Sunday, September 20, 2009

Return of Return of No Weblog for Old Robots Week Part 1: If I had a (JC) penny for every time I've read this ad I'd be rich

The move into our new residence has consumed my life and because of all the unpacking there's still no time to write my usual 900 word dissertations on 25 year old toy robot Volkswagens and their transforming dinosaur cohorts. So in place of my regular robot ramblings here's a couple quick sentences about some other ads not featuring guys whose names end in "tron" or "troid".

The pages shown here are from what I consider the greatest (non-robot) newspaper toy ad of all time. They're from JC Penny's weekly circular printed the week of 24 November 1983 in the Los Angeles, California area. What makes it great is that not only is a whole page dedicated to each toyline but they wrote each page as if it were a comic, with the action figures doing the sales pitches! Usually the text in newspaper ads was limited to quoted product descriptions pulled straight from the toy manufacturers' promotional Toyfair catalogs. But the JC Penny ad writers went way above and beyond on this one, crafting short bits of dialogue from product descriptions for each line's figures to deliver in word balloons. What is also incredible is the ad's approach toward product illustration. Accurate line art is used but the artists drew fantasy settings for the background. It looks cartoony enough to pass as a comic but the renditions of the figures are pretty toy accurate. The resulting combination of toy illustration, comic book dialogue and product solicitation is the most blatant toy self-pimpery I've ever seen in any medium.

People who criticized the toy based cartoons of the 80s for being nothing more than program length commercials would have had heart attacks if they saw this. The shows' aim may have been to promote product but at least in the Masters of the Universe cartoon He-Man never was so shameless as to say "We have powerful weapons and strong armor! We'll get them for only $4.99 each"! And in Return of the Jedi no Ewok suddenly yelled out, "Gather the rebel forces! Only $2.99
each"! That's the beauty of this ad. It cannot be accused of being deceptive because it's an ad. No media watchdog groups or children's rights advocates could complain that JC Penny was trying to sell toys with their ads because JC Penny was supposed to try to sell toys with their ads. The comics, cartoons and movies couldn't get away with this level of toy whoring. GI Joe never told you that the other half of the battle was having $3.49 to buy each figure sold separately.

Unfortunately the ad didn't have writers as good as the ones from the comics, cartoons and movies. Canon and continuity give way to product promotion when JC Penny is doing the writing. He-Man bragging about how he's going to use the Attak Trak to take Castle Greyskull singlehandedly? Jabba the Hutt, Ewoks and Gammorean Guards speaking English? This is marketing run rampant and it helps me appreciate how much thought went into the writing of the cartoons and movies I grew up watching as a kid. I don't think the toy manufacturers would've created something like these ads if they could get away with it in the production of their media tie-ins. They really did care about entertaining me and making shows that were fun to watch and as unretarded as possible. JC Penny on the other hand only cared that I knew the Attak Trak was $16.99. I still like JC Penny because although their adfiction sucks, they're the only department store with their own Star Wars continuity.

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