Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Shameless Merchandizing

by tryanmax

With The LEGO Movie totally dominating the President’s Day weekend box office, one thing is for certain: a ton of those tiny plastic blocks are about to go flying off the shelves. It makes me nostalgic for the days of my childhood, those halcyon days of the 80s when cartoons were just dressed up, 21-minute toy commercials occasionally interrupted with commercials for different toys and sugar-infused cereals. Let’s take a moment to remember some of the shameless merchandising.

Transformers – When it comes to TV/toy tie-ins, this is probably the top of the list. While the concept of cars and planes that turn into freakin’ robots (in disguise) is awesome enough on its own, the cartoon was pretty sweet, too, thanks to the usually well animated transformation sequences. Some folks have really gotten into the storyline, but for me, it was all about robots blasting each other.

He-Man/She-Ra – I might have actually liked Masters of the Universe the cartoon better than the toys. Transformers is credited with having a complex storyline, but He-Man had a storyline that a five-year-old could actually follow without being overly simplistic. I still have a soft-spot for Filmation animation to this day, functional and Spartan as it may be. And, of course, I had my He-Man figures, too.
G.I. Joe – The only thing as basic as a sword wielding barbarian like He-Man is a troop of soldiers fighting an international terrorist organization with excellent brand recognition. The hallmark of the cartoon series was that the opposing sides’ fire was distinguishable by color. And the hallmark of the action figures was that they were the same scale as the Star Wars figures, meaning that you could still have fun with latter even though you broke off your AT-AT’s legs.

M.A.S.K. – The Mobile Armored Strike Kommand was kind of like G.I. Joe meets Transformers. I don’t remember the cartoon much beyond the fact that the vehicles all converted to reveal hidden weapons and abilities. That was pretty much all there was to it. After all, the idea was to sell toys that did the same.

Care Bears – By day, I may have been storming the battle fields with He-Man and G.I. Joe, but by night, I had my trusty Care Bear to keep me cozy. (Bedtime Bear, if you must know.) Though my plush companion was indispensable, I can’t say I ever got on with the cartoons so much. Even as a child they hit me as too saccharine to bear. Pun most likely intended.
Jem and the Holograms – Let’s just say that this entered into a sibling’s childhood more than my own. Jem was a total Barbie rip-off, but with a couple clear distinctions: her own cartoon show and an awesome backup band. I can say that with some first-hand knowledge as I was subject to the soundtrack (on cassette) enough times for it to grow on me. Truly outrageous!

Strawberry Shortcake – Another one that didn’t come to me directly, Strawberry has had a number of cartoon iterations over the years, so I can’t be sure if the one from the 80s was even the first. (Fun fact: the voice work for the 2000s version of Strawberry Shortcake was recorded in Omaha.) Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally grab a whiff of her and her friends’ fruit scented locks.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – This is the franchise that really hooked me. The Ninja Turtles hit in 1987, just when I was finally pulling in enough allowance and odd-job money to actually build my own action figure collection, rather than relying on birthdays and Christmas. And, of course, I watched the cartoon show religiously. It actually got me out of bed on school days!

In case anyone is upset that I overlooked something, this is just a list of the ones that I remember the best. (Yes, I admit it, I totally missed the Thundercats. Don’t ask me how.) So, tell me about your favorites.


AndrewPrice said...

Excellent list! I enjoyed several of these. I did not have the toys, however. What I had, was a roooooom full of Star Wars toys!

shawn said...

Along with Andrew , I had a ton of Star Wars toys. I had none of the above, but I did enjoy Legos and Micronauts and the micronauts did get a comic book so that count for something.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, one of my first insights into the mind of adults came in my quest for Star Wars action figures. A friend and I had gotten wind that Lionel Playworld was getting a new shipment of action figures one bright and early Tuesday morning. So we were there, at 8:30 at the front door. We were surrounded by adults in business suits.

The doors opened.

The rush began. Everyone sprinted to find this box, which was sitting in the middle of the aisle waiting to be unpacked. Someone ripped the top off and knocked this thing over -- it was about 4 feet by 4 by 4 and contained maybe a 1,000 action figures. Actions figures spilled everywhere.

And as my friend and I watched, all these people in business suits and skirts dove to the floor and started pouring through the pile and hoarding what they could.

Adults. LOL!

