Nerf War

urban taggers v. the law

by by Jamie Brew

illustration by by Cecilia Salama

Martyn Yang of Canberra, Australia says his blog, UrbanTaggers, as “dedicated to all things to do with toy blasters, be it foam, water, infra-red.. and maybe the odd spitball or marshmallow launcher :)” His posts range from reviews of new blasters from Nerf and other manufacturers to photos from Toy Fair 2012 and commentary on photos of Joe Biden playing with super-soakers. The third Google result for “Nerf blog,” UrbanTaggers maintains a sense of humor appropriate when talking about toy guns. Yang often punctuates his sentences with smiley faces instead of periods or exclamation marks. He writes that the blog “is about keeping the inner child in us alive.”

The website is part of a whole online culture devoted to toy guns that analyzes and celebrates the current crop of blasters while it anticipates the next. A promotional video for the N-Strike Elite on Nerf’s YouTube account opens with a heavily backlit shot of the gun looming up out of dry ice mist, accompanied by ominous, droning strings­—which are abruptly replaced by power guitar riffs as the mist vanishes and the camera orbits the blaster, showing off its Rapid Slam-Fire Action, 25 Elite Darts and Tactical Rail. The video has accumulated 27,321 views since it was posted on April 11, while a related, fan-produced video “Speculation on the Nerf Elite Series” has been viewed 3,723 times.

On March 15, Nerf’s parent company Hasbro sent an email to Yang to offer him some free Nerf Pinpoint Sights as giveaway prizes for his blog. Yang happily agreed and thanked Hasbro: “The Pinpoint sight IS one of the most sought—after accessories so offering some to us as a giveaway would be fantastic.” Yang asked if there was anything he could do to help promote. The Hasbro advertisers responded that they would just need his mailing address.

The pinpoint sights had not arrived six days later when Yang received, by snail mail, a letter from international law firm Baker & McKenzie, acting on behalf of Hasbro, asking that he take down his review of Nerf’s yet-to-be-released “N-Strike Elite Rampage Blaster” on the grounds that the review included a publicity photo that had not yet been released. Yang, who had acquired the photo of the futuristic, blue-orange gun from the Chinese eBay equivalent Taobao, complied. However, he declined the lawyers’ additional request that he also turn over the “name, address, email and IP address” of his source for the photo, noting that even if he had the relevant information, “recent amendments to the Australian Evidence Act introduced express protections for journalists and their sources.”

Soon afterwards, Yang received another email from Hasbro PR, this time claiming, with uncanny specificity reminiscent of an e-mail phishing scam, that “I have ordered 11 pin point sights for you. Can you please supply a delivery address?” When Yang asked the lawyers at Baker & McKenzie about Hasbro’s redundant request for his mailing address, representative Robert Arnold said that the advertisers’  continuing requests “have nothing to do with me. I can only assume that Hasbro really does want to send you some stuff.” The lawyers continued to ask Yang for information about his sources for unreleased guns.

Three weeks later, Yang returned home on a Sunday afternoon to find two Baker & McKenzie-hired investigators with tape recorders who, as alarmed neighbors would later tell Yang, had been “hanging around all day waiting.” Again they asked for Yang’s source, and again he refused. Unable to escape this labyrinth of lawyers and Nerf advertisers, Yang finally threw up his hands and sent an email to the lawyers asking that they leave him alone and consider themselves “lucky no one called the police.”

Yang’s story has since received considerable online media attention, arguably becoming the latest instance of the “Streisand effect,” a term coined in 2003 after Barbara Streisand’s attempt to suppress photos of her California house led to unexpected publicity over the very fact that she was trying to suppress them. Most coverage has tended to emphasize Hasbro’s corporate heartlessness (headlines include “Hasbro Guns Down Fan” and “Hasbro Are Total Dicks”), though some have pointed out that Sunday afternoon lawyer visits are actually pretty much par for the course in legal investigation, at least in Australia. “The bigger question,”said Brown University Professor of Sociology Mark Suchman in an email to the Independent, “is whether the meme [a picture of a crying baby with the caption: “Hasbro promised freebies…sent lawyers instead”] takes off in a way that tarnishes Hasbro’s reputation.”

Indeed, despite Yang’s clarification that he has not urged any kind of boycott, Hasbro boycotts are a popular conversation topic among commenters on articles about the UrbanTaggers story. However, no coherent boycott group has emerged yet, certainly none as formidable as the 2010 Christian-driven boycott of Hasbro for producing Ouija boards, which recruited 983 supporters on before its originator chose to discontinue it when the BoycottOwl web page began to display ads for Hasbro.

Public backlash does not seem to have grown enough to alarm Hasbro just yet—asked for comment, an employee at Hasbro’s Rhode Island headquarters said she was unaware of UrbanTaggers’ existence. But at least for those who commented on Yang’s story, Hasbro’s culpability depends largely on whether or not its PR team intentionally tricked Yang into giving up his address so that the law firm could send him letters and lawyers. Hasbro issued a statement on April 25 saying that their advertisers and the Baker & McKenzie reps had contacted Yang independently, albeit with remarkably poor timing. The marketing team’s emails, the statement read, were “completely unrelated to the confidential global investigation being conducted on Hasbro’s behalf by independent investigators.”

In a post to the UrbanTaggers Facebook group, Yang said that he accepted this explanation and that he viewed the whole saga as “a horrible case of poor internal communication among all the parties concerned.” Yang has still not received any pinpoint sights.

JAMIE BREW B’12 is an elite rampage blaster.