Cars and jewelry are obviously extravagant gifts in any season, but there’s one type of purchase that’s uniquely Christmas: Toys. The necessity of wearing Santa’s hat for the smaller people in our lives can quickly become one of the year’s most significant drains on our bank accounts.
Buy All the Toys
Once upon a time, toys were pretty simple. You had your pogo sticks and yo-yos, or scaled-down cowboy duds to wear during Bonanza. There’s a whole movie about one boy’s quest to own a Red Ryder BB gun.
Then someone had the bright idea to make toys with this newfangled plastic stuff, and things started to change. Toy lines became a thing, most prominently G.I. Joe and Barbie. Each had accessories, vehicles, and multiple characters or versions; but the lines’ extensions were fairly gradual, and missteps were not uncommon.
Then 1977 Happened
George Lucas famously created Star Wars “for the kids,” which meant that merchandising was always part of the plan. But Kenner, the toy company they’d contracted with to make the toys, was woefully unprepared for one of the world’s first blockbuster movies, and couldn’t keep up with demand.
Their initial offering of four figures was almost immediately expanded to twelve, each of which included background dioramas, stickers, and a Star Wars membership card. Vehicles and accessories soon followed, then more toys. The sequels hit theatres, bringing with them still more toys, and by 1984’s Return of the Jedi, there were 79 distinct characters.
Say what you will about the guy, George Lucas changed how the world thinks about multi-media promotion. Like no one else before him, he built an empire. Which isn’t ironic or anything.
Today, you can get toys for pretty much every character who has appeared in any of the six existing films.
Then the Eighties Happened
Lucas showed the world how it was done. Cartoons, comic books, story books, coloring books, TV specials, clothing lines, cereals, bedding, wallpaper!
Other companies were quick to jump on the bandwagon. The numbers of toy lines (and their attendant materials) exploded. Multi-media presences became the rule instead of the exception. Saturday morning cartoons were a six-hour block of unrepentant advertising (with commercial breaks!).
There were so
From left to right, top to bottom: MadBalls; My Little Pony; G.I. Joe; Rainbow Brite; Cabbage Patch Kids; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Strawberry Shortcake; The Real Ghostbusters; Transformers; The Super Powers Collection; Masters of the Universe; Care Bears. Click any of the images to embiggen.
Special mention goes to Mattel’s Masters of the Universe, for their efforts to promote proper dental hygiene.
Even things that shouldn’t be marketed to children under 13 were totally marketed to children under 13. It’s probably no coincidence that many of these came from Kenner, presumably because some misguided executive couldn’t grasp the fundamental difference between Star Wars and Alien.
But Wait, There’s More!
We’ve barely scratched the surface – there’s so much more to toys than dolls and action figures, and we haven’t even got to the ’90s! But we’re overdosing on nostalgia at this point. Suffice it to say, the ’80s and ’90s were a true golden age for multi-media product placement.
Today, things are different. Saturday morning cartoons have become less significant when there are entire networks running cartoons 24/7; video games are more prominent on the scene; and many of the children of the ’80s and ’90s never stopped collecting, so advertisers changed their focus.
But what hasn’t changed is that kids like to play, and they look to adults (and their wallets) to facilitate that.