January 29, 2010

Heavy Toonage

Due to a series of increasingly frivolous Google searches, I just spent half an hour reading up on the history of Sunday-morning cartoons in the 1980s. (This all started with a legitimate work-related query and somehow careened out of control.) Anyway, I'm sure everyone's well aware that the big, popular cartoons of that era—"Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"—were created primarily to sell action figures and boost toy sales. But the story behind their development, as best I can make it out, is pretty interesting.

Back during the 1960s, Hasbro's G.I. Joe was one of the best-selling toys around, the first action-figure blockbuster. But that changed once Star Wars came out; suddenly, all the kids were demanding Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader dolls. Part of the shift came down to marketing: The Star Wars toys were being promoted by a ridiculously popular movie, while Hasbro wasn't even allowed to use animation in its G.I. Joe commercials. At the time, the National Association of Broadcasters had outlawed animated toy commercials, for fear that they'd blur the line between fantasy and reality for young children.

At that point, Hasbro came up with an ingenious idea. There were strict rules about how you could advertise toys, but there were fewer rules on advertising comic books. So the company's executives went to Marvel Comics and said, here, we'll give you the license for our G.I. Joe comic-book line and even spend millions of dollars of our own money advertising it. Marvel, naturally, leapt at the deal, and a best-selling series was born. Hasbro, meanwhile, could finally run animated ads about G.I. Joe. And it worked: By the 1980s, G.I. Joe action figures were leaping off the shelves again. (Of course, it helped that the comic-book series was relatively well-conceived; plenty of other toy-comic tie-ins flopped.)

After that came the cartoons. For a long time, the FCC had prevented companies from creating TV shows that centered on toys (Mattel had tried this with Hot Wheels in the 1960s and got smacked down). But by 1983, Reagan's FCC had relaxed this rule. Pretty soon, a new wave of toy-themed shows started hitting on the air: "Transformers," "Thundercats," "He-Man." The trend stretched all the way down to "Teletubbies" in the 1990s. The cartoons instantly transformed the toy industry—the most successful, "Transformers," sold $100 million worth of merchandise in its first year.

In his fascinating book The Real Toy Story, Eric Clark argues that this new cartoon-toy symbiosis also altered how kids approached playtime: "Because the backstory and the programs dictated play, the nature of play itself changed—TV took control of the play environment. The old adage that a child should dictate what the toy does was discarded." Part of me wants to believe that that's slightly overstated, and that kids are more creative than this. (I had a Transformer or two back when I was younger, and I never had them reenact plots from the cartoons—Elizabethan-style court intrigue and playground bullying scenarios were far more common.) But Clark's surely onto something here; it's hard to imagine that there could be such a massive shift in toy advertising without large effects on child psychology, no?

(Flickr photo credit: Brian McCarty)
-- Brad Plumer 7:20 PM || ||