December is the month of revelation. It’s the month when parents buying gifts for their kids discover that there are almost as many TV stars in toy stores as on TV.
That’s because the TV stars are the toys. And vice versa.
Oodles of kids’ shows now have toy counterparts. Or, to put it another way, oodles of toys now have kid-show counterparts. The chicken and the egg have merged into a single $, the traditional line between program and commercial having been erased to accommodate profits.
On a recent trip to the toy store, I counted lines of toy products corresponding to 15 kids’ shows. And that doesn’t include such old standards as Spiderman and many of the Disney characters.
The TV programs and toy manufacturers are co-partners in this sometimes-cynical greening of Christmas. Producers know that the toys are sales pitches for their programs. And toy makers know that the shows are sales pitches for their toys.
On the receiving end are children, the overwhelming majority of them too unsophisticated to realize that they are the fiscal bottom line in this exploitative marketing extravaganza.
The product-identification process is profitable, but it isn’t new or always shady. It’s at least as old as the Lone Ranger. Nor is it limited to shows designed exclusively for kids. “The Bionic Man” and “Charlie’s Angels” were accompanied by lines of dolls and related items, for example, and “The Dukes of Hazzard” by a toy-car line, just as there are now extensive toy tie-ins for such kid-oriented shows as NBC’s “Knight Rider” and “The A-Team.”
Nor is the process limited to TV, as tie-ins for “Star Wars” and “Rambo demonstrate. My favorite is the “First Blood Part II” combat set consisting of a grenade, .45-caliber revolver, knife, walkie-talkie and compass.
TV producers and manufacturers are also intruding on children’s imaginations, selling dreams as well as toys. When children play with these toys, critics of the process have noted, they model their play less on their own imagination than on the way the products are depicted on TV. Hence they may be re-enacting not their own fantasies, but those suggested by TV scripts.
Some of the “toy shows” air on Saturday or Sunday mornings, others weekdays. Some are on ABC, CBS or NBC; others syndicated. Most are animations and most are violent.
The syndicated “G.I. Joe” is an example of a kids’ series that came after the line of toys, and, of course, each sells the other. Battling “G.I. Joe” may be the vastest of the tie-ins. A sensitive kid can create masterpieces by the numbers with a “G.I. Joe” paint set, while a junior mercenary can assemble a “G.I. Joe” military force large and sophisticated enough to intimidate the Soviets. I found a “G.I. Joe” aircraft carrier on sale for a mere $150.
You can also find a slew of syndicated “He-Man” action figures at your local toy stores, plus miniatures of clanky characters that kids can view on a syndicated series called “The Gobots.”
There is also a full line of plastic action figures and related products--ranging from the always delightful Insecticon Venom to my personal favorite, the Dinobot Flame Thrower--tied to the syndicated “Transformers” series. For just a tad more firepower, you can pick up the “Transformers” laser gun for about $35.
And blow away Rambo.
Toy shelves are also home to Skull and the always popular Robot Mutilator from the syndicated “Voltron,” a series named after a hero identified as the “defender of the universe.” And also kiddie-show commercialism.
Ditto for the syndicated “Thundercats,” which premiered simultaneously with the debut of a corresponding toy line that offers choices between between “good” characters and “evil mutants.”
The syndicated “Dungeons & Dragons” also helps sell an extensive toy line, as does CBS’ “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Wrestling,” whose action-figure replicas include the Iron Sheik, Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka and the Hulkster himself.
And then comes the dynamic marketing combo of NBC’s “Mr. T” children’s series and corresponding Mr. T dolls, which promote each other in addition to “The A-Team” in prime time.
Meanwhile, TV’s cuddlier crowd is represented on toy shelves by characters from those Disney series “The Wuzzles” on CBS and “Gummi Bears” (which as a chewy bonus, was named after a popular candy) on NBC. Although Muppet creator Bob Henson was reportedly cool to commercial tie-ins, his “Muppet Babies and Monsters” is represented on toy shelves (along with hoards of “Sesame Street” spinoffs), as are the furry creatures from ABC’s “Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour.”
The stars of NBC’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” also have been doing over-the-counter business, and there is a vast smorgasbord of Smurfs--toys and numerous other products--tied to “The Smurfs” on NBC. By next Christmas, I could be wearing Smurf jockey shorts.
It’s obviously time to compose a special Christmas carol in honor of the homogenization of kiddie toys and kiddie shows: “Deck the Halls With Sales Receipts.”