One distinct problem with television advertising, discovered executives at Mattel, was that the spots could only be aired in thirty second blocks…often not enough to make a distinct impression with their audience. And so, in 1969, they had a brilliant idea. Instead of sponsoirng Saturday morning cartoon shows, why not create entire shows around their toys, and get others to sponsor them?
The idea, of course, was to create half-hour commercials for their products and after that year, it materialized. ‘Hot Wheels’, a show based on their toy tricycle, was produced, but quickly shelved after Tonka complained to the FCC.
It took more than ten years for the show to surface, when Reagan follower Mark Cowler took over as chairman of the FCC. He let the show air based on his belief that television was “just another appliance — a toaster with pictures”. When the flood gates were finally opened, ‘Hot Wheels’ hit the cartoon circuit along with ‘He-Man’, ‘GI Joe’, ‘Thundarr the Barbarian’, and ‘Mr. T’. Soon, the airwaves were taken over by toy-based shows.
One of these pioneers and the template for success was the ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ cartoon show. Based on the 5-inch plastic figurine, ‘Prince Adam and his friends’ spent half hour blocks defeating the evil Skeletor. Crude and poorly animated, it was full of violence and thus very popular. It launched what was originally a minor-league plastic character into a celebrated character that spawned dozens of other characters including a female version (She-Ra) who also had a show of her own. In search of filler, many independent networks picked up ‘He-Man’ and other shows like it. In doing so, the toy companies temporarily created their own networks.
Filmation, the animator of ‘He-Man’ and others produced 65 different shows in the Eighties. By the time the ‘Thundercats’ cartoon came out, selling rights to licensees meant that likenesses could show up on everything from bubble-gum to bedsheets. The market was saturated with cartoon ‘inspired’ goods.
Most recently, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers have used this technique to fight their way into homes. The movies, cereals, clothes and of course toys have exceeded the status of ‘cartoon’ into a way of life. Can anyone stop these juggernauts? Only when the novelty or fad wears off.
The most unsavory aspect of this early exploration between entertainment and consumerism is what it has given birth to. ‘Infotainment’ — the complete merger of these two ideas, has produced the lowest form of advertising ever. Late-Night is now a place where Richard Simmons peddles fat cures and telephone psychics rule. And to think it started with Hot Wheels. And He-Man. And She-Ra. And She-Ra’s horse with the groomable mane (action figures sold separately). Television has always been controlled by advertising. In this form, it dominates it.