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How the Hatchimal toy craze inspired so much online hate at Christmas

We've seen Christmas-crazed toy behaviour in past years (remember the Cabbage Patch craze?), but the high emotions sparked by the Hatchimal frenzy have taken a more bitter turn, thanks to the power of social media, where everyone gets an opinion.

Hunt for furry Hatchimals has led to a lot of hurt feelings

Alex Brancheau received mean comments after he posted a YouTube video justifying his Hatchimal sales for profit on eBay. (Alex Brancheau)

At first glance, a Hatchimal is just a fun and furry toy. But don't let its innocent owl eyes fool you. The must-have, virtually sold-out item this Christmas has inspired a lot of drama, bickering and hurt feelings.

The battle is playing out on social media. That's where desperate Hatchimal-hunting parents have taken aim at resellers who scooped up the toys and then jacked up the price.

"Have you no soul?" ranted one angry mom on YouTube.

High emotions sparked by the Hatchimal frenzy have taken a bitter turn, thanks to the power of social media. (Provided/Spin Master)

However, critics have also blasted Hatchimal-hungry parents, claiming they're victims of their own consumerism.

"It's the fault of brainless, gutless parents who have to follow trends like lemmings," commented someone on a CBC News story last week about the issue.

We've seen Christmas-crazed toy behaviour before: parents trampling a Walmart employee in New Brunswick to snag an elusive Tickle Me Elmo in 1996, and store riots over Cabbage Patch Kids in 1983.

But the high emotions sparked by the Hatchimal frenzy have taken a more bitter turn, thanks to the power of social media.

We may watch what we say in public, but when hiding behind our computers, "people are pretty brutal with each other," says June Cotte, a consumer behaviour researcher.

So thanks to the digital revolution and the promise of anonymity, Hatchimal-hype has inspired "this back and forth and this backlash that you wouldn't normally have," says Cotte, a marketing professor at the Ivey Business School at Western University.

How Hatchimal heartache began

Hatchimal trouble first hatched when the toy began selling out in stores across North America.

Toronto-based company Spin Master developed a unique robot-like pet that hatches from an egg and interacts with its owner.​

The toy became a must-have gift on many children's Christmas lists. Once it started disappearing from store shelves, distraught parents turned to online resellers.

Some were mortified to discover that opportunistic dealers who had hoarded Hatchimals were selling them at exorbitant rates — ranging from around double the $80 retail price to as high as $750.

This Christmas the must-have toy is an interactive bird-like creature that hatches from an egg. (Spin Master)

Bestselling author Sara Gruen was surprised by the online hate she received while trying to resell Hatchimals. She labelled her experience "Hatchimal-gate."

The author of Water for Elephants was born and raised in Canada and now lives in North Carolina.

Gruen was peddling 156 Hatchimals to raise legal fees for a California man, Chuck Murdoch, who she believes has been wrongfully convicted of murder.

But she still faced a barrage of criticism from people who decided she was guilty of hogging Hatchimals and then making them unaffordable for some parents.

"Preying on [families] during the holidays, she should be locked up as well," sniped one reader commenting on an article about Gruen and her Hatchimals. "Thanks for ruining Christmas for so many children," wrote another person.

Bestselling author Sara Gruen told NBC's Today Show that she was surprised by the negative reaction to her campaign to sell Hatchimals for a charitable cause. (NBC)

Reseller Alex Brancheau also got hit with nasty comments after he posted a YouTube rant defending the profits he made from reselling 14 Hatchimals on eBay.

Brancheau, who lives near Seattle, claimed that everyone had the opportunity to hunt down the toy in stores, just like he did.

The mean responses he received motivated him to disable the comments section on his video. Brancheau says one person called him a "sicko" and another individual accused him of being a pedophile for profiting from the toy.

The video blogger was also surprised by the vitriol. He points out that he never physically prevented parents from getting Hatchimals.

"That's just me walking into Target and it's on the shelf. I'm not knocking anyone over for it. Not like blockading people's houses to get to this toy."

Parents are targets, too

In this toy story, even parents on the hunt got hit with online hate. Last week, Heather Bzdega from Cochrane, Alta., told CBC News about her futile search for an affordable Hatchimal.

Her eight-year-old son, Liam, asked Santa for one for Christmas. But Bzdega had no luck finding it in stores and couldn't bring herself to pay reseller prices.

"There's just no way I'm going to pay those people out there that are trying to scam all of us poor parents," she said.

Heather Bzdega from Cochrane, Alta., was shocked by some of the unpleasant comments directed at Hatchimal-hunting parents like herself. (Heather Bzdega)

Bzdega was taken aback by the numerous hostile comments from CBC readers implying that parents like her had lost the spirit of Christmas.

"It's a cheap toy that hatches! Say NO!" wrote one person. "You deserve to be grossly overcharged," said another individual.

Bzdega also got attacked on Facebook. "It is ridiculous. I'm not a bad mom," she says.

Prof. Cotte says that parents going mad for a coveted toy at Christmas is much more complicated than a case of crass consumerism. That's because children asked Santa for the item and, as far as they're concerned, he's not affected by store shortages.

"They're stuck," says Cotte. "They've got this adorable little child who believes in Santa and asked Santa for one thing."

Reader donates Hatchimal

Fortunately for Bzdega, her story ends happily. Lisa Short from London, Ont., read about the mom's plight and ran out and bought Bzdega a Hatchimal for $140 from a dealer on Kijiji.

Short remembers endlessly searching for a must-have Christmas item for her own daughter about a decade ago — a Wii gaming system. So she decided to lighten the burden for Bzdega this Christmas.

"It seemed like the nice thing to do for somebody," says Short.

After reading about one mom's futile search for an affordable Hatchimal, Lisa Short in London, Ont., bought one for her on Kijiji for $140. (Lisa Short)

Bzdega is thrilled her son will discover a Hatchimal under the tree. But it won't say, "from Santa." Instead, his mom will tell him about the stranger that made his Christmas extra special. 

"I think he needs to know that there's people out there that are that kind," says Bzdega.

So while the Hatchimal craze may have caused some heartache in the social media age, it has also led to at least one random act of kindness.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story referred to "parents trampling each other" to snag a Tickle Me Elmo doll in 1996. In fact, the incident in question involved parents trampling a Walmart employee in their frenzy to get a Tickle Me Elmo doll.
    Dec 20, 2016 8:52 AM ET

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