Guys and Dolls: How L.O.L. Dolls Became the Dopamine Hit of a Generation

MGA Entertainment C.E.O. Isaac Larian is the toy impresario behind the wildly popular L.O.L. Surprise! dolls.

Isaac Larian, the founder and C.E.O. of MGA Entertainment, the American toy giant, was tossing and turning one night in 2015.

Larian was suffering from insomnia, and for good reason. The billionaire had spent the last decade in court battling Mattel, another American toy company, over the intellectual property of Bratz, the precocious line of dolls which were designed by a former Mattel toy designer who later went on to work for M.G.A.E.

M.G.A.E. had racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees to take on Mattel, the iconic brand behind Barbie, and Larian was also worried that Bratz had fallen out of popularity. The crop-top and platform shoe-wearing dolls were huge in the early aughts but had left the spotlight due to changing consumer tastes, as well as a particularly bruising report from the American Psychological Association that accused Bratz of sexualizing young girls.

Larian needed a win, and that night, he decided to browse YouTube and explore product-reveal videos he’d heard his kids talk about.

“My children said, ‘Do you know about this iPhone unboxing?’” Larian said from M.G.A.E.’s headquarters one recent fall afternoon. “I go on YouTube and put in ‘Apple iPhone unboxing’ and, oh my God, they were right. I thought people were crazy, frankly, for doing that. Then I typed, ‘toy unboxing.’”

A lightbulb went off.

Larian went straight to his design team with direct orders: “I said, ‘We need to make the ultimate unboxing toy.’”

The M.G.A.E. creative team’s response, L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, are pint sized, candy colored and have impossibly huge eyes, which makes them look like something out of an acid trip. They come with stylish hairdos, as well as varying accessories, like a handbag, coffee cup or headband.

But the toy’s cuteness isn’t its only wow factor. L.O.L. Surprise! dolls come inside opaque packaging, so kids don’t know what they’re getting until the toy is fully unwrapped. Each accessory — which typically number seven to nine, but can go into the dozens — is also hidden in its own layer of packaging, making the unwrapping an experience. The dolls, which target the 4 to 14 age range, also have different functions like squirting water or secret skin designs that are — surprise! — revealed after being placed under water. Larian’s late-night inspiration spawned a sensation — one of the most popular toys of the last decade.

Last year, M.G.A.E. reports, the company made more than $4 billion from L.O.L. Surprise! doll retail sales. It’s expecting to rake in $5 billion in 2019, not including revenue from licensing deals.

According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, L.O.L. dolls are outpacing the sales of Barbie, Pokémon, Nerf and Marvel action figures. Its products are even more popular than Star Wars toys.

“I’ve been in this business 29 years and I have never seen a doll line take off so fast,” said Christine Osborne, the founder of Wonder Works, a chain of toy stores in South Carolina. “We’ve had crazes like Beanie Babies, Webkinz, and there’s usually a lifespan. But L.O.L. isn’t going anywhere.”

L.O.L. Surprise! dolls seem to be everywhere: On the shelves at Walmart and Duane Reade; gracing Amazon’s best-selling toy list; and in private Facebook groups, where rabid fans buy, sell and trade them. On the Christmas wishlist of a 10-year-old girl that recently went viral on Twitter, L.O.L. dolls sat comfortably next to the new iPhone and Gucci slides. They usually sell for about $10 — cheap enough for kids to buy them using birthday or allowance money — although some L.O.L. editions can cost as much as $249.99.

L.O.L. Surprise! dolls are a fusion of toy trends that have dominated the decade. Specifically, they’ve risen to fame because of the toy’s remarkable ability to mimic a YouTube unboxing video IRL.

And for kids today who turn to social media to discover toys instead of roaming the aisles of Toys “R” Us, L.O.L. Surprise! dolls are a welcome trend to chase.

“Kids today want surprises,” said Stephen Pasierb, chief executive of the Toy Industry Association, an American trade organization. “They live in a world where everything is online, they know what to expect anywhere they go, and so they crave the mystery of experimentation.”

Larian, 65, is just as infamous in the toy industry as his Bratz dolls are.

An Iranian Jewish entrepreneur who moved to America when he was 17 to study engineering, Larian sold hand-held electronic games before going on to build M.G.A.E. Witty, blunt and a self-professed “kid at heart,” Larian is a legend for his enterprising spirit, as well as his chutzpah. He’s notorious for pulling stunts like sending out emoji-filled press releases that tease the toy industry for falling behind.