Dave Olson said...

Yes, I was a Star Wars kid. I had plenty of the toys, even though by Jedi I was probably getting too old for them. That didn't stop me from getting a B-Wing for Christmas '83, though.

Anyway, I don't remember having any of the classic 80s TV toys. I watched the "GI Joe" and "Transformers" toons, and even "He-Man" (oh man, I can't believe I just admitted that.), but I never asked for them for birthdays or Christmas. By that time I was getting into the classic Revell models: Space Shuttle, various fighter planes, and even the Knight Industries Two Thousand.

Jason said...

I loved TMNT. I have the most figures of that line than anyone else. He-Man is probably a close second.

I had a couple of Transformers, but not many, though I would have loved to have had Optimus Prime.

I never got into G.I. Joe. I think it skewed a bit older than me at the time. I was more into sci-fi than the army.

I also had several Silverhawks toys. Not too many will remember that line, but it was a tie-in to a Thundercats spin-off cartoon called Silverhawks, aired back in 1987.

Anonymous said...

Man, I never watched any of these, save for Ninja Turtles and even then, my brother was the one with all the action figures.

Ghostbusters was (and continues to be) my poison. I had the proton pack, the trap, the PK-E meter, the firehouse playset, the Ectomobile (and later the Ecto 1-A which was the same car body but with more decals), and many action figures.

And even though I never had the original Nintendo, the various Mario cartoons were appointment viewing, starting with The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and then every time they released a new game, there would be a new cartoon to accompany it.

KRS said...

I was too old for any of these, having grown up on Warner Brothers, Jonny Quest and similar shows on Saturday mornings. My experiences with the animation of the 80s was spiced with hangovers. So, not much love.

I did play with the original 12" GI Joes and they were tough. They had foot lockers of gear and all of it was pretty accurate in detail - we knew this at the time because nearly every kid had a dad or uncle who fought in WWII. Btw, none of these original GI Joes had the repulsive beards - real men shaved. With sheath knives.

When the TV series put out the 3.75" dwarved "Joes" and killed the original, I knew right then that American culture was doomed.

djskit said...

I have to say - Care Bears: Big Wish (2005) is a fantastic movie. Really.

They poke a lot of fun at themselves (The antagonists are: Too Loud Bear, Messy Bear and Me Bear -her symbol on her stomache is a mirror)

The underlying message is quite conservative. "Wishes are nice, but things are more valuable when you work hard for them."

I watch all the shows and movies my kids see and do not hesitat to "veto" the ones I do not like. That's how I uncovered this gem.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew I am picturing that mad store rush scene you describe in slow motion with that depressing (Barnes shoots Elias from Platoon) music in the background, or maybe the high pitched female singer who warbles over that scene in every fantasy movie and probably directed by Sergei Eisenstein.

The Horror! The Horror

tryanmax said...

Andrew, the 80s were an anomalous blip. The restrictions on children's programming and advertising were, for a short time, thrown completely off and the result was all you see here and much, much more. Only a relative handful of us got to experience the full thrust of deregulation. Whereas Star Wars the film predated the toys, for much of the 80s it was the other way around. Even the one exception on my list, TMNT, quickly burned through Eastman and Laird's source material and began shoehorning in characters based on the latest action figure.

A side-effect was the rise of syndication for these programs. Given the incredible demands of the orders placed--in many cases, 65 episode "seasons"--it's amazing that any of these are as good as they are.

tryanmax said...

Shawn, comic books were the inspiration for a lot of cartoon toy merchandising. Of course it counts. On Star Wars toys, see what I wrote to Andrew.

tryanmax said...

Dave, I think I was still collecting Ninja Turtles past the age where it was a little shameful. On Christmases and birthdays, like I told Andrew, it was a narrow window. You had to hit it just right. I think I hit it just about perfectly and experienced deregulation in it's entiretly.

tryanmax said...

Jason, Ah! The elusive Optimus Prime. There was always that one kid who had him, and he wouldn't let anyone else play with him. (Too fragile was the usual excuse. In my experience, Megatron was much more fragile.) And then there was the kid who knew the kid who had the white Optimus Prime (actually Ultra Magnus, an Optimus repaint).

Glad you brought up the Silver Hawks! I never had any of the toys (not that I didn't want to) but I was actually very into that show. It wasn't until many years later that I even learned about Thundercats. It's as big a mystery to me...

tryanmax said...

