Selling toys

In the immediate post-War period, the toy industry in the United States was relatively stable and conservative. The business was dominated by a small number of well-established manufacturers like Louis Marx, the Lionel Corporation and A.C. Gilbert; and by stores and mail-order companies like Sears and F.A.O. Schwarz. Many toys were non-branded, and most were generic: model trains and cars, board and card games, construction toys, weapons, science and craft kits, dolls (and their related paraphernalia) and soft toys accounted for the large bulk of sales. As the historian Gary Cross describes[i], toys tended to feature familiar themes: boys were invited to play out fantasies of the Wild West, medieval chivalry or space travel; girls were encouraged to rehearse future adult roles as mothers and housewives.

However, in the years of the baby boom, new products and new companies gradually began to appear. Many toys now regarded as ‘classics’ were launched at this time: the Slinky (1945), Mr. Potato Head (1951), Play-Doh (1955) and the Frisbee (1957) among them. New materials, most notably plastics, began to be used; and by the end of the 1950s, new technology toys began to emerge, including talking dolls, electronic vehicles and other ‘classics’ such as the Etch-a-Sketch (1960). Companies like Hasbro (originally Hassenfeld Brothers) and Fisher-Price, founded in the 1920s and 1930s, along with new entrants like Mattel, founded in 1945, gradually began to challenge the more traditional firms. Meanwhile, as children themselves came to enjoy greater disposable income, the toy industry moved from being a seasonal matter, peaking at Christmas, to a year-round business.

As I’ve already noted, television began to play an increasingly central role here, not only as a means of advertising, but also of ‘branding’ toys – and especially character toys. There is a longer history of these kinds of media tie-ins: for example, Shirley Temple, Roy Rogers and Rin Tin Tin all generated significant amounts of merchandising during the inter-War years, as of course did Disney. Yet if media of various forms have always been a factor in the toy industry, the key shift here is to do with the direction of that relationship. As well as using media such as television to market existing toys, companies began to source new toys from media in the first place – and media companies were increasingly involved in generating toys through licensing and franchising arrangements. In the process, the boundary between marketing and ‘content’ became increasingly blurred. This issue became much more explicit in the 1970s and 1980s, when campaigners began to challenge toy-based TV shows, or so-called ‘programme-length commercials’; but its origins can be found at least a couple of decades earlier.[ii]

Some indications of this can be found in the toy industry trade press at this time.[iii] For much of the 1950s, Playthings, the leading US publication, was dominated by generic toys. A special supplement, produced in collaboration with Life magazine in the run-up to Christmas 1954, featured 104 ‘top American toys’, of which only six were media-related (although of course the whole collection was extensively advertised on television). Most dolls, for example, were generic and anonymous; although some did have names, such as ‘Poor Pitiful Pearl’ a popular ‘ragamuffin’ doll of the period, who was intensively marketed on TV. However, hardly any of them were media characters to begin with.

Media-related toys grew in significance over the 1950s. In 1954, Playthings was urging retailers to stock Disney merchandise, along with toys relating to younger children’s TV shows like Howdy Doody and Ding-Dong School; but by the end of the decade, this had been joined by a wide range of other TV characters and toys, most notably those from Hanna-Barbera. Nevertheless, the size of the US toy industry, and the dominance of an ‘old guard’ of conservative companies (Marx, the largest, did not begin advertising until 1959), meant that change in this respect was slow: the large majority of companies who included catalogue inserts in the 660-page March 1960 edition of Playthings produced no media-related toys at all.

If anything, this shift appears to have been more dramatic in Britain. In the early 1950s, Toys and Games, the leading UK publication, was equally dominated by generic toys, but media-related toys become particularly significant as the decade progressed. While much of this material was American in origin (Disney, Roy Rogers, Superman), a good deal of it related to British television programmes. With the advent of commercial TV in 1955, established companies like Chad Valley rushed to leap on the bandwagon. Toys and Games began to publish TV supplements, with extensive lists of licensees for TV-related products: a 1959 supplement included a 32-page ‘Disney Merchandise Directory’ featuring over 100 UK manufacturers with Disney franchises. However, this was not confined to the commercial channel: as early as 1954, there were also advertisements and articles about toys relating to BBC programmes (Muffin the Mule, Sooty, Watch with Mother), and by the end of the decade, this included US-made shows screened on the BBC, such as Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger.

