The cultural fragmentation that prevents a consensus on good parenting and child development techniques also fosters a lack of overlap between television programming for children and adults. In thinking about Henry’s original question, how current models of child-rearing might affect toy design and marketing techniques, I realize that I almost never see contemporary toy advertising. Toys are most heavily marketed on kid-friendly cable channels like Nickelodeon and during what minimal blocks of kids’ programming remain on broadcast television - if a viewer misses out on these, they eliminate most of the kid-centric advertising on current television. This aspect of media fragmentation might also raise questions about whether toy marketers are reaching kids more directly than ever before - do they feel less pressure than ever before to address parental concerns about children’s educational and developmental needs because their ads can be effective by speaking directly to children’s desires?
I recently recovered some favorite childhood toys via the magic that is eBay. The toys in question were Soakies. In the early to mid 1960s (I show my age here), Soakies was a brand of bubble bath which came in plastic containers designed to look like popular cartoon characters of the era. I used to have a set of 20 or 30 of the Soakies containers which I would use to stage stories. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the Soakies characters came from a broad range of different media companies. The set I was able to purchase included characters from Disney, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and DC, and I am pretty sure other companies were also involved. Because each contains the same amount of bath suds, the characters were all the same size and thus they made a totally compatible set of what we would now call action figures with which to mix and match media fantasies. This is just to say that the trends of cross-corporate branding collaborations seem to go back at least to the 1960s.
I’m not sure I have much to say in response to Will’s question about America’s Army, though it’s an interesting one. Nothing I’ve read about America’s Army makes any direct links back to G.I. Joe but it could not have been far from their thinking when they decided to try to use popular culture to increase recruitment and expand dialog between servicemen and civilians.
In a recent issue of Convergence, which I co-edited with Mark Deuze, Hector Postigo has an interesting discussion of a recent attempt to build a game mod based on the G.I. Joe franchise of this era, building in the weapons and scenarios from the earlier cartoons and comics. It would be interesting to read that essay, which describes the struggles that developed over these mods which Hasbro eventually shut down, in relation to this discussion. Another example of the cultural problems caused when kids remain trapped in “fantasyland” for too long, I suppose! But also a tribute to what may have started as a marketing ploy but which became a central mythology for a particular generation.
Derek’s last comment here may touch on an important distinction between post-war childrearing discourse and the current moment. Spock’s book remained on the best seller list more or less throughout the 1950s and 1960s — the book that most if not all postwar parents turned to in order to understand the care and feeding of their children. While Spock’s ideas were widely parodied in popular media of the period, there was no other author who came anywhere close to challenging his dominance in the marketplace and in everyday practice. Today, no single writer can claim anywhere near that same status. As our culture has fragmented, as families take on very different shapes and sizes, as childrearing gets caught in the same ‘culture wars’ that shape other aspects of contemporary society, there is no consensus model for what good parenting looks like. If Wolfenstein is right to see the push towards permissiveness as a boon for marketers, we might also see this fragmentation of ideas about childrearing as a boon for contemporary brands, simply because it allows different products to position themselves differently in response to different assumptions about what’s best for kids. It supports niche marketing efforts more appropriate for a fragmented marketplace and a dispersed yet converging mediascape.
To me, the most interesting phrase in this piece hasn’t been commented on yet — the opening suggestion that if fantasy is not correctly managed, children will be “forever stuck in fantasyland.” And note that the piece ends with the advice of child psychologists on how to avoid having children fixated on a particular mode of fantasy for two long. (This advice that adults may prolong the duration of a fantasy if they interfere runs in the face of the suggestion that saavy parents should help children negotiate between the marketed fantasies and their own family values).
This underlying fear of arrested development surely explains why the piece must avoid at all costs referencing any Disney Princess products aimed at adult women. Despite the persistence of toys, fantasy, and play into adult life as a normal aspect of contemporary culture, there is still a residual pathologization of such behavior. This is the same pathologizing language which impacts the public perception of adult fans of all kinds — that they never moved beyond the things they did on the floor of their playrooms, that they have been unable to adopt proper adult roles and responsibility, that they still live in their parent’s basements.
Yet, I am struck by the use of the phrase, “fantasyland,” to refer to this space of the imagination, given how successfully Disney has elsewhere branded the Disney theme parks as a place where adults — well, children of all ages — can return to the vividness and comforts of their childhood imagination, frolicking with Mickey Mouse, riding in flying pirate ships and the like.
And of course, we can’t help but not that the fear of being fixed onto one fantasy is part of a culture of rapid turnover of media franchises and planned obsolescence as much as it is part of the discourse of child development.
By the way, Will is right that Alice has no legitimate claim to be a Princess; she’s a Queen in the original novel!
Reading through this discussion, I am reminded of the progression which occurs in the Toy Story film franchise. In the first film, the most dreaded character is the boy and girl next door who abuse their toys. While some of what they do is genuinely abusive (blowing up toys with fire crackers), much of it involves the kind of subversive play which Derek describes here — mixing and matching the pieces or inserting the characters into a situation outside their original narrative (forcing Buzz Lightyear to participate in a tea party). By Toy Story 2, the threat comes from the collector who removes the toys from circulation, in much the way Raiford describes here. Between the two films, then, we get a pretty clear message about how Disney/Pixar thinks we should treat our toys — play with them but only in the ways pre-scripted on the packaging.