Scott, Ghostbusters don't count! Just kidding, though they were an exception in that the movie preceded the toys. Still, the toys were more in line with the cartoon show. Sorry you missed the rest. Like I told the others above, you had to hit that 80s window just right.

Some of those Nintendo shows were pretty fun. I've got a few DVDs of the TSMBSS (complete with live-action bookends starring Lou Albano). I'd like to revisit Captain N, the Game Master. Haven't seen that in years.

tryanmax said...

KRS, I can't share your cynicism over the scale of the action figures. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was good old-fashioned jingoistic American militarism. Besides, 12" Joe has made his return, with greater articulation than ever before. More articulation = win!

You have the Romans to thank for the association between the military and depilation. While I recall quite a few Village People-esque mustaches on the Joes, the only full beard I remember was on the arctic guy. I think he gets a pass.

tryanmax said...

djskit, I haven't seen any of the new Care Bears stuff. I'm not sure that I even knew there was new Care Bears stuff. I'll have to check it out.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's how it plays in my memory too -- slow motion. It was quite a scene. Adults weren't supposed to act that way, but these did.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax and KRS, I had some of the 12inch Joes when I was a kid. I also had a complete set of 8 inch Star Trek dolls. They were awesome. :)

Plus, I had a trashcan full of Legos.

Dave Olson said...

I had a Captain Kirk doll in the 70s. They were still called dolls; I'm pretty sure the term "action figure" hadn't been coined yet. My sister had lots of Barbies, so if the Toy Story movies are to be believed, my Captain saw plenty of "action", if you catch my drift.

Jason said...

tryanmax, I knew about Thundercats at the time but it didn’t appeal to me. I had a problem getting into non-sci-fi fantasy stuff, things with magic and dragons and swords*. Space travel, robots, and lasers were my big thing.

*Although, I was into He-Man, so that was the odd exception at the time, but I think the fact that it had its sci-fi elements helped. I knew Thundercats did, too, but I think it just felt too strange for me at the time.

Re: the 80s toy/toon boom. I was born in 1981, so I had the good fortune to live through that era. I don’t think there’s been a time since when kids had more choices on television or in the toy isles. And also, that we had a lot of original, American-made shows and toys. If you think about it, who ever heard of My Little Pony, Care Bears, He-Man, She-Ra, Jem, Thundercats, or M.A.S.K. before they aired? A lot of the stuff today is anime or anime-inspired, plus you have properties that are just redos of Marvel or DC characters and of course – the 80s – (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I’m looking at you. :D ). Deregulation let toy companies come up with more characters that might get featured on television, and the companies could make some serious coin in the process. For good or bad, it opened the door for more American creativity.

KRS said...

Tryanmax - There was a whole slew of bearded Joes - blond, red, brown, black and they were part of some production run in the early 70s, adventurers or something. I want to say I saw a black guy with an afro once. They had kung fu grip and their eyes changed - weird looking dolls.

Andrew - You had a trashcan of Legos? A trashcan? Why couldn't you be my neighbor? At the risk of sounding cynical to T-Max again, I have to say that the one thing that bugs me about Legos today is that you can't seem to buy a tub of assorted parts - it's always a kit, airplane, spaceship, boat, building, whatever. Some are quite cool, but sometimes I'd like to just expand the boy's collection without it being a "thing."

tryanmax said...

Dave, I'm not sure if the term "action figure" was coined with the introduction He-Man, or if it was coined earlier as a way to sell dolls to boys. Either way, it's cynical marketing at play. :-P

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Word went out that I like Legos, so all my relatives sent me Legos for every birthday and Christmas. It was glorious! And at the time, they weren't super expensive either like they are today, so you got more bang for your buck.

In terms of the sets, I... could... not... agree... more! Nothing beats a huge package of blocks. But they don't sell those anymore. Everything is formed sets. And while some of those are cool (I happen to have a very nice pirate ship), they just don't give you the raw power of a pile of small squares and rectangles. I wish they would sell more blocks and let kids use their own creativity again.

tryanmax said...

Jason, my man! I was like you where the sci-fi appealed to me slightly more. And spot on about He-Man. It was all over the place, genre-wise.