Some of these franchises must have been exceptionally lucrative: Enid Blyton’s Noddy books generated a considerable amount of spin-off merchandise[iv], while Sooty (or his owner, Harry Corbett) had his own toyshop in Bradford in 1957. A September 1960 edition of Toys and Games profiled Walter Tuckwell, described as ‘the prince of character merchandising’: his agency, which began with Enid Blyton characters in 1956, was now handling almost 40 characters from television, cinema and children’s books, and dealing with two hundred licensees (there were 84 licences for Noddy alone). Licensed characters of this kind were effectively becoming the ‘brands’ of children’s consumer culture: for companies, they offered a means of reducing risk in a fairly volatile market, while also enabling successful properties to be exploited across a range of products and media.[v] Here again, we see a fairly well-developed form of ‘mediatization’ that only began to attract critical attention some decades later.


Parents, children and play

As I’ve suggested, the promotion of food products is frequently targeted at a dual market: children and adults are addressed both separately and together, as part of a family market. By contrast, the market for toys might appear to address a ‘purer’ demographic. Yet while parents might not use toys very much themselves, they certainly buy them; and as such, the marketing of toys has frequently addressed parents as well. Nevertheless, there is a historical shift here. At the beginning of the century, most toy marketing was directed at parents; it took several decades for attention to move primarily to children. Marketers liked to emphasise the intergenerational appeal of toys, showing children and parents enjoying play together. Yet as Gary Cross describes, familiar tensions between children’s and parents’ imperatives have long been apparent here – tensions, for example, between education and entertainment, between moral worth and mere ‘consumerism’, between play as a preparation for adult life and play as an opportunity for fantasy.

Advertising in print publications aimed at parents during this period continued to appeal to particular ideas about the educational value of play. Ads in parenting magazines, as well as general publications like Life and New Yorker, tended to focus on relatively upmarket toys and retail outlets.[vi] Parents were assured that toys were ‘play tested’ and ‘age grouped’, as well as being safe and durable; educational toys were ‘designed under the guidance of child psychologists’; while others (for upmarket brands such as Doepke) were marketed as a means of building healthy bodies. Various forms of quality control were operated: the Toy Guidance Council identified ‘educator approved’ toys; while magazines like Parenting and Good Housekeeping operated their own kite-marking systems. A good deal was also made of ‘classic’ trusted brands that could be passed on to upcoming generations: ‘parents who as youngsters themselves played with Holgate toys, insist on Holgate toys for their own children’. In some instances, such as the range of Steiff ‘realistic’ animal toys, these were advertised as appealing more directly to adults, not least to ‘grown up collectors’.

While there were occasional references here to the ‘fun’ of play with toys, the key emphasis was on its educational value.[vii] Ads for Toy House announced that ‘toys are children’s tools for learning’, which would provide ‘a bridge to the future’; a 1957 ad for Meccano construction kits proclaimed their value in teaching ‘your boy… to think constructively’, and prepare him for a future career in engineering; while Playskool toys offered a free booklet on the ‘creative play environment and the proper selection of toys’. These pedagogical ideas were premised on ideas from developmental psychology: according to Matchbox toys, ‘psychologists know that correct channeling of young energy helps build character’; while readers of a 1960 Parents magazine feature on toys were told that ‘In choosing a toy for child, consider his age, his stage, and the toy’s promise of encouraging his further development, as well as the immediate pleasure it will give him’. Educational benefits of this kind clearly depended upon parents intervening in their children’s play. While some ads featured scenarios of children playing alone or with peers, many of these publications emphasized the value of parental involvement – and particularly of fathers playing with their sons.

