Watch 40 Years of Vintage Movie Toy Commercials
It’s a common complaint about modern movies: “They only made this to sell toys.” And sometimes, that’s actually true. But there was a time, not that long ago, when that concept didn’t even exist, and toys based on movies were barely an idea, much less a guarantee. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane (and by memory lane, I mean YouTube) and watch movie toys (and movie marketing) evolve through 40 years of vintage movie toy commercials, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to The Avengers.
Planet of the Apes
Apes was the late, great toy manufacturer Mego’s first stab at turning a movie into a toy line, and it was a huge hit. This ad indicates just how crude the world of ancillary products was in the pre-Star Wars days; they seem to run out of characters for figures about halfway through the line. (“Cornelius! Zira! Dr. Zaius! And... a generic astronaut! And... uh... Soldier Ape, I guess!”)
Now we anticipate a bombardment of toys with each new blockbuster, but Kenner was caught so off-guard by the demand for Star Wars stuff, that they actually sold an empty box called the “Early Bird Certificate Package” with the promise that if you filled out and sent in the certificate it contained, they’d mail you four figures whenever they were ready. And not only did they sell it, they marketed the damn thing! This is an ad for an empty box! The ’70s were insane.
Another classic Mego spot. I just think it’s fantastic that someone made a Marlon Brando action figure. It’s sort of odd to see Superman teaming up with his father, who died on Krypton decades earlier. If he actually could have flown around fighting crime with his dad, I feel like that would have cleared up a lot of Superman’s emotional issues.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
From an empty box to so many toys they could make enough action figures and playsets to fill almost 15 minutes of commercials. My favorite from this batch is the one that starts around 8:00, and spoils Lando Calrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo. “Why did you do it?” toy Han moans. “The Empire tricked me Han! I had no choice!” Lando replies. Man, these toys are intense.
“My kids really love their E.T. toys! They actually believe E.T. lives in their closet!” Um, is that a good thing? You might want to have them tested. That sounds like a serious red flag.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
George Lucas and Star Wars typically get all the credit (or the blame) for the toyification of the movie business. But Steven Spielberg more than played his part. That said, I don’t know anyone who had these Indiana Jones figures. They were the Bigfoot of 1980s movie toys; everyone claimed to have seen them in the wild, but no one had any definitive proof.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Another hyperspace jump forward. The first ad in this 12-minute compilation boasts 65 new Star Wars toys. (Each sold separately, of course.) God, I wanted one of those dumb Ewok dolls.
Technically, these toys are connected to the Rambo animated series, Rambo: The Forces of Freedom, and not the Sylvester Stallone movies upon which they’re based. But that means they turned several R-rated, ultra-violent films about a combat-shocked veteran who murders thousands of men in a futile attempt to silence the voices in his head into a cartoon and a toy line for children. The ’80s were insane, too.
Again: What were they thinking? This ad features an Alec Baldwin figure with decapitation action, and a rotting grave playset. Also, how many kids were clamoring for the Otho toy? “Mom! I don’t care about Beetlejuice, buy me the Glenn Shadix one! He comes with a kimono!”
When Jack Nicholson’s Joker muttered “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” in Tim Burton’s Batman, it was almost a premonition, of an onslaught of merchandising, wonderful and otherwise. Oddly, the second ad in this compilation makes reference to Nicholson’s line, but changes its wording to “Where does he get these great weapons?” The original version was a lot better, and would have made a lot more sense here since this a toy commercial.
If you want to buy the Proton Pack from this commercial today, it will only cost you $1,000. What a steal! For that much money, I would expect a functioning ghost-busting device, and also for Dan Aykroyd to hand deliver it and show me how it works.
The Little Mermaid
One thing worth noting about these toy commercials is the amount of detail put into the worlds where these children are playing. Here a bunch of girls appear to have transformed their backyard pool into a tropical paradise, with huge rocks, starfish, and even a beach. The ad makes it clear batteries are not included, but does it come with the massive underwater grotto?
Same thing here: These children, who must have advanced degrees in carpentry and electric engineering, have built an entire miniature city for their Dick Tracy toys, complete with sidewalks, fire hydrants, working lights, and steam rising from a manhole. The world of this commercial is almost as detailed as the movie itself.
RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz got a lot of grief online earlier this month when he showed James Cameron’s Aliens to his 11-year-old son and his friends during a slumber party. No one tell the angry commenters who took him to task for irresponsible parenting that Kenner made a whole line of action figures for children based on the movie.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
(They also made Terminator figures.)
Steven Spielberg does it again (and again and again; this compilation features ads for toys from all three Jurassic Park movies). Note how much they play up the “JP mark” which differentiated the official Jurassic Park dinosaurs from the thousands of other generic dinosaur toys out there. You’ve got to get the real ones or you’re a total nerd loser! Do you think people have tattoos of the JP mark today? (Yes, of course they do.)
There are a surprising number of Alec Baldwin action figures. Am I too cynical, or is the part where The Shadow uses his “hypno-eyes” to “cloud men’s minds” and then the kid says “You will obey!” all an attempt to hypnotize kids into buying The Shadow toys? That’s what they were going for, right?
There is an art to the toy commercial jingle, and this one nails it. I’ve been singing “and Geeeeenieeeee!” all morning. Seriously, I can’t stop. It’s driving me insane.
There are also a surprising number of Jeff Goldblum action figures. I’m pretty sure there are more shots of aliens attacking humans with their tentacles in this 30-second commercial than in the entire movie.
These children apparently turned their bedroom into a 1:1 replica of Andy’s room from Toy Story. Also, why is Woody sadistically beating that cactus? When did Woody become a deranged monster with anger management issues?
Though he rarely gets put in the conversation, Tim Burton is one of the most “toyetic” filmmakers in modern Hollywood. They’ve made figures from his two Batmans, Beetlejuice, the 2001 Planet of the Apes, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and also Mars Attacks!, the movie version of the old trading card series from Topps. Though he rarely gets put in that conversation, his is one of the most “toyetic” filmographies in modern Hollywood. Cards to movie to toys; the real circle of life.
Lost in Space
I’m guessing they didn’t sell a lot of these.
“Dad, I want the Matthew Broderick figure. It will go great with my Glenn Shadix toy!” The addition of CGI certainly goes a long way toward making these lifeless pieces of plastic seem exciting and important.
Men in Black
I love the detail of Batman’s cape blowing in the breeze at the end of this ad. Kids, make sure you have a wind-machine handy when you play with the Transforming Gotham City Playset. (Also, you’re probably going to want to glue Batman’s feet to the counter, because otherwise the wind machine’s going to knock him over.)
The Incredible Hulk
Did Hulk join the Blue Man Group when I wasn’t looking? He seems really into rhythmically beating things in this ad.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
This one is so sad. The whole commercial is dudes swinging around their two Wolverine claws, but then the very last thing is the announcer saying “Wolverine Electronic Claws comes with one claw! Additional claws sold separately!” What a ripoff. Also, later in that same video (around the 3:00 mark) a man describes an action figure as “clawesome.” So don’t say toy commercials never gave us anything. They did. They gave us the word “clawesome.”
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
The fight choreography in this commercial is better than the fight choreography in either of the G.I. Joe movies. And it’s not even close. I would call this ad kung-fu gripping. (You heard me.)
I don’t watch as many toy commercials as I used to (at least until today), but one thing you see in the newer ones are acrobats who can approximate the superheroes’ moves by flipping and spinning and whatnot. Oh and also hip hop. Kids today love the hip hop.