When they burst, as they always do, cleaning up can be challenging.
It took nearly two decades of toil and trouble before scientists at toy giant Crayola successfully brewed up the secret formula that lets kids blow floating, glistening bubbles in vivid colors.
Bottles went on sale in February, at $10 for a pack of three. Shoppers have snapped up several hundred thousand packages, the company says, even more than it had expected. Executives were thrilled. "We've changed the game on bubble play," one says.
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But now some angry parents may burst Crayola's bubble. The problem: when the bubbles pop (or the solutions splash), they leave a neon-bright -- and, parents complain, often permanent -- mess. Despite the large type on the front of the bottles that says "Washable."
The Sunset Orange bubble soap that dripped on the floor of Emily Vanek's garage dried in dark red splotches resembling blood, the Denver mother says. The blue bubbles turned her two boys "into Smurfs."
Under the headline "The Worst Product I Ever Bought," Springfield, Ill., blogger Catherine Davis, wrote: "Washable? ... It practically requires scrubbing the top layer of your skin off to get the color out."
"I feel misled as a shopper," she added in an interview.
And it isn't just skin. According to angry posts on product-review sites such as Amazon.com and Twitter, it is best to keep the floating bubbles away from walls, carpets, driveways, decks, grout -- and just about everything else.
Crayola, which is owned by Hallmark Cards Inc., of Kansas City, Mo., says that the product should wash off when used properly.
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But consumers ought not to expect the new product "to perform like regular soapy bubbles," says Leena Vadaketh, Crayola's head of research and development.
While most regular bubble soaps don't bother with directions on their labels, the Crayola bottles have a long warning in tiny type that says: "Before use, test on an inconspicuous area and let dry. Wash off to make sure bubble solution does not stain."
©Emily Vanek/Wall Street Journal
|Carter Vanek, 6, of Denver plays with Crayola colored bubbles.|
The warning continues: "Do not use at weddings or indoors."
There's more: "Keep away from brick, vinyl, finished and unfinished wood, wallpaper, painted walls, carpeting, draperies, and other materials that cannot be laundered."
It takes six sentences of directions to explain how to wash the stuff off (immediately, with hot water, but with no stain treatments; they just make it worse).
Among the simplest of childhood pastimes, blowing bubbles has captivated kids for decades. The play took off in a big way in the 1940s when a Chicago cleaning-supply company named Chemtoy bottled a bubble solution for children.
Though the sizes and shapes of bubble pipes and wands have changed over the years, the bubbles themselves remained stubbornly the same -- clear, save for a bit of iridescence.
Creating colored bubbles became a kind of Holy Grail for inventors, especially since scientists long believed it couldn't be done.
The soap-film wall encasing the air bubble is less than a millionth of an inch thick and defiantly resists coloration.
"A bubble is not as simple as it looks," explains Crayola's Ms. Vadaketh, a chemical engineer. "If you add a little color, you're not going to see it; too much and it won't bubble."
In the early 1990s, Crayola created a bubble painter that mixed water colors with bubbles as they blew off a wand powered by batteries.
The company decided the product was an idea "ahead of its time" and stopped making it after two years.
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Meanwhile, the lab at Crayola headquarters, in Easton, Pa., continued to fiddle with different formulations of dyes and pigments to create the elusive floating colored bubble.
Another inventor, Tim Kehoe, spent a decade experimenting with everything from Jell-O to hair dye in bubbles in St. Paul, Minn.
With the help of a chemist, he eventually created brightly hued bubbles that disappeared without a trace in less than half an hour.
He called them Zubbles, and in 2005 Popular Science magazine gave the invention its Grand Award for General Innovation.
It would take Mr. Kehoe another two years to figure out a quick and cost-effective way to turn the tricky chemistry experiment into a mass-market product.
By then, he says, his finances were strained and he ended up selling his company to a start-up called Jamm Cos.
Zubbles is available only online and at a few independent toy stores. The few comments Zubbles have garnered on Amazon are glowing, praising the product for doing just what it says it will do -- disappear.
Meanwhile, all but one of the 40 Amazon comments about Crayola's Colored Bubbles give it one star out of a possible five, and the results are similar on the Toys "R" Us website.
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A blogger who liked the product used it to make bubble pictures that are meant to last.
"My big fear is that parents will look at the Crayola product and ruin all the work I did making clean colored bubbles," says Mr. Kehoe, who now writes children's books about a young toy inventor and doesn't have a financial interest in Zubbles.
Crayola says that only a tiny percentage of people who have bought its product have called to complain or to ask for cleaning instructions.
The company insists that rain will wash the color away, sun will fade it and simple soap and water will remove it from skin.
Richard Berry, a Toys "R" Us executive and fan of the fast-selling product, says, "Kids love messy."
Some moms, not so much. That is why Crayola is releasing a new TV commercial this week.
"We've made it clear that repeat clothes washing may be necessary," Ms. Vadaketh says. "And we show color on a child's skin, but they are laughing and smiling and having a great time."
Colorado mother Ms. Vanek is unmoved -- and so is the bubble dye on her garage floor.
"Everyone had high hopes for this, and it just failed," she says. "There are too many restrictions -- you can only play with these in the grass on a sunny day where it might rain later and wash it away and only while wearing the oldest clothes.
"Six-year-olds don't play like that."