In 2020, 9-year-old Ryan Kaji was the highest-paid YouTube star in the world, making about $26 million yearly. How did he do this? By simply reviewing and unboxing toys. His YouTube channel, Ryan’s World, has nearly 33 million subscribers, and in 2019, his branded toy line made more than $200 million in retail sales. Obviously, it pays to play.

With millions of families sheltered at home in 2020, U.S. toy sales took off. According to The Toy Association, the toy industry saw a 16.7% increase in sales, compared to 2019. The demand for toys is still sky-high. According to the NDP Group, U.S. retail sales of toys grew by 13% in 2021.

In 2008, a landmark consumer product safety law defined a "children's product." All children's products must comply with the Consumer Product Safety Act.

The most popular categories were games and puzzles, dolls and action figures and outdoor play. Weather-related products like sleds and inflatables also flew off the shelves. According to The Toy Association, this year’s trends will focus on sustainability and social justice themes, escapism through play and next-level sensory.

Adrienne Appell, executive vice president at The Toy Association, says, “These trends are supported by an array of innovative products from companies of all sizes that engage children in play that is both fun and beneficial to their social, cognitive and physical development—and for adults, provide a much-needed escape from the stress of day-to-day life.”

There’s also a renewed demand for classic toys. In late October, The Washington Post reported that sales for the Tonka Mighty Dump Truck had increased by more than 250% year-over-year. Parents are relying on familiar toys, reflecting on their own childhoods for inspiration. In 2020, Care Bears had one of their most profitable Christmas seasons ever, selling 1.5 million—three times as many as expected.

But, to find the newest toys, kids are watching unboxings on YouTube. Unboxing videos are exactly what they sound like: You watch someone open a box and wait for them to tell you all about it. As of 2018, 81% of parents with children 11 or younger let their kids watch YouTube.

The most popular unboxing videos target kids, like Ryan’s World. According to Pew Research, videos with kids average almost three times as many views as other types of videos from popular channels, focusing mostly on toys or games.

These unboxing videos recreate the thrill of opening a new toy or game. Adults enjoy these videos, too. According to YouTube data, the amount of time people have spent watching unboxing videos just on their phones is equivalent to watching the holiday classic Love Actually more than 20 million times. Toy companies are now creating more “surprise” toys.

With surprise or blind-box packaging, toys are boxed or wrapped in such a way that children cannot see what is inside until they open it. The L.O.L. Surprise! Dolls lead the way, creating an unwrapping experience with each surprise accessory. The New York Times called the L.O.L. dolls ‘the dopamine hit of a generation.’ According to market research firm NPD Group, L.O.L. dolls are outpacing the sales of Barbie, Pokémon, Nerf and Marvel action figures. Its products are even more popular than Star Wars toys.

But these products aren’t all fun and games. As kids get older, their old toys become lost and forgotten—often in landfills. Think Toy Story 3. By 2023, the toy industry alone is on track to produce more than 1 million tons of plastic waste annually, according to media company Ozy.

Plastic toys, inexpensive and vibrantly colored, take up 90% of the toy market, according to a plastics magazine. But very few toys can actually be recycled. Most toys are made from a combination of plastic, wood and metal which aren’t accepted by recycling companies. A recent Toy Association commissioned survey found that most parents (78%) said the sustainability of a toy for their child was important to them.

Toy companies are now making sustainability pledges. Mattel, the company behind Barbie and Hot Wheels, vowed to utilize 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based materials in its products and packaging by 2030. Hasbro pledged to remove all plastic from its packaging by 2022.

But some toys won’t ever see a landfill, becoming cherished collectibles instead. Kelsey Schrader, account manager for Pennsylvania distributor Artistic Toys & Promotions, LLC, says, “Toys and games create an emotional connection as well as being a long-lasting giveaway that isn’t very likely to be tossed aside because of the cuteness.”

With toys and games, promo pros can inspire meaningful fun and connection for their clients’ brands. 