I think the supposed evils of marketing to children are overwrought. We children of the 80s didn't grow into the materialist consumers our parents feared. We actually turned out to be much more hedonistic. (That is, preferring experiences to stuff.)

tryanmax said...

KRS, no fair! 70s Joes were still on the 12" scale. 3.75" Joes were a reaction to Star Wars figures. Plus, I take no responsibility for any crazy 70s hair stylings. I think there must've been a razor shortage along with the gas crisis.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, KRS, I too had a massive amount of LEGOs. The trashcan was a good idea. I just used a giant cardboard box. Little pieces were always getting stuck under the bottom flaps. I'm pretty sure they still market "creator" sets, which are just a hodgepodge of pieces. You gotta go with kits, though, if you want any of the nifty little bibs and bobs that hang on the outside of the spaceships and castles.

wulfscott said...

80's cartoons. Like KRS, I watched earlier cartoons, and had no interest in most of the cartoons mentioned. I will bring up later cartoons that my kids watched (and that I spent tons of money on): Thomas the Tank Engine and Theodore Tugboat. Thomas had dozens, if not hundreds, of other engines, cars, buildings, and other equipment. As well, a local railway museum had a Thomas the Tank Engine day, which was their main fundraiser: the museum staff would dress up an engine to be Thomas and sell rides (and toys).
The kids also watched Teletubbies when they were small, but I never bought them those toys. I thought the Teletubbies were annoying and really had little educational value - not that a lot of these shows did, but IMHO Teletubbies was really bad. The kids, when they were toddlers, were mesmerized by the Teletubbies, but I thought the show never did anything beyond the bland and boring, even taking the target audience (toddlers) into account.

tryanmax said...

wulfscott, like I've said, it was a very narrow window that you had to hit just right. My little sister was the right age for Teletubbies, but she much preferred Barney. I couldn't stand either. My four-year-old love Thomas. And my six-year old has been hooked on Yo Gabba Gabba and Dora since she was born, just about.

Still, in all those cases it's the show that precedes the toys, and they aren't making up new characters just to sell more stuff. As a parent who likes to limit the clutter, I really appreciate that. But when I was a kid, I very much enjoyed it the other way around.

Rustbelt said...

I'm definitely a member of tryanmax and Jason's "era bracket." And how I weep for the children of today. The stuff they get is mostly knockoffs of this and that. I still stroll through the nearby Toys R Us. These days, Legos (eternally cool) are the only things with any creativity. Action figures for movies and cartoons couldn't be more generic. And interestingly, most of the Transformers for sale are updated anniversary (of any time frame) or just G1 re-releases. In other words, they're making more money by appealing to adult collectors than reeling in more kids. I guess the new stuff- which, IMO, looks WAY too anime-inspired- just isn't catching on.

But as a proud owner of an original Optimus Prime (I forgot to put on the 4x6 of stickers), Soundwave (with Buzzsaw), Starscream (hinge long worn out), and more He-Man figures, vehicles, and playsets than I can list, I declare my allegiance to the great age of "toys cartoons."

As for the obscure...yes, Jason, I, too, remember Silverhawks. But what about Dino-Riders? Dinosaurs outfitted with futuristic weaponry? What could be cooler? And, of course, the Inhumanoids- a.k.a. the one with the monsters that freaked out all the girls! (Dangling them in plain sight equalled guaranteed screams. Yes, I had a bad streak at one time...)
And it just so happens that my neighbor had a collection of Andrew's cartoon bane- the Centurions. Now, first of all, I want to say the toys were genuinely cool and robust. (They could survive rigorous use.) And second, (having seen a few episodes recently), the cartoon was actually quite good, using sci-fi themes, schemes real terrorists might employ, and even some social criticism- around the parts where they showed kids how to put the suits together, of course.

Sadly, I never was much of a G.I. Joe collector. Well, that's what modern sci-fi conventions are for!

Jason said...

The Dino-Riders commercials were awesome. "Harness the power! Dino-Riders!"

Anonymous said...

I collected a little bit of most toys mentioned myself. I definitely watched and enjoyed TMNT and Gi Joe. I remember collecting quite a few Joes and TMNT, I had a few He-Man toys, as well as Silver Hawks, Transformers, and Ghostbusters here and there, and I also had a few Dino Riders and enjoyed watching the movie quite a bit when I was a kid. The T-Rex with the dual laser helmet was one of the coolest things to watch back then. I stopped collecting them around 5th grade or so, the occasional game-related collectible aside, but I do remember quite a few of these things!