This educational value of toys also appeared to derive particularly from their realism. Some toys – such as Dinky model vehicles and American Flyer trains – were advertised as ‘unsurpassed for realism’; while a Matchbox ad from 1960 promised ‘inexhaustible stimulation for play situations that relate to real life’. Other toys were clearly identified as means for children to rehearse aspects of adulthood: a 1960 ad for My Merry, for example, offered miniature replicas of adult brands, including a cosmetics kit for girls and a boy-sized electric razor! (Needless to say, this was for the most part a highly gender-polarised world.)

Across the late 1950s and early 1960s, the style of these advertisements began to shift. In many cases, written copy gradually gave way to larger images, while photographs replaced drawn illustrations: ads for Steiff animal toys, for example, were roughly half copy and half image in the mid-1950s, but by 1962 the written text had almost completely disappeared. There were also some notable shifts in how children were represented: while some ads continued to emphasise tradition, others were developing a more modern image of the child as a powerful agent in its own right – imagery that was to become much more evident in the 1970s.[viii] For example, a Mattel campaign from the early 1960s used black-and-white candid shots of children at play, which were clearly intended to appear less posed and more naturalistic. While the toys were relatively traditional – dolls, guns, rocking horses – the children themselves were represented in more active and less idealized ways: they were shown engaging with their peers in their own social worlds, while adults looked on, sometimes with a hint of knowing irony.


Televising toys

By contrast with these publications, television enabled marketers to appeal to children directly, over the heads of parents. As I’ve suggested, much of this advertising was placed in specific children’s slots and programmes that were unlikely to be watched by adults. Television also enabled marketers to generate narratives more effectively: they could show toys ‘in action’, as well as providing scenarios and models for children’s toy play.[ix]

One of the leaders in TV marketing was Mattel, which grew from its founding as a tiny start-up in 1945 to become the world’s largest toy company. Mattel’s Barbie doll is often seen as its defining product. Launched in 1959, it was phenomenally successful, and has fuelled endless debates among successive generations of feminists.[x] Yet Mattel produced a much broader range of toys, and its success as a company was particularly down to its effective use of television. As I’ve noted, Mattel took a gamble as one of the early investors in sponsoring Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, at the instigation of the advertising executive Cy Schneider, who was then at the start of his career. It went on to sponsor other shows – in the early 1960s, its characters Matty Mattel and his sister Belle were hosting Matty’s Funday Funnies, a cartoon compilation (and arguably one of the first ‘programme length commercials’).

One striking aspect of Mattel advertising at this time is its emphasis on the company name itself. Ads – whether they were for Barbies, ‘Burp guns’, Beanie and Cecil merchandise, or any number of a growing range of other toys – all featured the distinctive logo, and closed with the familiar slogans: ‘You can tell it’s Mattel, it’s swell’ and ‘You can buy them wherever toys are sold’. Yet Mattel, like other companies, also made frequent use of media tie-ins: we have Dick Tracy guns and wrist radios; Beanie and Cecil games, puppets and bath toys; and music boxes featuring Casper the Friendly Ghost, Popeye and a full range of Disney characters.

As a product, Barbie also exemplifies a strategy that became increasingly important in the toy business at this time: accessorizing and collectability. While the doll herself was relatively inexpensive, the never-ending range of her outfits and accessories – and the growing addition of other options within the same product line – clearly helped to maximize spending. This tendency is apparent in other toy advertising as well. Over time, toys like guns and dolls gradually acquire a greater range of functions and accessories: a gun can be fired in an increasing variety of ways (using caps, or water, or with various attachments); a talking doll called Chatty Cathy can say five different things, then eleven, and eventually 120; and the doll then acquires a stroller that works in nine different ways. Meanwhile, other toys are re-purposed and recombined, as the same characters appear across an ever-widening range of merchandise: for example, Cecil the Turtle (from the puppet and then animation show Beany and Cecil) appears in the form of a plush puppet, a board game, a disguise kit, a music box, and eventually as a talking doll.