Industry insiders like Pasierb compare Larian to Donald Trump, as he regularly uses social media to air his grievances and gleefully berate adversaries like Mattel. (Social media will confirm that Larian isn’t a Trump supporter, though. He’s dubbed all politicians “crooked.”)

Recent tweets from Larian implore the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Mattel; and LinkedIn posts tease Mattel employees for spending more time looking at his profile than doing actual work. (A 2011 court judgement awarded the Bratz copyright to M.G.A.E., though the two companies continue to bicker in court.)

Larian’s tenacity is what initially helped get L.O.L. dolls moving. When Larian first took the product to Walmart, he said, the retailer initially declined to stock it.

“The buyer said, ‘There is no way that kids are going to buy a doll they cannot see,’” Larian recalled. (Walmart, which now sells the dolls, declined to discuss the interaction, saying it doesn’t comment on supplier relations.)

Larian moved on to Target, and after a buyer there demurred as well, Larian called the buyer’s boss and threatened to berate the company on social media for years to come. Target eventually agreed to stock the toy, and by Christmas 2016, L.O.L. dolls were flying off the shelves. In an email, Nikhil Nayar, the senior vice president of merchandising at Target confirmed that the dolls “quickly became a hit with our guests, and it has been one of our top selling brands over the last two years.”

From there, M.G.A.E. inked deals to sell L.O.L. Surprise! at larger retailers around the globe, and at smaller, independent toy stores.

Moms like Jackie Kotler say they love L.O.L. dolls because they’re a more wholesome toy than some of the souped-up offerings on store shelves.

The rise of L.O.L. Surprise! dolls dovetailed with the explosion of YouTube’s unboxing genre.

By the mid-2010s, tons of YouTubers were uploading videos of themselves unwrapping gadgets, beauty products — anything that could game the site’s formula that translated eyeballs to cash. Toys became a quick hit for unboxing, and kid influencers like Ryan’s World and EvanTubeHD soon rose to fame for earning millions of dollars by simply opening toys in front of a camera.

Much to the chagrin of parents who are bewildered by the trend, many children today would rather watch YouTube kids unwrap products than play with toys of their own. The videos can be addictive because they have the potential to stimulate areas of the brain that cater to reward, noted Richard Freed, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.”

“The unboxing trend capitalizes on the anticipation humans have when they want something,” Dr. Freed said. “It’s not as much about the reward as it is the excitement of the reward that can trigger the dopamine.”

Jackie Breyer, the publisher of Adventure Media Group, which puts out several toy magazines, said L.O.L. Surprise! products have thrived precisely because they are YouTube bait. A mother of two, Breyer recounted her 10-year-old daughter opening L.O.L. dolls while performing a voiceover to an imaginary camera.

“She pretends she is running her own YouTube channel,” Breyer said with a laugh. “Kids see YouTubers who are popular and live glamorously, and so for a moment, when they unbox their toys, they can have that experience too.”

Larian, a dogged observer of toy trends, said that once he caught wind of toy unboxing, M.G.A.E. made sure to link up with toy influencers early on, sending free products to YouTubers like Cookie Swirl C, who has more than 12 million subscribers. This helped spread the word and let the toy get swallowed up and spit out by YouTube’s algorithm as well.

Not that M.G.A.E. has left marketing solely in the hands of influencers. The company launched a YouTube channel of its own when it debuted L.O.L. dolls in December 2016, and it’s amassed upward of 1 million subscribers (although some of its unboxing videos draw more than 6 million views). An unboxing experience on M.G.A.E.’s YouTube channel often includes brushing the dolls’ hair, petting them and other A.S.M.R.-heavy triggers that have become popular on social media.

“Kids are not watching Nickelodeon anymore; they are not watching TV anymore. They are on YouTube, so what we did is a whole line of unboxing on YouTube,” Larian said.

L.O.L. Surprise!’s YouTube play is a perfect example of how toy companies today sidestep marketing boundaries that the Federal Communications Commission put on children’s television programming in the ’90s. Unboxing videos, which are often created or sponsored by toy brands, are frequently how children learn about products.

“My kids are practically raised on YouTube and so they knew about L.O.L. before I did,” said Joanna Cox, a mother of three living in Washington, D.C., whose 7-year-old daughter, Helen, owns almost 30 L.O.L. dolls. “My kids zone out for hours while I try to get stuff done, and then they say, ‘Hey, Mom or Dad, I want the toys that I watched.’”

