ARGUMENT – After the deregulation of children’s advertising in the early 1980s, Children’s television shows were no longer designed to entertain, but to generate sales. Authorship shifted from TV studios to toy companies and advertising agencies that produced shows to function as program length commercials (PLCs) for licensed characters and their associated merchandising. Under this new strategy, marketers are not just selling toys, but images.
In 1960 Mattel created a Hot Wheels TV show that featured their popular line of toys. Competitors complained to the FCC on the grounds that the show essentially functioned as a 30 minute commercial for Hot Wheels toys. Since the airwaves were not designed not for economic profit, but for public interest, the FCC ruled that thw show be pulled. But, in the late 1970s, things began to change.
In 1977, George Lucas created Star Wars and licensed the characters out to Kennar to produce one of the most popular lines of boys toys of the 1980s. Next, In 1980 American Greetings created a line of toys called Strawberry Shortcake and accompanying TV specials in order to sell greeting cards and dolls (also produced by Kennar). The TV specials were rejected by major networks as advertising but did air on independent channels across the county to generate $1 billion in licensing profits. This demonstrated to toy manufacturers that the product for sale could precede the show.
“Even more important, they had created a whole new strategic framework for marketing not simply a toy, but…an image” (73).
These early endeavors gathered exponential momentum in the early 1980s after Reagan deregulated children’s advertising and opened up the airwaves for economic profit instead of public interest. This opened the gates for toy companies to produce program length commercials (PLCs) featuring children’s toys and licensed characters.
Unlike the former model, where popular television shows spun-off licensed toys, clothes and consumer goods (Hopalong Cassidy, Scooby Doo, Sesame Street) in this new model the toy was created first and then a television show was produced to advertise it. PLCs for The Smurfs, He-Man and Care Bears aired daily on major networks in the after-school time slot, on weekend mornings, and even as prime-time TV specials (Smurfette). The advent of VCRs opened up a new market for PLCs know as home video where feature length movies bypassed theatres and were sold to video stores or directly to VCR owners. Toy companies did profit from increased toy sales but the bulk of the profit was recognized by licensing their characters to consumer goods and clothing manufacturers. Marketing tie-ins included “live” character appearances, character breakfast cereals, and movie appearances. This industry domination effectively pushed “non-name” toys and dolls out of the market.
The narrative of these shows was uninventive and saccharine and usually involved the basic plot of good vs. evil (for boys) or pro-social/emotional messages (for girls.) These shows effectively served to reinforce 1980s social values to children.
Observation, trade publication analysis and personal correspondence
This article has become foundational to the study of children’s consumer culture.