These developments reflect broader imperatives that were becoming increasingly apparent in the consumer market much more broadly at this time. On the one hand, we can see a form of planned obsolescence in the children’s market: you need to replace last year’s three-way gun with this year’s 10-way version, or buy the new doll with the seemingly unlimited capacity for chat. Accessorization also encourages accumulation: you need to buy the doll house furniture, collect the ever-increasing range of new outfits, or buy the caps and targets and the new ‘dura-hide’ holster to go with your gun. The actual range of toys themselves remains fairly limited – there are dolls for girls and guns for boys, and board games for both – but this process of re-purposing and accessorizing helps to fuel continuing sales.

In this context, much of the advertising places a major emphasis on demonstration. Children have to be instructed (by expert adults, or authoritative adult voice-overs) on how to use the new functions or accessories: how to load a gun, exchange the recording discs on a talking doll, assemble the furniture in a Barbie house, or use the remote control on a rocket launcher. It appears that considerable explanation is required as to the differences between a cap-firing saddle gun and a shooting shell gun, or about how to shift between a ‘moving fire-bolt action’ and an ‘air-cooled smoking barrel’. What Alison Alexander and her colleagues describe as ‘loud, enthusiastic narration’ and ‘pedantic repetition of salient product attributes’ are certainly apparent.[xi] Play, it would appear, is active, but it also requires expert instruction.

While realism was a key dimension of the educational value of play in ads for parents, it figures in a rather different way in ads for children. In the case of dolls, there are frequent assurances that their hair ‘feels real’, or that they can talk and walk (and in some cases, urinate) like ‘real’ babies. In other cases, much is made of the realism of accessories. In one ad (probably from the early 1960s), ‘Susie’ is shown wishing for a dream house for her Barbie doll, with ‘a lamp that really lights’, ‘two convertible sofa beds’ with upholstery using ‘real decorator fabric’, and ‘a bed with a removable headboard and a three-drawer dresser’. Meanwhile in boy world, Mattel’s ‘Winchester Shooting Shell Rifle’ is ‘the only toy rifle that looks real enough to carry that famous name’; the ‘Colt Six-Shooter’ is ‘just like the rifle hand-made by Western gunsmiths’; while the ‘Thunderburp’ is ‘really for real, right down to the adjustable flip sight’. In some instances, as in ads directed at parents, toys are presented as a means of rehearsing aspects of adult life. For example, Marx Toys’ ‘Budding Beauty Vanity’ kit is said to contain ‘make-up just like mummy uses’ – and the girl is shown applying it alongside her mother, who is doing the same at a full-size table.

Here, children are effectively being shown how to play, by entering into a fantasy scenario. This is most obvious in the case of the song that frequently featured in Barbie commercials: ‘Barbie, you’re beautiful / You can make me feel / My Barbie doll is really real’. Barbie offered a fantasy of young adult life that still lay some years ahead, but one that girls could rehearse in their play: as the song continues, ‘Some day I’m gonna be exactly like you / Till then I know just what I’ll do… / Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you’. Girls in the ads are often shown blurring or merging into their Barbie figures: as ‘Susie’ falls asleep, she effectively dreams herself into her fantasy Barbie house as a semi-transparent ghostly figure.

This process of crossing a line into fantasy in order to assume a new (but somehow also ‘real’) identity also featured in advertisements for boys. In an ad for the ‘Swivel Shot Play Holster’, a film director congratulates the boy on the speed of his gun-play, and gives him a part in the Western movie he is making; in another, a boy is shown falling asleep and dreaming himself into a scenario where he is using his ‘Little Burp Gun’ to protect the earth from an alien ‘saucer man’ (while his father looks on benevolently); while another boy collaborates with an ‘Indian’, using his ‘Buffalo Hunter Set’ to take part in a back-projected buffalo hunt. Meanwhile, both girls and boys are shown (unusually in the same ad) using ‘Strum-Fun’ guitars’ to deceive a television audience that they can really play.

