Not Pandering to Children is Like Leaving Money on the Table
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Childhood for Sale: The Most Blatant Saturday Morning Toy Commercial Cartoon and Why It Was Allowed to Exist – Saturday Morning Weirdness
Not Pandering to Children is Like Leaving Money on the Table
Did you know that there was a time you could watch some children’s programming, and then could not go straight to the toy store and spend several hundred dollars on related merchandising? Two generations of children grew up with regular television shows targeted at their demographic that did not requisitely have oodles of games, toys, and bed sheets connected to these shows. Oh, you there were some commercial toys—superheroes, for instance, had been targeted for trinket sales pretty much right after Action Comics #1 debuted. Hanna-Barbera cartoons like the Flintstones and the Jetsons (which were not even targeted solely to children) might license their images to Colorforms or Shrinky Dinks, but you couldn’t get every Flintstones character in several outfits as action figures that fit perfectly within a Flintstones playset. It simply wasn’t done. And the reason for that is because American companies actually cared about the well-being of children at one time, instead of perceiving them as conduits to their parents’ wallets.
For most of the 1940s and 50s, much of the lack of licensed material for children’s television was owed to the fact that the entire world didn’t revolve around catering to fucking kids. There were plenty of toys to be had and games to be played, but the local toy store was most likely just a shop, filled mostly with bicycles if it was large enough; stuffed with teddy bears and Radio Flyer wagons if it was not. There were but three television networks, and they weren’t blocked with vast chunks of programming solely to inundate boys and girls with need. Indeed, if a household even had a television in those days, they almost certainly had but one—and so the flickering images usually attempted to appeal to entire families, instead of individual members and age groups. Housewives had their afternoon soap operas and chat shows, but there wasn’t really a ton for kids to watch alone.
By the mid 1950s, the Baby Boomer generation was becoming autonomous, and armed with fistfuls of cash earned by their fathers in this prosperous American economy. This is when we start to see shows like Captain Kangaroo, Lunch with Soupy Sales, and J. P Patches in the mix. These programs were often madcap skits and puppet shows, sometimes with cartoons thrown in, and while they did have their own merchandise, they existed primarily to sell breakfast cereal and BB guns through product placement and endorsement. By 1958, Hanna-Barbera was cranking out animated shorts based on the most ludicrous premises that would possess the minds of several generations to follow—these shows, also, had their toys but nothing on the level you see today. Still, moms were concerned that their offspring were becoming inured to targeted advertising, and so in 1968 Peggy Charren and and Judy Chalfton of Newton, MA founded a grassroots campaign called Action for Children’s Television (ACT). They petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish rules for television shows aimed at boys and girls, and to establish a foundation of educational programming partially subsidized by Federal grants.
Starting in 1970, ACT systematically petitioned the FCC to institute all kinds of curtails on television being aimed specifically at children. They were able to change the nature and amount of advertising during children’s programming, even getting the vitamin industry to pull their commercials during these slots since vitamin overdose can be harmful, especially to children. In 1973, the ACT got the National Association of Broadcasters to limit commercial time during children’s blocks to twelve minutes per hour, and prohibited children’s television hosts from appearing in other commercials. And then in their coup de grace, they petitioned the Federal Trade Commission in 1977 to ban advertising aimed at children too young to understand the concept of selling, which seems almost like some fantasy in a today’s landscape, where kids dream of going to Disney World before they can even say the words.
And then Ronald Reagan happened…
When Ronald Reagan took presidential office, he quickly set to deregulating as many trade restrictions as possible. In 1983, he appointed Mark S. Fowler to the head of the FCC. He’s most famous for repealing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which meant networks no longer had to present a balanced viewpoint of controversial topics, but he also rolled back pretty much everything the ACT had set out to do in its mere decade of existence. This extended not only the number of commercials kids could see in an hour, but the nature of those commercials—this is the era when cereal would become blitzes of noise and craziness, hyping up sugar-induced mania instead of presenting them as something wholesome. And not only could they cram more toy commercials during these programs, but the shows became toy commercials themselves! Plots for shows like G.I. Joe and He-Man were conceived in marketing boardrooms to ensure that new action figures and accessories were shown in the cartoon.
I believe Thundarr the Barbarian was the last American cartoon produced in this era that did not have a strong merchandising presence, beyond a board game and some puffy stickers. After that, it was just commercials all the way: the Smurfs, Transformers, the Care Bears, My Little Pony—and let’s not forget the lesser toy cartoons like Mobile Armored Strike Kommand (M.A.S.K.), or the insect-humanoid Sectaurs—all of these cartoons depicted corresponding toys for sale, buffeted by commercials of other toys for sale, to be watched by eating fortified, sweetened corn mush. And it was during this time that one of the most blatant, idiotic cash grabs in the history of cartoons-as-commercials was created by budget animators Ruby-Spears: Rubik, The Amazing Cube.
Debuting in 1983 at the peak of the Rubik’s Cube craze and the fever for E.T. the Extraterrestrial merchandise, this cartoon was about a Rubik’s Cube that fell off the wagon of an evil magician, which, when unscrambled, would grow a hideous troll face and two stout legs and do magic. I was eight years old when this show came out, and my reaction was “give me a fucking break.” They anthropomorphized an inanimate object in order to capitalize on its popularity, and not just any inanimate object but a fairly clever puzzle cube. It would be like if there was a cartoon based around the popular time-wasting game Candy Crush—without a narrative that brings the candies to life and places them in some conflict, but instead anthropomorphizes a smart phone with Candy Crush displayed on its belly and which shoots lasers out of its fingertips. It was just so wrong, and worst of all it really only advertised one product: the Rubik’s Cube. There were other Rubik’s shapes on the market (none of which I recall being shown on the television show), but there were no playsets, no figures for the three stupid kids Rubik ran around with. And while it certainly capitalized on the popularity of E.T., Ruby-Spears made no money from the film’s merchandising sales, so it might as well have given a full half of its advertising power away. This show ran for one year as one-half of a Saturday morning block on ABC that it shared with the Pac-Man cartoon, and then was mercifully removed as being perhaps too pandering, even to dumb children. At this juncture, at least.
In 1990, the FCC enacted the Children’s Television Act, which sought to stem the deluge of commercialized programming being beamed at children on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. This resulted in some cartoons like Tiny Toons and Animaniacs that, while having their own licensed merchandise for sale, were not purely examples of what next to purchase to complete the set. It also brought in shows like Saved By the Bell and Beakman’s World, which were designated “educational/informational” and carried an “e/i” logo in the lower right-hand corner of the screen when aired during appropriate blocks. Kids today are still pandered to, still treated condescendingly, and they can buy practically anything manufactured with the face of Dora the Explorer plastered on it, but at least when they watch Dora the Explorer, they might learn a little Spanish. Though I’m not sure that “compra mis jugetes” is something that young children should be learning.