The Nerf brand has been bringing kids foamy fun for over four decades now, but the company’s history might not be as familiar to you as the perfect technique for a crushing Nerfoop dunk. Let’s take a look at the Nerf nitty gritty.
Although Nerf has become the leading name in spongy backyard warfare, its roots were decidedly less violent.
Inventor Reyn Guyer had enjoyed early success by creating the game Twister, and in 1968 he started Winsor Concepts to dream up new toy and game ideas. While working on a caveman-themed game, one of Guyer’s team members began bouncing one of the game’s foam “rocks” over a net. The designers realized that they were onto something and began developing a whole line of games based on foam balls.
Guyer initially took the game ideas to Milton Bradley, the company that had found a hit with his Twister invention. The game giant passed on Guyer’s creation, though. Undeterred, Guyer then pitched the foam games to Parker Brothers.
Parker Brothers wasn’t crazy about the actual games, but they loved the idea of a foam ball that kids could safely play with indoors. The company decided to market just the ball as its own toy. In 1969 Nerf made its debut in the form of the four-inch polyurethane foam Nerf Ball, which Parker Brothers dubbed “the world’s first indoor ball.” After the plain old Nerf ball became a runaway hit, Parker Brothers contracted with Guyer to make the wider array of foam games that he had originally envisioned.
The most memorable of these line extensions was surely the Nerf football, which bounced onto the scene in 1972. The Nerf football actually represented a bit of a technical change for the product line. Parker Brothers made the original Nerf balls by spinning foam on a lathe and cutting it with a piece of hot wire. Making the football, on the other hand, entailed pouring liquid foam into a mold. The resulting ball had a thick outer covering that helped it behave like an ordinary football.
Some of the other Nerf spinoffs failed to achieve the notoriety of the Nerf football. By the time the 80s rolled around, Parker Brothers had started making things like Nerf Pool, Nerf Ping Pong, and, of course, Nerf Table Hockey. The company even started a line of Nerful action figures that looked like anthropomorphic Nerf balls.
The Nerf brand has changed hands several times over the years. In 1987 Tonka purchased Kenner Parker Toys, the then-owner of the Parker Brothers brand, and in 1991 the brand moved again when Hasbro acquired Tonka. Hasbro has held onto the brand and helped it flourish; a 2010 Business Week report pegs the Nerf division’s annual revenues at $150 million.
Nerf’s major coup for a whole generation of kids, though, was its introduction of foam weaponry. Sure, tossing a Nerf football around was fun, but shooting your buddies with soft foam balls? That’s real entertainment!
In 1989 Nerf debuted the Blast A Ball, small pinkish cannons that fired golfball-sized foam projectiles, but the 1991 introduction of the Nerf Bow and Arrow cemented the brand’s reputation as the armorer of kids everywhere. The 90s saw Nerf further expand its array of blasters into guns that fired missiles, balls, and suction-cup darts.
The blaster line is still buoying the brand’s sales; in 2009 Nerf even reintroduced the familiar old ad slogan “It’s Nerf or Nothin’!” The weapons are more technologically advanced now, though. The Raider Rapid Fire CS 35 has a capacity of 35 suction darts; the newer Nerf Stampede ECS is a fully automatic blaster that cranks out three darts per second. These toys sound a bit more sophisticated than the old Blast A Ball. (Although my brother and I can attest that the Blast A Ball was great for whacking each other even once its ammunition had been lost.)
All of this extra firepower has come at a price, though. In 2008 Nerf had to recall its N-Strike Recon Blaster after at least 46 reports of kids sustaining injuries while firing the gun. The blaster’s plunger firing mechanism had a nasty tendency of catching users’ skin as it flew forward, which let to welts and bruises on kids’ faces, necks, and chests.
Some sources claim that “NERF” is an acronym for “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam,” but that story seems too good to be true. Reyn Guyer’s personal website explains that Parker Brothers named the balls after the foam that off-road drivers use to wrap their rollbars.
Its creator Brian Jablonski, first arrived as a product design manager at the long brick building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island—global headquarters of the Hasbro toy company—he figured he’d stick around for a couple of years, then move on to the next challenge.
But it turned out that life in Pawtucket was too good to quit. Hasbro owns many famous toy and game brands—Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Battleship, Monopoly, Twister, Ouija, Tonka, Play-Doh. Jablonski’s job was to focus on one of the most iconic brands of all: Nerf. Working on Nerf stuff was sort of like waking up every day and driving a Mister Softee truck; it made you a sentry, a protector of the cherished childhood memories of multiple generations of Americans. Baby boomers had grown up kicking Nerf footballs around the yard. Gen Xers had yanked Nerf flying discs from the jaws of family dogs and practiced 360-degree dunks into Nerf basketball hoops. And teenagers were devoted to Nerf’s wide array of foam-projectile-firing toy guns (“blasters,” in Nerf-speak).
For Jablonski, blasters are the most satisfying Nerf products to create, each one requiring the participation of about 15 Hasbro designers, engineers, marketers, product development specialists, model makers, model painters, and computer-aided design experts in both Pawtucket and Hong Kong. Over the years, Jablonski’s blaster work has made him to Nerf what Jony Ive is to Apple—an in-house guru, keeper of the brand’s look and feel. With each new blaster, he tries to surpass the one that came before. The key question, he says, is: How do you outdo yourself?
It was a fateful meeting in 2010 when Jablonski learned that he would have to outdo himself in the biggest way possible. Hasbro’s marketing people had been asking their target customers—boys ages 8 to 16—what they wanted out of a blaster, and the boys always said the same two things: more distance and more ammo capacity. Some of them were so anxious for these features that they had taken it upon themselves to modify their existing blasters, duct-taping additional clips to the stocks and fiddling with the tension of the springs. Search YouTube for “Nerf mod” and you’ll find a whole ecosystem of kids (and kids at heart) trying to one-up each other, hacking their blasters to resemble AK-47s, boosting firing rate, and claiming that their souped-up plastic blasters can shoot foam darts 60 feet and beyond.
Talk about creating a tribe. But in just a simple product itself, the item has managed to create a following and more. Interesting stuff.
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