Generation X grew up during a time that redefined what it meant to cross-market; a successful children's movie could spawn anything from video games to breakfast cereals, but it wasn't all Popples and Pepsi: Reaganomics produced a level of marketing that brought an entire generation of parents to their knees, transforming lazy Saturday mornings into a non-stop whinefest for crap made in Taiwan. Let's face it, we're all suckers to marketing, which really began to shine by the 1980s: as greed became good, the Gordon Gekkos of the Me Generation multiplied like gremlins, pushing quantity and profit over quality and sustainability. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in children's programming and advertising.
Compared to the previous decade of commercials, the ones from my childhood look like they were pumped out of a Hollywood factory, and many probably were. The thirty second ads showcased toys that were larger-than-life, and while some products lived up to the hype, most were too good to be true. Let's start with Power Wheels, those battery-operated cars that took 72 hours to charge for five minutes of playtime:
"Isn't this rad, hon? I told you you'd have fun watching me drive!"
The advertisers were clever here; juxtaposing footage of a real Jeep with the Power Wheels model really made you think you'd be having a woodsy adventure of your own. Just look at those angles and moving shots—surely they wouldn't be lying, I mean, look at how fast that kid races across his girlfriend's yard (my gut tells me it's her house and car). He's going about as fast as the real Jeep, maybe 30 mph? Man, I'd dream of what it would be like to have my very own car; I could ride to my cousin DJ's house and we could go to the park! Or my maybe my sisters and I would blast a Bananarama tape and chase down Mister Softee, the possibilities were endless.
So imagine my delight to find some Power Wheels under our plastic Christmas tree! We plugged them in to charge, gearing up to ride them once the weather reached above freezing. Soon the day came, and I happily skipped over to the motorcycle model because I thought bikes were cool, plus it had a hand radio. I pressed and talked into it but was drowned out by a police siren, which confused me. Wasn't this for talking to other motorists? That's what I wanted to do, pull the other Power Wheels over for speeding (little did I know...). I shrugged and pretended to kick it in gear like I saw on TV, bracing myself to be blown back by motorcycle mayhem.
Instead the bike jolted forward and crawled 3 mph down my driveway. I frowned as I turned up the sidewalk, wondering why it wasn't going faster. Maybe it was too cold and I needed to do the "choke" thing, like Dad's car? I puttered on for a few more yards while Dad loudly cheered and clapped, creating a small audience to watch me as the juice ran out. I sat there, dejected to learn that TV lied to me...Baby Skates could've blown past me!
Later I found that not one house I visited had a charged Power Wheels, not one, though over time parents were able to combat this issue with some cool battery hacks. But until then I would just stick to the best bike of all, the Big Wheel, no batteries needed! Just pedal, pedal, pedal, JAM THE BREAKS and spin!
"Isn't it fun watching us do spin-outs, girls?! Now bring us some Easy Bake cookies and Snoopy Sno-Cones to wash 'em down with."
Hey, I know those commercials are decades old, and it must be a good sign that toy marketers are becoming more equitable, but man, was it hard for a girl like me to be told to sit shotgun, ya know? Kinda made me want to punch something, which brings me to the next toy: the Nintendo Power Glove.
The Christmas of '88 was pretty darn cool. My older brother Mike kept talking about a Nintendo system, that we could play arcade games at home. This was 8-bit music to my ears; I loved Karate Champ, Kung Fu, any racing or shooting games...and to think I could do this without having to leave my home! No more being bullied off machines by selfish bigger kids (yes, that used to happen to me), no more running out of quarters, no more sticky, pizza-crusted (I hope) joysticks!
So Dad went out and got one, just like that. He must have been feeling particularly generous, since we already had our Christmas present exchange, though most of the gratitude goes to Mike, who really sold him on the idea. We played endless games of Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros., basically the games that came with the console. Hmm, come to think of it, Dad's a pretty smart guy. Maybe he realized we'd be home playing video games, as opposed to learning how to smoke and French-kiss boys by the "fast girls" in the park.
We weren't a family that went out bought accessories or anything, so when the kid up the block scored a Power Glove years later, we were pretty excited to go check it out.
Looks awesome, right? Imagine being able to race like Al Unser, Jr., knock out turtles as Mario, punch King Hippo directly in his belly...I couldn't wait. Neither could Mike, so we moseyed on over to the "Francos" house to see the Power Glove in action. We arrived to find the whole household in front of the TV, with the Power Glove resting limply on the couch, like Darth Vader's severed hand.
"It don't work," muttered Billy, a scowl on his face. He walked over to the TV and tapped the two receivers. "It doesn't seem to pick up the signal from either." Damn, that commercial made it look like you were entering a portal to another dimension, being one with the game and all. Yet there I was, looking as Billy stood right in front of the receivers, attempting to get the controls working.
Nothing. This family, along with anyone else who owned one, just wasted $75 on a glove that didn't work, couldn't get wet, and definitely couldn't be used for fashion. In today's market, that's like spending $141 on a cell phone that can't make or receive calls. I have to admit, to this day I'm glad that it was the Francos who had to learn that lesson and not our household; I'm pretty sure I would have punched that thing straight into the wall.
Thankfully, I was to remain happy with my simple control pad and Zapper gun. Pff, I didn't need any stupid glove to kick ass at Duckhunt, and that control pad was all I needed to punch out Vodka Drunkenski (later changed to Soda Popinski to avoid nuclear war). Hey, maybe the ethnic sensitivity paid off, for it was just a year or so later that the Berlin Wall came down, right?
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