- Daniel

Kit said...

Mine was Pokemon. I loved Pokemon as a kid. Though it didn't have action figures as much as cards and video games.

I did have a few Ghostbusters (Real and Extreme) as a kid.

tryanmax said...

Rustbelt, I had some DinoRiders, too. Not many. I didn't think those had a cartoon show, though? Did I miss it? I remember being annoyed that the figures were on a slightly smaller scale than GI Joes, but that the bad guys were pretty cool. They had animal heads on human bodies. I remember cobras, hammerheads, and ants, but wasn't there a fourth?

tryanmax said...

Daniel, I'm trying to remember when I stopped collecting stuff. All I'm sure of is that by 6th grade, LEGOs had eclipsed everything for me. And I will admit to breaking them out still, from time to time. I'm not sure if my 4-year-old is quite ready for my old sets, but I look forward to it!

Since we're well into the obscure, I'll reveal that my prized collection was RockLords. (The bastard cousins of the GoBots.) I had the entirety of series 1 and 2, and as much of 3 as I could get. (They were never that popular, and the final series didn't even hit shelves in all places.)

tryanmax said...

Kit, Pokemon came after me, though I gotta say, the catchphrase "Gotta Catch 'Em All" resonates with this 80s kid. Those collectible card games were probably the last hurrah for TV tie-ins.

KRS said...

Wulfscott - I swear if I had back all the money I spent on the various iterations of The Boy's Thomas sets, I'd be able to pay for a semester of college. Right in the middle of The Boy's obsession, they stopped production of one set entirely and issued a new on with different track and engines, forcing me to buy yet another set and start populating that - they would fill Andrew's Lego trashcan, I'm sure.

I will say this: the electronic HO trains sets they made were fantastic. The engines and cars were inexpensive, well-detailed (eyes flicked back and forth while running) and well built. The couples are easy for a young kid to manipulate, so you can leave a 5-year old laying on the floor, hooking up his own trains on the track under the Christmas tree. They're probably still made. Really good toys.

T-Max - Know what the '60s Joe said to the 80's Joe?

"Mine's bigger."

Sorry. Couldn't help myself. I'll be nice from now on.

Rustbelt said...

tryanmax, there WAS a cartoon for Dino-Riders.

Here's the link for the first episode (Youtube)

As for the bad guys, the "troops" (Rulons) started out with three basic types- asps (snakes), hammerheads, and antors (ants) as you mentioned. The bad guy leader- Krulos- looked like a frog wearing a dome. (He was voiced by voice actor extraordinaire, Peter Cullen- Optimus Prime himself.) As the series went on, they introduced villains with different-shaped heads- as well as other humans on the good guys' side who hadn't been before.

The other notable difference was how each side communicated with their dinosaurs. The Dino-Riders used "amps"- devices that allowed them to talk through artificial telepathy and build trust. The Rulons employed "brain boxes"- literally devices clamped to the dinos' heads that controlled them like puppets.

Unknown said...

As a kid I was always torn between Star Wars and LEGO. But now, I discover, there is Star Wars LEGO. We live in an age of paradise.

AndrewPrice said...

John, LOL! So true! :D

Anonymous said...

Wow, this brings back memories. I used to videotape Transformers, pause their transformations frame-by-frame--and then go build my own out of Legos! (Yes, they actually transformed, unlike today's licensed off-brand building block sets.) I wish I took more pictures of those...

I watched a few episodes of my favorite shows in later years, and was appalled at how slow the pacing was. (He-Man, Thundercats--I'm looking in your general direction.)

One of my favorite cartoons in the 80's was the anime import, Robotech. (And to a lesser extent, Star Blazers.) For those of you unfamiliar with it, it was a serialized multi-generational story about humans who adapted technology from a crashed alien spaceship, creating vehicles that transformed into robots (piloted by humans). The multiple generations were actually because it was made up of 3 entirely separate shows from Japan which all just happened to have similar vehicle/robot technology. With a few script rewrites & name changes, it fit together pretty well. Worth checking out.

P.S. The Lego Movie is AWESOME!!! :)

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