Helen Moran, 7, poses with her collection of L.O.L. dolls in Washington, D.C.
Helen Moran, 7, poses with her collection of L.O.L. dolls in Washington, D.C.Credit…Becky Harlan for The New York Times
“My kids are practically raised on YouTube and so they knew about L.O.L. before I did,” said Helen’s mother, Joanna Cox.
“My kids are practically raised on YouTube and so they knew about L.O.L. before I did,” said Helen’s mother, Joanna Cox.Credit…Becky Harlan for The New York Times

Some parents despise the unboxing trend and the toys that have spawned from it.

“This is completely not what I want my child to witness as ‘fun,’” one bemoaned last year on a children’s online safety forum. “I have deleted YouTube Kids from my child’s device because he was beginning to think that all families live like this — $1,000s worth of new toys every week.”

Others, like Kotler, prefer unboxing videos to other trending YouTube content.

“I’ve seen videos of adults who dress up as princesses and make content for kids, and I find that to be really creepy!” Kotler said. “I’d much rather have my kids watch children playing with L.O.L. dolls. That feels safer.”

While L.O.L. dolls are stocked at major retailers globally, M.G.A.E. has been especially dogged about its distribution approach. Of the 30 different types of dolls it sells, a select few are rare and infrequently distributed. This scarcity sways children to constantly seek them out. It’s driving Yeezy sneaker-like hype, where there’s no shortage of sellers listing highly sought-after dolls like the Splash Queen or the Punk Boi for almost $200 on eBay.

“A significant success of these toys is mismatching supply and demand,” noted Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at Forrester Research who studies consumer industries like toys. “It fuels the frenzy.”

Each L.O.L. Surprise! doll is also packaged with a booklet that shows all the dolls, and which ones are the rarest. It incentivizes children to collect the toys, as opposed to just being O.K. with owning one or two of them.

“Those little catalogs tell the kids what they aren’t getting and that’s a pretty genius way to create brief euphoria and convince the children they should want to keep buying more,” Cox said. “As a parent it’s pretty frustrating though, because you just want them to be happy with the one they are getting.”

A booklet included in the packaging for an L.O.L. Surprise! #Hairgoals doll.
A booklet included in the packaging for an L.O.L. Surprise! #Hairgoals doll.Credit…Becky Harlan for The New York Times

Other parents, who may have traded baseball cards or action figures in their day, are thrilled that collectibles are trendy to new generations.

“Toys like L.O.L. dolls have created different patterns of play,” Pasierb noted. “They are teaching kids how to trade, negotiate and communicate.”

Osborne, the owner of the South Carolina toy stores, has hopped on this train. Her stores now host L.O.L. Surprise! trading hours on Saturdays. Kids come in and barter with each other — or buy more L.O.L. dolls from the store, of course.

As anyone who’s ever been a kid knows, toy trends come and go.

“It can be Tickle Me Elmo or fidget spinners, but everything in the toy industry has a lifespan of about 10 minutes,” said Kodali, the Forrester analyst.

M.G.A.E. has toy lines that similarly cash in on YouTube trends, like Poopsie Slime Surprise, a line of unicorn creatures that excrete rainbow goo and are meant to address the toy industry’s slime craze. (The line includes purses named Pooey Puitton, which, unsurprisingly, has ruffled the feathers of L.V.M.H.’s Louis Vuitton.

But Larian is currently hard at work to make sure the L.O.L. Surprise! legacy endures. In July, M.G.A.E. debuted L.O.L. OMG, a larger version of its iconic L.O.L. Surprise! doll that’s meant to rival Barbie (in an email, a spokeswoman for Mattel said that “Barbie has proven her staying power by remaining both timeless and timely, continuing to reinvent the fashion doll category through new product innovation, diverse doll options and the celebration of female role models”). M.G.A.E.’s plan includes issuing constant updates to L.O.L. dolls, like replacing plastic hair with synthetic, softer hair, and an expansion into a line of L.O.L. pets.

Larian said he continues to scour YouTube to see what kids like, but also gets intel from his 2-year-old grandson, Lev. (Coincidentally, Lev isn’t allowed screen time. Jasmin Larian, founder of fashion label Cult Gaia who is Isaac’s daughter and Lev’s mother, said she’s opposed to screen time because she knows how “addictive” it can be.)

Meanwhile, M.G.A.E. has plans to move L.O.L. Surprise! beyond dolls. There are now licensing deals for bedding, shoes, board games and bathrobes. In November, M.G.A.E. debuted an L.O.L. Surprise! movie on Amazon Prime. Larian said fans can expect more from the line in the next decade.

“There’s going to be new trends, but we are like a chameleon,” he said with a big grin. “We will change for them.”

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