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Perhaps it’s a longing for simpler times – or maybe it’s that I wasn’t raised in the US and so missed out on these the first time around – but I’ve become obsessed with old-school television commercials for toys recently: Transformers! He-Man! Super Powers! Each one was sold separately, but seemed to promise so much happiness, it’s almost painful to watch.
There’s definitely a formula to these ads, but that’s half of their charm; the idea that you show a cartoon to identify the characters for the viewer in their more familiar form, then cut to boys (and it was always boys, in these commercials) playing with their toys in breathless excitement, ending with either a logo of a picture of the toys not in motion for once, usually with a voiceover warning parents how expensive it’d be to buy everything seen in the commercial (“Sold separately” really translated to “I’m sorry, parents,” didn’t it?).
Even recognizing that formula, though, and being almost three decades removed from when these commercials first aired, there’s something wonderful about these commercials. They seem so… innocent isn’t the right word, of course – they are created just to sell you something, after all – but perhaps “simple” or “unsophisticated” is what I’m going for. There’s little guile here, no real attempt to promise anything that the toys can’t deliver. Look at how kind of ridiculous the Super Powers figures look with their “powers” in action, for example:
Despite that, though, the ads do make the toys seem appealing, just because of the gonzo lifestyle they promote, where you always have friends to play with, and your dad will occasionally join in. It’s not quite the promise of a nuclear family, but there’s something weirdly comforting about it nonetheless. Who wouldn’t want this life, when they’re a kid?
And so, that’s a large part of the appeal for me: The odd time capsule nature of the ads, offering this happy lifestyle for kids that seems curiously old-fashioned now (Kids playing together! That that seems old-fashioned is fairly depressing in and of itself). But, I must admit, there’s also the part of me that’s just nostalgic for these toys, these brands. There are so many things featured in these ads that I had, and so many more that I would’ve wanted had I known they existed…
We had our own versions in the UK, of course, but they weren’t as great, to be honest:
Seriously, how can that compare with this?
I open it to you, dear readers: What were the best toys (and toy commercials) of the 1980s? What ones should I be looking for, and what toys do you most fondly remember from your youth?