Where the ads for parents place a central emphasis on the educational value of play, ads for children focus largely on its pleasurable dimensions, and particularly on the dimension of fantasy. Yet even here, it seems, children are in need of guidance and instruction. The prominence of mediation (movies, television) and of dreaming in several of the examples I’ve described is quite striking: the children enter into another world, but it is one that is clearly marked as a fabrication, or as a dream – and in many cases, adults are also on hand to offer guidance or commentary. Arriving at the ‘correct’ understanding of the relationship between reality and fantasy remains vital: we don’t want children to get too carried away.


Mediatization and play

What consequences did this process of mediatization have for toys, and for children’s play? While there was certainly some innovation in the toys themselves at this time, most of the basic categories of toys remained familiar. Most toys were anonymous and generic. Yet the media branding and promotion of toys brought in scenarios and narratives that were much more specific. Children didn’t just have a generic soft toy – they had a Cecil toy, or a Yogi Bear toy, which they could use to rehearse typical catchphrases and actions they had seen in the cartoons. Boys didn’t just have a generic gun – they had a Lone Ranger gun, or a Dick Tracy snub-nose pistol gun, whose many features had been demonstrated in the TV commercials. Girls didn’t just have an anonymous doll, they had a Barbie, whom they could dress and accessorize in order to act out the experiences and adventures they had seen in countless TV ads. For parents, getting your children to take a bath would be significantly easier with Alvin and the Chipmunks soaky bath toys, or Disney soap bars, and perhaps even with bubble bath themed on The Mummy or The Creature from the Black Lagoon (or possibly not).

Of course, it would be simplistic to suggest that children’s play had become wholly determined or ‘colonised’ by media – and that children’s supposedly spontaneous ‘imagination’ had been destroyed as a result. Media certainly played an increasing part in shaping what they knew about toys, and how they might use them. But toys can evidently be used in a wide variety of ways – and even in ways that subvert or challenge the intentions of their designers. Contemporary studies clearly show how media content is not just rehearsed but also ‘remixed’, recombined and reworked in children’s play. Historical evidence on this is obviously harder to obtain, but such diverse and even subversive uses of toys are apparent in some of the autobiographical recollections of Barbie fans in particular.[xii] Evidence from studies by Iona and Peter Opie, conducted in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, also suggests that this was the case in earlier, seemingly much less ‘media-saturated’ times.[xiii]


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[i] Cross (1997).

[ii] Probably the best critique of this is Engelhardt (1986). See also Kline (1993) and Cross (1997).

[iii] I compared issues of Playthings (US) and Toys and Games (UK) from 1953-4, 1956-7 and 1959-60, held in the New York Public Library. It’s obviously impossible to say how far these publications, or the ads they carried, directly reflected actual sales. Some information here also comes from toy catalogues in the Hartman Center collection.

[iv] I discuss some aspects of this in my essay ‘The Blyton enigma: changing critical perspectives on children’s popular culture’:

[v] See Pecora (1998), particularly Chapters 2 and 3.

[vi] My sample here is drawn from the ‘competitive advertisements’ files in the J. Walter Thompson archive at the Hartman Center, between 1955 and 1964.

[vii] These issues are discussed in detail in Ellen Seiter’s (1993) analysis of Parents magazine.

[viii] See Holland (2004), especially Chapter 4.

[ix] My account here is primarily based on Ira Gallen’s collection, accessed via his website ( and in videotape compilations at the Paley Center. There’s no way of knowing how representative these ads might be.

[x] I discuss some of this in my book The Material Child (2011). For one entertaining example among many, see Lord (2004).

[xi] Alexander et al. (1998): 10.

[xii] See, for example, Reid-Walsh and Mitchell (2000).

[xiii] See Marsh and Bishop (2013); Willett et al. (2013).