Most people don’t realize the cartoons they grew up with – My Little Pony, G.I. Joe and Paw Patrol – were actually designed with one purpose: To sell toys.
Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Selma Purac studies the children’s marketplace, youth consumer culture and children’s advertising, and recently sat down with legendary Looney Tunes voice actor Eric Bauza to talk about the influence of cartoons on our lives as part of a new CBC Gem series called Stay Tooned.
The six-part series takes a deep dive through television cartoons to see how they shaped society and to help us understand the social and political worlds we live in.
Purac lends her expertise on episode two of the series alongside Canadian comedian Russell Peters and animator Lauren Faust. The episode explores how consumerism in cartoons shaped our childhoods.
Purac focuses on animated shows that emerged in the 1980s after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission de-regulated children’s advertising in 1981. She says this opened the door for the emergence of program-length commercials, or PLCs.
“These shows we grew up with were basically ads that disguised themselves as programs,” she said. “Shows of the 1960s like The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Scooby Doo were created first and then the toys were developed later. The PLC reversed the system; toys were created first and then shows were created to sell the toys.”
She said this shift completely changed the children’s television industry because it became driven by the toy business above all else. She points to shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony as prime examples of PLCs.
“If you go back now and re-watch G.I. Joe, what’s fascinating is that all the characters and their vehicles are referred to by their full names. This was done so you could easily find the exact product on store shelves,” she said.
She described how toy manufacturers shrunk the sizes of their character toys down to just under four inches so they could sell them alongside the environmental elements created in the shows – things like castles, houses and vehicles that the characters could interact with.
“It was so effective because at the time we didn’t know any better. Thankfully now we’re a little more media savvy, but in the 80s, the deregulation happened so fast there wasn’t even time for us to blink and collect ourselves; we were too busy collecting the toys,” she said.
And this shift to toy-driven cartoons has persisted today. She says Paw Patrol, currently the number one preschool cartoon, is also considered a PLC.
“Paw Patrol was literally created in order to sell a toy concept,” she said, noting industry experts describe this as ‘toyetic’ – a term used to designate the suitability of a show for merchandising and toy licensing.
“Today, thanks to brand extension, pretty much every child-based media property is judged according to these standards: how toyetic is it? In other words, how many toys will the show sell?” she said. “It seems we haven’t left the 80s that far behind.”
Stay Tooned launches on the free CBC Gem streaming service Dec. 2.