Today, more adults are buying toys for themselves. According to Mailchimp, about 70% of Millennials, ages 25 to 40, bought themselves a toy to fill downtime in 2020. Adults have been playing with toys for
a while, except they were called ‘collectibles.’ Remember the Beanie Baby craze?

Now, toy companies are catering to adults who love to play with toys. In 2020, LEGO started an 18+ adult LEGO section, and the company has identified a market in dedicated Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL). Today, 20%
of sales are going to adults who buy for themselves.

Tormod Askildsen, Head of AFOL Engagement, said in a statement, “AFOLs are mainly a group of people who discovered the true joy of building LEGO as kids. And I believe that among all the kids who have received a LEGO set and played with LEGO bricks, I think the experience connects with some of them more than the others.”

For adults, playing with toys is nostalgic, which is good for coping with stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects nearly 40 million adults, or 18% of the U.S. population. The pandemic has worsened these rates. According to the World Health Organization, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased
by a massive 25% in the first year of the pandemic.

To cope with these feelings, adults are leaning on toys to de-stress. According to The Guardian, one in three adults cuddle up with stuffed animal every night for emotional support. Adults are unlikely to part with their favorite teddy, too. A survey conducted by Build-A-Bear in 2017 found that 56% of respondents have owned (and held onto) their favorite stuffed animal for more than two decades, and 72% said they plan to keep their stuffed animal forever.

Be sure to remind your clients: Adults want toys, too.


Have fun cooling off with this water tanker gun. Fill this 10-inch gun with water for fun and refreshment at a pool, beach or park. Imprint your client’s logo on the handle of the multicolor toy.

Jornik Manufacturing Corp. / PPAI 111065, S6 /

A plush teddy bear is always a treasured gift. This six-inch teddy bear has embroidered paws and a t-shirt for imprint. Choose t-shirt color from navy blue, royal blue, red, white, black, baby blue, lime green and pink.

Innovation Line / PPAI 112179, S7 /

Promote your client’s brand with a fun bucket of sand. with this magic sand set, recipients can make shapes with the supplied molds or just play with it. The sand sticks only to itself and not to your clothes. This sensory toy is good for stress relief, and the magic sand never dries out.

High Caliber Line / PPAI 205801, S10 /

Delight with each gumball from this spiral gumball machine. Recipients can watch the gumballs go round and round until the sweet treat falls into their hands. Just push down on the top and watch it go. Gumballs are not included.

Jornik Manufacturing Corp. / PPAI 111065, S6 /

Easily brighten up anyone’s day with this jumbo neon chalk. This three pack of neon colors will stand out on any surface. Imprint you client’s logo on the box. Colors include neon pink, neon yellow, and neon green.

WOWLine / PPAI 112440, S4 /

Take a break and test your skills with the Mais Tabletop Cornhole Game Set. Set it up at home or take it on-the-go to keep friends and family entertained. This set also works in the office for a quick tournament. The set includes one board with folding stands and four mini canvas bean bags in blue and red. When not in use, the bean bags can be conveniently stored in the board’s compartment.

Logomark / PPAI 110898, S12 /

Have a blast with this foam squirt cannon. This 13-inch toy is made of safe foam and plastic, and it is easy to carry and use. Simply submerge in water, draw back on the plunger to fill it and get ready for the spray. Recipients will want to keep this gift for endless play.

High Caliber Line / PPAI 205801, S10 /

Great for days at the park or picnics, this flying disk with matching pouch is a fun two-person game for any recipient. This toy is made with lightweight polyester and folds to fit into a pouch.

Hit Promotional Products / PPAI 113910, S13 /

In this True or False Family Game, teams must decide what is fact and what is fiction. This card game is for kids and adults. No matter the occasion, it’s sure to bring laughter and entertainment. Packaged in a small box, it’s easy to bring this portable game to wherever the party is. 

The Book Company / PPAI 218850, S5 /

Valdez is an editor at PPAI.