The Daily Heller: Enabling the Addiction to Toys

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Imagine this all-too-familiar scene: Awestruck children longingly peer into a toy store window filled with a cornucopia of commercial playthings, each aspiring to possess the doll, train, bike or any other piece of merchandise created for their personal enjoyment.

TOYS: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads (Taschen) edited by Jim Heimann and featuring essays by me and a timeline by Ryan Mungia, starts with the scene described above, more or less from the turn of the century, and showcases the growth of want and desire instilled in children throughout successive decades, ending before the online revolution. The book is a revealing illustrated history of the rise of the American white middle class and the evolution of Western (and especially American) consumerism.

During this 20th-century span, ads show how toys went from being precious treats for young folk to major fantastical recreations of lifestyle for a captured consumer class. Although I had previewed many of the advertisements that are featured in the book from a nostalgic perspective, it was not until the design and layout lock-up that I realized how rife this genre of commercialism is with seeds, indeed spores, of the “I want” mentality that exploded in the Baby Boom Postwar era, and continues seamlessly into contemporary material culture.

For all kids (and some adults, too) toys trigger an irrepressible urge to have, hold and thus consume. Not just simple diversions devised to bestow small pleasures, toys are motivators; toys are rewards; toys are big business.

In the economically booming 1950s, there aired an afternoon TV game show where kid contestants were allotted five minutes to grab as many toys as their small arms and hands could carry off (whatever they could not was left behind). When the punishing sound of the buzzer wailed to signal the time limit had expired, the lucky prize winners proudly displayed their booty for the audience to admire (and trigger their own desire to purchase the items). Decades later, Nickelodon’s “Super Toy Run” applied the same psychology to a more rapturous extreme, with the chosen ones filling entire carts with the latest kid-sumables.

Although toys fulfill many a child’s usually harmless desires to play, make and putter, there is nothing innocent about toy advertisements. They are gateways to a life of consumption, in this case of products designed to profit their maker even when camouflaged as educational. During those thrilling days of yesteryear, a rash of toys were promoted as positive developmental tools. Take this story in The Ladies’ Home Journal from July 1916, titled “Teaching a Child Resourcefulness”: “Every normal child is most happy when he is ‘making’ something or ‘pretending’ some situation even though there may be no visible result that harmonizes with the thought in the little mind,” wrote Mildred Austin Shinn.

In the 1960s—coinciding with advertising’s “Creative Revolution”—toy ads became more sophisticated in design and content. A 1962 ad for Mattel showed children of color with dolls of the same skin. Another Mattel advancement was the “Cheerful Tearful” doll, resembling any adult ad. A 1967 ad for LEGO, with the headline “LEGO, the toy they won’t be tired of by Dec 26th” not only looked adult, but was as smart as any “Big Idea,” too (the tagline lived up to the promise: “LEGO … The thoughtful Toy”). As the years rolled on, advertisements for life-lesson products like “Barbie,” “Midget Mustang,” “Julia” (the first TV series with an African American star) and the Signature Junior electric portable sewing machine, among others, were popular because they mimicked the adult world. Fisher-Price Sesame Street products and others were aimed at adults who were familiar with the advertising industry’s creative visual language.

Parents were the quartermasters in charge of toy allotment, and they were easily convinced by advertisements that echoed their own consumption habits. During the late 1970s and well into the '90s, computer games were also advertised for both adults and children, especially around Christmastime.

Children may continue to tear advertisements out of magazines and newspapers, which are strategically placed around the house to signal their preferences before birthdays and holidays. But in the digital age, toy propaganda is more likely to come via email, based on data collected by sites like Amazon, from algorithms that can predict the personal toy needs of each and every individual. Toy store windows are not the same as once upon a time; kids today are more likely to surf the windows on their computers and screens than stand spellbound before those vintage places of retail wonder and delight.