COMMENTARY: Animation Has Long Been a Promotional Vehicle for Toys

BrandonEngel1by Brandon Engel

You’ve likely heard about the massive success of The Lego Movie, and maybe you were even one of the millions worldwide who have gone to see it. Despite its financial success, some have blasted the film for essentially being a glorified, expensive commercial for Legos. I don’t think that anyone can deny that The Lego Movie is obviously commercially motivated, but does that make it wrong? Is it all that different from children’s movies selling toys based on the film?

BrandonEngel2Last Christmas, the Frozen Castle Playset and matching Barbie dolls from the Disney film Frozen were at the top of many children’s lists for Santa. Every time a commercial appeared for the movie or the toy, they advertised each other. Is The Lego Movie any different just because the toy existed before the movie? Here is the bigger question: In an age where almost no image is spared licensing of some form, where does the line get drawn between entertainment and commercial?

Using animation to sell goes back to the silent film days, when Walt Disney first used his famous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to sell chocolate-covered marshmallow candy bars during the mid-1920s. He eventually signed a licensing deal in 1929 to allow Mickey Mouse’s image to sell notebooks to children, and that same year, he started the Walt Disney Enterprises division of his company to handle licensing and merchandising. It seems that Disney was an innovator in more ways than many realized. Of course, from that date forward, almost every Disney movie, TV series, and character has been used in some way to sell products.

It took a few decades following Disney’s innovations for the toy industry to start approaching television producers. Hot Wheels, a Saturday morning cartoon produced by ABC and Mattel between 1969 and 1971, drew pressure from the FCC, which declared that it was essentially a 30-minute commercial and ordered stations to count part of the broadcast as advertising.

The issue really came to a head during the 80’s, the decade in which Saturday morning cartoons really took off both in quantity and quality. A New York Times article from October 30, 1983 discusses the battles between public interest groups—in this case Action for Children’s Television—and the FCC over cartoons based on toys. At the time of the complaint, there were eight network shows airing on Saturday mornings that were based on toys. Today there are far more than eight on television. The Hasbro toy company now partly owns the Hub Network, a television network that heavily features cartoons based on its own products, such as My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, and Strawberry Shortcake. You can simply look at local TV listings for a line-up of cartoons eerily similar to the aisles of Toys “R” Us.

In reality, the entire argument presents a double-edged sword for most people, especially parents. While it’s easy to agree that exploiting children through marketing and advertising is wrong, at one point or another we have all surely enjoyed—or watched our children enjoy—cartoons based on toys, whether it’s Care Bears, Smurfs, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, or Pokémon. The key is to be aware as a consumer. Explaining to kids the difference between advertising and entertainment can help, but it’s ultimately up to the parents to decide what their children watch. We live in a time where corporations have infiltrated almost every aspect of entertainment, from product placement in music videos to actresses name-checking designers on the red carpet—no one and nothing is immune. The only thing potential buyers and consumers can really do is become aware of advertorial inserts as they are happening, and then choose whether or not to enjoy the programming in spite of that.

Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based blogger who writes about a variety of topics–everything from vintage holiday stop-motions, to tropes in werewolf films, to energy legislation. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2.