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August 23, 2018

The strange origin story of the Cabbage Patch Kids from the '80s

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The 1980s witnessed the meteoric rise of Cabbage Patch Kids, a collection of dolls that parents fought (yes, literally!) to buy for their kids. What many do not know about these toys, however, is that their history is traced to intellectual theft and ingenious marketing that exploited human psychology.

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ARE THE "CABBAGE PATCH KIDS" STOLEN PROPERTY?

Contrary to common knowledge, the dolls are not an original creation of Xavier Roberts. Roberts stole the design from Martha Nelson Thomas, a Kentucky artist, who originally designed them in the early 70s. It was reported that Nelson refused to permit Roberts to sell her creation, preferring instead to “adopt” them out to family and friends.

THE "CABBAGE PATCH KIDS" CRAZE OF 1983

What followed next was the stuff of fairytales. The Cabbage Patch Kids, which have been described many times as the ugliest dolls in the world, had shoppers camping overnight outside stores and eventually led to nationwide store riots. The fever was even aptly named the “Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1983.”

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WHY DID PARENTS REALLY BUY THE DOLLS?

Cabbage Patch came onto the toy scene at a time when materialism was at its peak and parents were obsessed with keeping up with toy trends. Buying the latest toy did not only make their kids look cool; it also made them cool parents. And Roberts capitalized on this.

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Brand storytelling is one of the prevalent trends in marketing today, but as far back as the 80s, Roberts had it all figured out. He weaved a touching story around highly unattractive dolls and transformed them into the toast of the nation.

THE BRILLIANT IDEA THAT TRUMPED THE DOLLS' UGLINESS

In the late 70s, Roberts did not sell his dolls from a random store as everyone else did. Instead, he created a “Babyland General Hospital” where the toys were displayed in cribs and incubators, and salespersons were dressed as nurses in attendance.

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Buyers would come in and select any of the “kids” for adoption. Upon adoption, the new “parent” would take possession of their “kid,” complete with adoption papers, a birth certificate, and a specific name drawn from 1938 Georgia birth records.

Roberts wasn’t just selling dolls. He was selling an experience. His genius caught the eye of giant toy producers, and he eventually licensed the doll to Coleco in 1982. The name “Cabbage Patch Kids” was also created that year, and a whole new phase of subtle marketing began.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE STORIES

Leveraging major media outlets, children institutions, TV shows, and storybooks, the manufacturers worked their way into the nation’s heart with a foolproof narrative:

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The Cabbage Patch Kids are born in a cabbage patch after a round of pollination from mutant creatures called bunnybees. They emerge into a world with no parents and remain at the mercy of Lavender McDade, an evil woman who kidnaps them. They only get to escape their cruel world when they are adopted.

Genius!  

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But not even Roberts could have envisaged the resulting craze that characterized Christmas of 1983. Coleco had sold out as early as October and plans had to be made for emergency production. Still, riots broke out in stores nationwide, with manic shoppers going as far as snatching the merchandise from successful buyers.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MARTHA NELSON?

The Cabbage Patch Kids were reported to have generated $2 billion of Coleco’s $4.5 billion in 1984. Sadly, of all that money, the woman who brought them to life, Late Martha Nelson of Kentucky, did not receive a penny.

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