Ook poppetjes Zwarte Piet onder vuur,” Leeuwarder Courant, September 9, 2014
• “Nu ook speelgoedpopopetjes Zwarte Piet onder vuur” by Martijn van Beeten, HLN.be, September 9, 2014
• “Een speelgoedstoomboot met Zwarte Piet, kan dat eigenlijk wel?” by Martijn van Beeten, Het Parool, September 9, 2014
• “ZwartePietmarketing,” Chanel Lodik, September 13, 2014
• “Dutch snap up Zwarte Piet toys as production halts” by Maxime Zech, NLTIMES.NL, September 9, 2014

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