USAdocumentary1992 color 108 min.
CLV: $29.95 - taking pre-orders now
1 disc, catalog # V1065L

If the main reason you got involved with home video was to avoid commercial interruptions, the whole idea of watching a laserdisc of nothing but commercials may seem a trifle odd. But every generation has its own perculiar window onto the formation of their psyche, and no matter what your age or background, this fascinating compilation of vintage television ads from the collection of Ira Gallen will clue you into motivational subtexts that affect us all. More than drop drills and the Pledge of Allegiance, these are what sold the baby-boom generation on conquering the world.

If you grew up in the '50s and '60s, you're likely to find your emotional response to these blatant plugs to be surprisingly strong. These unintentionally but remarkably thought-provoking ads were probably your first contact with the hyonotic world of consumerism, relentlessly shaping your desires in various ways. They created a generation of toy worshipers who were oblivious to the subconscious message, for instance, that boys fight ("Shoot rapid-fire bullets!) and girls nurture ("When I grow up, I want to be a mommy.").

Of course, equality of the sexes was far removed from the thoughts of toymakers and consumers at the time. Cold War anxiety shaded everything, and many editorials attacked toys that promoted aggression (The New York Times Magazine printed an article in 1965 comparing toy stores to the arsenal at Da Nang Airbase). But psychologists insisted it was "healthy for girls to play dress-up, cook pretend meals, and care for doll children." Toymakers purveyed a counterfeit happiness to kids already pampered and blinkered into a culturally antiseptic era, and the method was to nudge the tykes into restrictive role-playing that normally lasted a lifetime. The low-budget, low-brow sales tools that did the job--based on period mass-market strategies that now seem obvious--created an inescapable juvenile culture.

We've lived with crass commercialism so long that it's hard to imagine there was a time when toys were not sold in a perpetual ad blitz, and when the Toys R Us empire didn't dot the land. But before the '50s, toys were considered merely Christmas fare and were available almost exclusively in department stores. However, as post-war Americans got more prosperous, they found more leisure time--and more incentive to simply play.

In a breakthrough marketing scheme, many of these toys were sold at food markets only. In the '50s, Mattel became the first toy manufacturer to advertise nationally year round, quickly followed by Hasbro and Whammo. The whole concept of a "toy fad" was born, and the right commercial--projecting the right fantasy or just plain kiddy cool--could make any toymaker an instant millionaire.

In the '60s, plastics took over the toy world and everything changed for the cheaper. There were huge battery-operated toys available to any kid who was willing to whine long enough and whose parents had ten bucks to blow. Barbie proved that little girls would play with dolls that weren't babies, and G.I. Joe proved that boys would play with dolls. In 1963, Life Magazine devoted three whole pages to Barbie's wardrobe, and Barbie was getting 500 letters a week. Over nine million parents not only had to clothe their children, but their children's Barbie dolls.

A consumer organization called Action for Children's Television (ACT) has been in a constant battle with the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA) to regulate the methods used to sell products to children. Many guidelines have been established since the '60s, so you're not likely to see the techniques featured here ever again. Toys can't be "overglamorized," and children playing with a toy must not be shown as "socially superior" to other children. It's an interesting bias, since it doesn't apply to other children's products, like breakfast cereals.

The technology has changed, too. Commercials are now so high-tech, the ones on this disc look like museum pieces. But boys still obliterate missiles, not to mention a few Middle Eastern countries, in a million different video games. And girls still aspire to a "Dream Date," only now they use a "Dream Phone."

If the whole idea of watching toy commercials feels too retro, consider this: if you're not a toy nut, what are you doing with a laserdisc player.
--Michael Dare

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