The Hamilton Spectator
Wednesday, January 8, 1997
page A3

Does it or doesn't it? This Berry Lovin' Smurf swears, says Stoney Creek's April Wood, who bought it for daughter Aleksandra. (Scott Gardner, The Spectator)

Cursing Smurf no joking matter to mother

by Adrian Humphreys

STONEY CREEK -- What parent wants their child playing with a plush, stuffed, Masochistic Sadie or Lots o' Swearin' Smurf?

A recent rash of trash-talkin' toys that some people say are blurting out offensive statements is a public-relations nightmare toymakers can do without.

But what's behind the blue-faced Smurf toy that two families insist swears a blue streak, and the sweet-faced Clever Cutie doll that seems to say, "I like it when you cut me"?

Are these good dolls gone bad?

April Wood of Stoney Creek bought a $40 Berry Lovin' Smurf. Her aunt thought she heard the doll swear, but dismissed it until she heard of a similar complaint in Brantford.

"When she played it for me the f-word is quite clear. You can't mistake what it's saying", said Ms. Wood.

"It may be a joke until you hear a little kid with that coming out of her mouth. My daughter is going to hear it enough in her life, but to hear it coming from a toy is too much", she said of six-month-old Aleksandra.

A spokesman for Irwin Toy Ltd., which makes both dolls, dismisses the claims. "There is nothing wrong with the technology in these dolls -- it's been used for years", said Scott Irwin, senior vice-president.

"We've had three complaints out of thousands and thousands of dolls that have been shipped."

The dolls are just being "misheard" and he blames new complaints on the power of suggestion from the media.

"There are only 26 letters in the alphabet and there are lots of words that sound like others. What we recorded on the dolls are not swear words or anything offensive", he said.

The Smurf is designed to make three sounds: It says "I'm hungry", it giggles, and it says meaningless baby talk. But the baby talk is garbled, with the last word starting with and F and ending with a hard C sound.

"It's like looking at clouds. One might say `doesn't that cloud look like an elephant? ... Look, there's the elephant's trunk, there's the tail.' But does that make the cloud an elephant? No," said Mr. Irwin.

The process for making talking dolls is simple. A team thinks up a new doll, comes up with appropriate phrases for it to "speak", and then reviews the statements to ensure they are not offensive, said Mr. Irwin.

The company records an actor reading the lines in a studio. Music or sound effects may be added.

The sound is then mass produced onto silicon microchips which become part of a small circuit board inserted into each toy.

The technology is simple and has been used extensively for a decade in many consumer products, says Dr. David Jones, a computer science professor at McMaster University.

When the actor's recorded messages are converted to digital data, it is stored in the language of machines -- strings of zeros and ones. This data is then stored on microchips, the same kind of chips that run computers.

Powered by small batteries, the sound is activated by a movement -- such as rubbing the toy's belly or squeezing its hand.

Dr. Jones said some chips could have a technical glitch which muddles or snips what is recorded onto them.

For instance the phrase "I like it when you cuddle me", could sound like "I like it when you cut me", if the last syllable of "cuddle was snipped.

Or a "doll hacker" could replace the doll's recorded mechanism either in the factory or in the store.

A similar microchip from a cheap greeting card that allows the consumer to record a personal greeting could be switched with the factory-programmed version, he said.

Copyright © 1997 by Southam News. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.