60 years ago, Mr. Potato Head made his debut. More than 100,000,000 of the plastic potatoes have been sold in 30 countries; you can now dress them up with any of 365 plastic pieces. The original Mr. Potato Head toy was invented by George Learned and actually only contained the multicolored pieces, which children could stick into a real potato. The familiar plastic ovoid spud form was introduced in 1964, after parents complained about rotting potatoes.
But the real “innovation,” if you wish to call it that, of Mr. Potato Head is not about its uniqueness as a plaything. Mr. Potato Head bears the dubious honor of being the first toy marketed directly to children through TV: On April 30, 1952, the toy was simultaneously introduced and featured on advertisements. A million sold in one year in what Jerry Perez, senior vice president of Playskool (which oversees the Mr. Potato Head brand) says was a “brand new way to tell the public about your toy and it really caught on.”
Indeed. It is now, as we know all too well, commonplace for ads on TV, the Internet and who knows where else to be made marketing products from Pretty Ponies to Happy Meals to children. A BBC report puts the question point-blank: Is Mr. Potato Head to blame for the “era of pester power,” of the “nag factor,” a post-war phenomenon in which children are “specifically targeted as a consumer demographic” that has unleashed complaints and critiques from parents, up in arms over nothing less than the commercialization of childhood?
A 2010 report by the Mothers’ Union – an international Christian charity – found three-fifths of parents believed advertising seen by children was harmful to them.
“Childhood is now another marketing opportunity. It’s another niche market,” says Rachel Aston, co-author of the report.
Such concerns have led to calls for greater regulation of advertising to children. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed an educational campaign “to promote awareness of advertising techniques as well as banning the use of under-16s as ‘brand ambassadors’ in peer-to-peer marketing campaigns.” Brian Young, an expert in the psychology of advertising at the University of Exeter, notes that children “don’t really think that advertising is anything but entertainment” until they are six or seven.
The success of marketing Mr. Potato Head, Slinky and other toys is apparent in the nostalgia many of us feel just on hearing the jingles from the commercials; such feelings arguably played a huge role in the success of the three Toy Story movies. Growing up in the suburbs of northern California, I have fond memories of playing with Mr. Potato Head. I felt that tug of nostalgia when we taught my son Charlie — who’s autistic and had to be taught how to play with toys — to put the eyes and ears and feet on the plastic spud.
Mr. Potato Head, being plastic through and through, is recyclable though many people resist doing so, again due to nostalgia. As Joe Eskenazi wrote a few years ago on SFWeekly, “any plastic remnants of your youth are copacetic with the city’s recycling services.” He lists “Legos, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Connect Four, Barrel of Monkeys” and notes, too, that you can include Barbie and “you wouldn’t even have to remove [her] hair.”
In this era when we’re realizing that we’re up to our own ears in plastic, is a toy like Mr. Potato Head a symbol of things — like single-use plastic bags — that we need to change about our modern lifestyle and disposable culture?
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