Last month, I talked about commercials advertising supermarket products. Here’s a hybrid product, in this last column about commercials, that’s neither fish nor fowl, that is, neither food nor non-food, but a bridge between the two.
Did you ever think of the vegetable bin in familial terms? Well, back in the sixties we certainly did, apparently, with the commercials for Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, a toy brought to us by Hasbro, the makers of other unforgettable play products like the action figure G.I. Joe (produced in 1964). One commercial showed Mr. Potato Head, Hasbro’s first successful toy, as “new and improved.” The tuber head now had a car and a boat trailer to drive around town, something very befitting the head of the family (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). Mrs. Potato Head had a car, and a shopping trailer (not a boat trailer). Okay, so the commercial wasn’t exactly politically correct, but that was still the sixties, after all.
The actual “Mr. Potato Head” toy consisted of “body parts” (eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth, as well as accessories like a Charlie Chaplin/Little Tramp-looking hat, a smoking pipe, and eyeglasses) that children could stick into a potato, or any other vegetable or piece of fruit, for that matter. The commercial’s slogan went: “Potato Head people look different every time you make them.” All a child needed were the body parts, the cars, the trailer, the shopping cart (all of which could be had for only two bucks) and, of course, a bunch of potatoes.
In addition to potatoes, a child could use cucumbers, bell peppers, etc., resulting in a veritable mixed salad of character heads: Mr. Green Bell Pepper Head; Mr. Cucumber Head; and Mr. Oscar, the Orange Head, wearing a Groucho Marx moustache, and large, round, black eyes. But all of the members of the Potato Head family (and its extended-family salad veggie cousins), had those menacing eyes, inspired, I suppose, by the black spots on real potatoes. Of course, Hasbro wasn’t satisfied to stop with that offering. The television commercial pointed out that the toy manufacturer had also created a vanity case (in the shape of a lunchbox with a handle) containing “toy cosmetics and beautiful accessories,” and “real-looking doctor and nurse kits.”
Like the Charmin commercial, this one also suckered me in, but, since my mother only bought frozen french fries, I could clearly see that one fry would accommodate, at best, the tiny hat hanging down jauntily over one eye, giving it, appropriately enough, a somewhat sophisticated, Parisienne look. No room for a down-to-earth American look, with a nose, a mouth, ears, a hat, and a pipe. In effect, not really a Mr. Potato Head. More like a saucy Monsieur Frite!
Building on the hybrid Mr. Potato Head, a toy using a food item, are the toys not using any foods. In other words, just straight-up toys.
How about this one? “It walks downstairs, alone or in pairs, it makes a ….” Can you guess the rest of the jingle? “... slink-ed-y sound.” Does that give away the product’s name? “Everyone knows it's Slinky!” The jingle went on to tell us, “The hit of the day, when you’re ready to play …. the favorite of girls and boys.” In the commercial, two sets of hands, one belonging to a girl, one to a boy, are lifting the flexible coiled wire up with one hand, causing the coil to drop downward into the lower hand.
In some cases, the coil, once set in motion, seemed like a living creature that could navigate even further, perhaps down a flight of stairs, all by itself. I can’t tell you the amount of time my friends and I spent, or the delight we derived, from this simple toy. The Slinky, which first bounced its way into children’s hearts in the 1940s, originally cost $1.00. By 1996, it had nearly tripled in price to close to $3. Even so, our parents got off cheap, unless you factored the cost and maintenance of the overused stairs into the monthly rent or mortgage.
Of course, there were more elaborate versions, called Slinky pull toys. You could get the coil sandwiched between a plastic animal head and rear end, with wheels underneath, which resembled a dachshund, or a hotdog dog, as we used to call the animal. You could also get a Slinky hippopotamus, one wearing a tiny hat which looked like the same one that Mr. Potato Head wore, or you could get a Slinky train, or a Slinky caterpillar.
Other sixties toys and games featured in commercials included Barbie and Twister. Somehow, I never got caught up in the whole Barbie craze, probably because by the time Barbie was first manufactured, at the beginning of 1959, I was through playing with dolls. Even if I hadn’t been, I’m not sure I would have joined the legions of young Barbie fans who wanted to look and dress like her. If you’re not familiar with the doll’s look, think Ivanka Trump, with her long blonde tresses, tiny waist accentuated by broad shoulders, willowy build, fair skin, perfectly chiseled facial features, and designer wardrobe, and what you’ve got is Barbie, the fashion-show-runaway doll.
In one television commercial, you see young, pigtailed girls around the age of 7 or 8 fussing over Barbie, who is wearing a bridal gown (the counterculture emphasis on free love and communal living had not yet messed with young girls’ dreams of growing up to become wives and mothers). Others girls in the commercial prance their sheekly dressed Barbie clones across a table in their make-believe social scenario when one of the girls asks, “What do you like best about Barbie?” Another answers, “It’s the wardrobe.” Still another, younger-sounding girl, probably without the noun “wardrobe” in her vocabulary, answers, “She’s got some wonderful clothes.”
Twister stepped into the entertainment scene a few years after Barbie, in 1966, and has been around ever since. The game is not just for girls, or boys. Adults can enjoy it too, that is, if they have the muscular flexibility of an octopus. The game goes something like this. A plastic sheet with rows of colored circles on it is placed on the floor. As a participant, you spin an arrow, then you place your foot or hand where the arrow indicates. If after the spin the arrow indicates “right foot blue,” you place your right foot on a blue circle. If the spin indicates “left hand red,” then you place … well, I think you get the picture.
So on and on it goes. Sounds easy enough, but there are usually other hands and feet blocking your access to the colored circle you need. In the television commercial, you see people contorting their bodies around other bodies. After awhile, the extended arms and legs resemble one of those old telephone switchboards you see in vintage Hollywood movies of the 1940s, where telephone chords are intertwined like a nest of snakes. Usually, though, at that point people fall down on top of each other and break out into laughter. I never played the game until the first decade of the new millennium, well past, shall we say, my flexible prime.
My students back then, bless their young little fourth- and fifth-grade supple limbs, had thrown me a surprise birthday party, and one of the games they had thought would be really cool to play with their teacher was Twister. So I played … until the point where I got stuck and needed assistance in becoming vertical again.