Know what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately? TV commercials for toys. Blame the fact that my little baby boy is fast becoming a little dude, blame the nearness of Christmas and its attendant retail season, blame the fact that my brain has been warped over the years to automatically fire the “Starriors!” synapse whenever I think about power construction tools and/or nuclear war, blame the historical moment’s “Mad Men” zeitgeist and its examination of America As Advertisement, but there it is. I’ve been recalling lots of the Saturday ad campaigns of my own youth recently, and in the process, I’ve been obsessing anew about one particular aspect of toy commercials that always drove me nuts.
I know that commercials sell impossible fantasies, and marketers hope that potential consumers will associate the product with the fantasy just enough that they become inclined to buy the product, not because they actually believe acquiring the product will actually make the fantasy a reality but simply because the acquisition pleasantly reinforces the idea of the fantasy. I think even as a kid I knew this, definitely not in so many words, and maybe I’m retro-projecting my adult sensibilities onto my pre-adolescent memories, but still. I was never abjectly (or even slightly) disappointed that, for example, my Transformers neither talked nor moved on their own, or that my copy of the board game Conspiracy failed to wrap me in a trenchcoat and whisk me away to a foggy London streetcorner at midnight.
I also wasn’t too put out by the ethos of completism that the toy commercials of my youth espoused (although I did turn out to be a crazy completist, and we could probably play chicken-or-egg with that one all day); I mean, sure, I was a little put out, but that’s just one of those affluent-white-kid-in-the-suburbs problems that I’m highly dismissive of now and that I honestly don’t think was a big deal even back then. Little Bro and I didn’t want for much growing up, including playthings, and right up until late in the gestational period of Very Little Bro, when a new nursery was demanded, every house we lived in actually had a dedicated “toy room”. If I saw a commercial for a toy and decided I wanted it, chances were pretty good I would get it, especially if said commercial-inspired decision were made close to the end of the year, where Q4 is bookended by my birthday and Christmas. I think my parents bought us more than enough toys to keep us happily pacified, yet not so many that we ran the risk of getting overly spoiled. And the real wisdom in my parents’ approach, it occurs to me now as I look back, is that they always went broad rather than deep. I’ve heard stories about, and for that matter bore witness to once or twice, people’s fondly remembered particular birthdays where every single present they opened was a toy from the same collection, the All Strawberry Shortcake Birthday, or the All Hot Wheels Birthday. I didn’t have any of those, and my parents balanced out generous birthdays and Christmases with the fact that they almost never bought us random toys “just because”. (I almost typed that last as “ransom toys” and, let’s face it, that actually happens, when parents buy good grades or obedient behavior in public with promises of new action figures.)
The point being, no matter how into a certain toy I might be, I was never ever going to own them all. One Christmas I got He-Man and his friend Stratos, and my Little Bro got Skeletor and his lackey Beast-Man. (Somehow I think Little Bro also got Castle Grayskull as his Big Gift which may have made that the Christmas I got a cassette player or something.) When the next set of birthdays and Christmas rolled around, we got some more Masters of the Universe and their vehicles, and then by the holidays after that we had kind of outgrown them and moved on, maybe going deeper into something that had rotated into the mix the previous year, maybe other entirely new things. In the prime half decade or so from, say, my sixth to eleventh year, my parents never once sank thousands of dollars into any given line of toys. I think they knew my attention span couldn’t justify that kind of commitment (very few children’s could, honestly) and they also knew I’d outgrow them all soon enough. (Which I did, briefly, until it became feasible to be into toys again without seeming like a scary weirdo.) So this is the wisdom that I think borders on brilliance: my parents never wasted money amassing small galaxies of interrelated toys on my behalf, and thus never suffered the regret of seeing me grow bored with 1000 plastic men all at once.
But I was talking about toy commercials specifically, and often times the kids in those commercials seem to have exactly the opposite kinds of parents, who think nothing of throwing bottomless cash reserves at a child’s addiction to one toy line or another, so that the kid has every conceivable playset and figurine in the set (and sometimes more than one of each). I knew kids like that, and I knew I wasn’t one of those kids, and I was OK with that.
No, here’s what drove me nuts: I wanted to be able to play with my humble handful of action figures in the same way that the kids in commercials played with theirs. Not on the same scale, clearly, but I wanted to take my smaller collection into their world, or at least their backyard. Because that backyard was crazyawesome.
We moved around a bit when I was a kid and believe you me, I looked for that backyard all over the northeast, but I couldn’t find it. The classic toy commercial back yard had the following features:
- long straightaway stretches of packed-down dirt which were the perfect width to act as dirt roads to scale with vehicles
- trees with gnarly roots that could double as naturally occurring alien jungles
- manicured hedges with enough ground clearance to either work as perfect natural shelter for action figures or as high canopies to which the upper end of ziplines could be attached
- large, flat elevated surfaces where bad guys could be positioned near the edge, to be knocked off by good guys’ spring-loaded missile launchers
- some kind of water feature for toy boats
- an unlimited supply of sticks of identical length and diameter, suitable for building action figure sized fences or roadblocks or punji traps, as well as an unlimited supply of rocks for similar obstacle- and trap-construction purposes, as well as an unlimited supply of cool, uniformly-colored plastic shapes like cubes or cylinders for building large walls that battletanks and/or superheroes can crash through
- also please note the sticks, rocks etc. were always antiseptically free of dirt despite being found outside
I could probably keep going, but I trust you take my point. For some reason the set dressing of the toy commercial fantasy world really cheesed me from a very young age. Little Billy 30-Second-Spot would be swinging his Crystar figure through Magma Men infantry set up in tenpin formation, and what would cross my mind was not “How did that kid get his mom to buy him ten of the same Magma Man toy?” because that seemed plausible enough. What did cross my mind was “Where does this kid live that just happens to have a quartz rock garden complete with an algae-free water feature?” Because playing on the carpet of the toy room, using the lid of the toy box as the edge of a dramatic cliff, paled a bit in comparison to the outrageously improbable landscaping presented as a very matter-of-fact no-biggie part of the background in the commercials. I could only imagine that those backyards belonged to the same houses that had kitchens about a hundred yards long, where on rainy days the kids could run their Penny Racers from one side of the room to the other without coming close to hitting a wall.
With all the repair work my wife and I have done on the lawn this autumn, we’ve also entertained the idea of turning some sections that are allegedly supposed to be grass into … not-grass. So I guess I am just saying that maybe recreating the geologic formations planet Mustafar from Revenge of the Sith out of black pumice as a play area for the little guy is not entirely out of the question.