Don’t forget the 1996 Amalgam Comics line that literally amalgamated DC and Marvel characters (Wolverine and Batman combined to be Dark Claw; Justice League of American and X-Men combined to be JLX). Of course, in this case too, this cross-corporate interaction required the creation of an alternate universe.
Avi, I too would like to know more about the reasoning behind these licensing deals. If I was Mattel, for example, with a product like He-Man directly competing in the marketplace with Hasbro’s Transformers, I might seek out a different licensee than Hasbro’s to handle my underwear license. Underoos appear to be a Fruit of the Loom brand—why not approach Hanes? Wouldn’t Hanes like to get a piece of this market too, and if they had the He-Man license, wouldn’t they try to make it outsell the Transformers brand? I’m only really guessing at what would cause all these licenses to be so easily unified, but to me it suggests the possibility that these toy companies perceived licenses across media more as short term promotion and revenue boosters than long term revenue sources of their own. If I wanted a competitive advantage to make underwear a long term profit center, I’d pick a licensee who’s going to try to sell more of my character than the competition’s. But if I’m less worried about royalties, and just want to promote my character while collecting a small upfront license fee, it seems less important to pick a licensee who is going to give my license its exclusive attention.
Then again, what do I know? I’d really like to see those agreements and see evidence about what the licensors were thinking!
Henry, I’m really taken by the way you emphasize the space of play in this piece, where these ads construct play space as one that encompasses the kitchen, the living room, and the back yard. today, I’d imagine that the internet and virtual spaces form an important site of struggle within and between parenting discourses and the modes of play marketers want to sell. i’m reminded of commercials for Leap Frog learning computers, for example, which try to recuperate video games, transforming them from a bad object to a space that can be used for learning. Telecom providers repeatedly emphasize how children really need the internet not just to play, but to do their homework successfully. But conversely, it seems that marketers of more traditional sports and outdoor toys (nerf, super soaker, etc) would be interested in child rearing discourses that paint online spaces as dangerous places where kids get fat and lazy—to which outdoor toys can present a more “healthy” alternative. Marketers in different industries, therefore, might have opposing discourses of child rearing they’d prefer to get behind.
Thanks for the great comments—sorry my replies are a bit delayed (I’ve been out of town).
Caryn: Yes, these ads do predate the cartoon that would follow in 1985, but in that way you can think of them almost as mini-pilots (the cartoon would also be produced by Marvel using the same animation styles and designs). They did not either entirely replace Hasbro’s toy advertisements, which continued to use live-action shots of children bringing life to the toys through their own actions of play. So what you’re getting is an entire system of ads that can work together, where kids are seeing ads for multiple GI Joe products (both comics and toys). So it is a regulatory loophole, but arguably one with the potential to pay off more in terms of building the brand than if there were no rules restricting animated toy commercial to begin with.
Avi: I can’t believe you have GI Joe #1! Considering Ray’s discussion of packaging, I’m confident you’ve taken steps to keep that well preserved. What I find fascinating about things like the MOBAT profiles and such are that at the same time as they act as shameless promotions for Hasbro’s newest products (undoubtedly timed to coincide with the availability of the item on store shelves—the comic writers, for example, have been very open about the fact that Hasbro would request new figures and vehicles to be spotlighted at such times), they are what most deepen the story world, providing more detail than even the cartoon or comics could. But I wouldn’t say that it’s always as a precursor to buying the merchandise, as these narrative details would continue to get piled on after you made the purchase. Again, tying this back to the discussion of packaging, each card a GI Joe figure was packaged on had a cut-out “filecard” character profile that listed each character’s name, hometown, education, combat specialties, personality quirks, and even pay grades! It’s from the packaging of the toys, more so than the cartoons or comics that I personally remember the most about these characters; that Lady Jaye, for example, was born in Martha’s Vineyard, or that Flint was a Rhodes Scholar. (I’ve got pics of these filecards if anyone’s interested).
Finally, Will: you raise an excellent point about the relationship of GI Joe to its social and political context. And while I’m not sure I’d characterize it as direct propaganda for the US military to the extent that America’s Army is, Hasbro executives have historically tried to reshape the franchise in respond to the social anxieties they perceive as most resonate (and thus most marketable) at any one particular time. Rather than directly promoting the US army, I’d compare Joe to other media products like Rambo circulating at the exact same time and reworking militaristic themes around individualistic heroes. But I think the best example of the political malleability of GI Joe comes later in the 1990s, when the line hits harder times. Hasbro reshapes the line around two trends—growing social concern about the environment, and the success of mutant heroes like X-Men and TMNT. Because Hasbro see a market for it in the 90s, they literally mutate the soldiers so they can fight for liberal environmental causes. So Joe’s kind of a mercenary in that way.
Sorry for such a long post!
From what I can gather online, Superman vs Spider-Man seems to have taken place first in Metropolis, then in New York — which is a bit of a fix as I believe Metropolis and Gotham effectively replaced NYC in the DC Universe until recently, when Gotham was retconned to NJ, Metropolis to Delaware, and NYC reinstated as an entirely separate city.
What the second toy advertisement seems to me to introduce well before its appearance in comic books is the idea of a multiple-character crossover. The penultimate shot shows Captain America, Captain Marvel and Robin,so there are seven characters here from the two universes — I don’t know if such a large-scale team-up across DC and Marvel happened in official continuity until the DC vs Marvel event of 1996, which led to a series of “amalgam” comics.
The early issues of Warren Ellis’ “Planetary” series also feature teams from the different franchises in conflict, though because of copyright issues he has to portray them as immediately-recognisable archetypes or analogues.