It’s June of 2018. The shelves are empty save for a layer of dust. A few brightly colored items are strewn haphazardly on the floor — a few Legos, a Barbie shoe — plastic ghosts of juvenescent elation and consumerism. A final chnk sounds as the fluorescent lights shut off, engulfing the last Toys “R” Us in darkness. Geoffrey sighs, picks up his suitcase, and takes one last look at those bubble letters — the sign that had, for 70 years, induced a Pavlovian-esque response in kids worldwide. A few months from now, you might expect to catch a glimpse of an animatronic giraffe begging for change somewhere near Paterson, NJ.*
Alas! All is not lost for this intrepid mascot. After filing for bankruptcy and shuttering their stores, Toys “R” Us “decided to forgo the liquidation sale of the company’s intellectual property assets” and reincarnate as a wholesale, “shop-within-a-shop” business called Geoffrey’s Toy Box. Only time will tell if this new venture will flounder or flourish.
Geoffrey was one integral component of Toys “R” Us’s marketing strategy. He first emerged in 1965 as Dr. G. Raffe; soon after, he made his “commercial debut in 1973… appearing alongside hundreds of enthusiastic children dancing in the streets.” More generally, TV advertisements for toys began to take off in the mid 1950s, when “the toy industry introduced an industry-wide promotion program with a budget of $1.3 million earmarked for local TV.” The very first national toy commercial aired in 1952, advertising America’s favorite spud — Mr. Potato Head.
By this point, you might be wondering what advertising has to do with art. While it’s true that art and advertising serve different purposes, they’re both a visual means of conveying a message or an idea. And, “just as art imitates life, advertising imitates art…Some art, in turn, imitates advertising.” Look at Warhol’s soup cans. Look at Dali, who helped create Alka-Selzer ads; and Norman Rockwell, who worked on Jell-O ad campaigns. Furthermore, just as the art world has evolved through different movements and mediums, so, too, has advertising — including toy advertising. Geoffrey himself is a visual symbol with a continually morphing but always recognizable aesthetic: anthropomorphic, orange, eager. And yes, he’s imbued with commercial motives. Yes, he’s lowbrow. But does that mean he is not also art?
Of course, toys were first advertised through print campaigns, most of which were quite text-heavy in the early years. These harken back to the 1800s, but were more common in the first half of the 1950s. Then, as more and more American households bought televisions, advertising spread to the small screen. In the 60s, “strong brand identification [emerged] in the toy industry. Suddenly little girls and boys did not write to Santa Claus for just any doll, train or truck. They asked for a Chatty Cathy doll… or a Robot Commando.” If you have kids, you know that this brand identification is still alive and well today.
Surprisingly, in the 80s and 90s, “print media gained more ground in toy advertising… Department store ads, trade books, newspaper supplements and direct mail garnered most of the media dollars during those decades.” Also around this time period, “video and electronic games” were introduced; as such, “toy marketers responded with new interactive toys and ‘virtual pets,’ such as Tamagotchi, Neopets and Furby.”
And then the Internet offered an entirely new medium around the turn of the century. Beyond banner ads and pop-ups, some of the most effective toy advertisements today are created by the consumers themselves. Influencers on YouTube, such as EvanTubeHD and KidToyTesters, make upwards of 6 to 7 figures a year, much of which can be traced back to the absurdly popular “unboxing video” genre. These videos are just what they sound like: the host rips into a package and reveals the toys (or other items) within. Think digitized, 21st century show and tell. This genre has “grown 871 percent since 2010.” Also worth noting is that many of these unboxers are kids themselves — EvanTubeHD is led by a 10-year-old; Ryan, of the Ryan ToysReview channel, is now eight, though he began in 2015, at age four. He now makes $11 million a year.
There’s something very meta about this user-generated content. The same can be said for branded entertainment, which increasingly blurs the lines between advertising and art. Lego, for example, has “gone beyond the brick” in its production of movies and video games. Where once a movie character may have inspired a toy — a Luke Skywalker action figure, say — now, the toys themselves have become the characters.
A related phenomenon is known as AGSM: American Girl Stop Motion. This is essentially a combination of user-generated and branded entertainment, in which young directors show their American Girl dolls engaging in everyday activities, “like going food shopping and eating out.” This is a natural extension of the books that have always been sold with the dolls, which offer a sort of backstory for each American Girl.
It goes without saying that parental concerns about the influence of these advertisements have existed for as long as children have been exposed to them. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vicky Rideout recalled to NPR, “One mom mentioned to me [that] her daughter, who couldn't even talk yet, was humming the McDonald's jingle every time she saw the Golden Arches.” Furthermore, we can all remember a time standing in line at the grocery store, witnessing our own child or someone else’s throwing a tantrum about a toy they couldn’t have. This is due, in part, to the profound influence of advertising on children. Indeed, “several studies… have found that parent–child conflicts occur commonly when parents deny their children's product purchase requests that were precipitated by advertising.” They are nothing if not effective.
Also at the center of much debate is the portrayal of gender roles in advertising. Surely you can imagine what this looks like; analyses of toy commercials have found that boys engage in antisocial behaviors, girls in shopping; boy commercials “were more likely to contain…rough cuts, less talking, and louder noise than girls’ commercials, which had more fades and dissolves, smoother transitions, a great deal of talking, and softer background music.” Many experts argue that this dichotomy shapes children’s perceptions of gender, as well as their own adoption of gender roles. One movement seeks to address this issue; the Let Toys Be Toys Campaign works with retailers and publishers to reduce gender categorization of toys.
While the FCC imposes certain regulations on advertising more broadly, advertising aimed at children is mostly constrained by self-regulation. Children of a certain age are generally unable to “distinguish program from commercial content,” nor can they “recognize the persuasive intent of advertising.” With this in mind, the industry created the Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, which operates on five overarching principles:
Advertisers must consider “the level of knowledge, sophistication and maturity” of their audience.
Advertisers should be careful “not to exploit the imaginative nature of children.”
Advertisers ought to be “truthful and accurate” in their messages.
Advertisers should appeal to “social standards generally regarded as positive and beneficial.”
Advertisers must work to constructively “contribute to… [the] parent-child relationship.”
This is, perhaps, one of the most important distinctions that separates art from advertising, that is, in the necessity of ethics-informed standards, especially when it involves a younger audience. That’s not to say there are no ethical considerations when it comes to art — only that intention shapes the rigor of these standards. Art exists for art’s sake. Advertising exists for profit’s sake. Another layer of vigilance is required when visual content explicitly attempts to manipulate an audience’s pocketbooks and desires. These issues becomes murkier when the consumer produces the advertising. Especially the 8-year-old consumer.
So what does the future of toy advertising presage? An increasing push into developing global markets, for one, according to some experts. More inclusive mixed gender ads, perhaps. Located primarily on our screens, for sure. And, likely to be created by us — and by our children.
Note* Dramatization. No giraffes were harmed in the writing of this vignette.