Merch makes money. No matter how much parents loathe it, kids want the Pokémon cards. And the figures. And the bed sheets. And the Pop Tarts. Hasbro with intellectual properties (IPs) such as Transformers, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony is well aware of how they can make money by airing a cartoon showing their characters doing things so cool that you have to buy the figures, accessories and playsets to recreate the adventures in your own house.
Making a show for the sole purpose of advertising the toys isn’t something new, as it’s been going on for over 40 years, more than half of the lifespan of American broadcast television. It’s no surprise that the history of this genre of animation is full of lackluster storylines, booming sales and accusations of exploitation.
Loomis(1923-2006) developed many popular toy IPs into the huge brands they are today via his innovative marketing tactics; his work was so successful that whatever company he worked for became “the world’s largest toy company” during his employment.
Loomis began his professional life as a toy salesman, despite never having any as a child. In 1960 he was hired for Mattel’s toy sales department where he did marketing for Barbie and Chatty Cathy. His work on Hot Wheels in 1968 involved coming up with new ways to innovate small toy cars to boys. He came up with the idea for an animated TV show; it began airing on September 6, 1969 on ABC in America. This was the first show to be made from a line of toys; before this point, toys were created from already-extant television shows.
Check out the opening animation for the show:
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said the show wasn’t “entertainment,” but instead a big advertisement, causing it to be shut down in 1971. It wasn’t parents who complained, but other toy companies, as they felt it gave Mattel an unfair advantage by hawking their products outside of marked advertising blocks. Loomis wasn’t bothered, as he was already at General Mills. The cereal company we all know had bought out Kenner in 1967, so Loomis did work with the Kenner toy IPs such as Play-Doh, Baby Alive and The Six Million Dollar Man.
Loomis’ second breakthrough with merchandising came when he read about Star Wars in Hollywood Reporter. He thought the title sounded cool, but instead focused on the current boys toys under his wing. When the film came out in 1977, there was no merchandise; he approached Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm to remedy this. They wanted to come out with toys for Christmas, but there wasn’t enough time to get anything made. Instead Kenner sold a cardboard diorama, which promised that the holder can get the figures as soon as they came out in 1978. This “preorder” sold over 500,000 units.
He wrapped up his work with Kenner by creating a toy development group, which lead towards a Kenner/American Greetings partnership and spawning Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears merch to go with the greeting cards. In 1984 he began work at Hasbro, bringing it to the level it is today, though he left in 1988.
Hasbro and the Golden Age of Marketing TV
After the FCC shut down Hot Wheels, no one else bothered to create an expensive show just to be immediately shut down. Everything changed in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan deregulated children’s TV by allowing the marketing of toys through children’s shows. As soon as possible toy companies scrambled to create animated shows to take advantage of this new advertising channel.
Hasbro, the world’s biggest toy company, created such shows focusing on multiple IPs, including My Little Pony. The venture began with the original movie in 1984, now entitled Rescue at Midnight Castle. The movie featured various year two ponies, including Twilight and Firefly, who were never seen again, mainly due to their discontinuation in stores. Year 3 came with Posey, Sparkler and Surprise, along with a TV special Escape from Catrina. Here merchandising ramped up. Look at “Dressed Like a Dream,” the ending sequence.
Now check out the G1 Pony Wear page for years two-three and see how many “each sold separately” outfits you can recognize.
After these the show proper began, starting with a 10-part series spanning two weeks of air time, The End of Flutter Valley. Not only does it introduce the flutter ponies, the ponie’’s original home Dream Castle gets destroyed by the witches from the Volcano of Gloom. At the end, they get their new home, Paradise Estate, released close to the unveiling of the huge playset.
The ponies loved their home, as it was their headquarters for all of their adventures dealing with the villain and/or toy line of the week. After The End of Flutter Valley ordeal, the G1 show began its normal run schedule. It was called “My Little Pony ‘n Friends,” half of the show as a pony episode and the other half was another Hasbro IP, such as MoonDreamers or Potato Head Kids. The show aired once during the work week, generally with a 4 part story arc with a standalone episode on Friday. The first arc was The Ghost of Paradise Estate, where the ponies’ brand new home gets destroyed by a ghost, though it gets repaired at the end.
The second season was much shorter and extensively featured specific toy lines, such as the princess ponies, the big brother ponies or the first tooth baby ponies. In season 1 the different lines (so soft ponies, twinkle eye ponies) were never mentioned by their marketing names. Baby and sea ponies (and baby sea ponies) were specifically called such, as they were different “races” as much as unicorn, pegasus or Earth ponies were. Season 2 specifically and frequently called the new ponies by name. The big brother ponies, for example, weren’t around because they’ve been running a race around the world the entire year, not because they had yet to be released in stores. They come home and everyone is excited. Despite the name that implies familial ties, they are treated as love interests for the 50+ girls who live at Paradise Estate.
Hasbro oddly took a completely different route with MLP Tales, as the six main characters only had toys sold overseas. G2 saw no animations as well as poor sales in the US, while G3 stuck to DVDs released alongside toy lines or bundled with main characters.
The Rules of the Game
The FCC states shows cannot have ads for their own merchandise during the breaks within the show, nor blatantly advertise products within the show. This is why the US Yu-Gi-Oh! anime cannot have the identifying text on the cards. These rules don’t exist in Japan, which leads to anime being censored to air in American channels.
TV channels make money by showing advertisements; the entertainment has to be good enough to get people sitting in front of the seats. Ad prices are determined by how many people will see them. Superbowl ads cost millions due to the sheer number of guaranteed views.
The Hub, owned by both Discovery Communications and Hasbro, makes the money off of these ads, which Discovery is happy with. It has many channels to make plenty of money. The Hub’s ad profits are split with Discovery, so Hasbro can only make additional funds by selling merch. Even if Hasbro owned The Hub outright, selling toys to a child will make them more money than the ads ever could. Companies like Hasbro hope to get viewers so enamored with an IP as to get them to buy all sorts of products.
Lifestyle brands such as the slated Equestria Girls and Friendship is Magic in Japan focus on selling more than just the original product line. Hello Kitty is a great example of this: she’s seen on all sorts of items, including sex toys, high-end jewelry and children’s clothes. Sanrio, owner of Hello Kitty, have dedicated stores all over the world. With lifestyle brands, IPs can be sold to a much wider audience than the initial merchandise. This is seen with FiM with the brony-specific merchandise like belts, wallets and adult-sized T-shirts.
As more potential wallets are targeted, more types of merchandise is created. This can include licensed games (Gameloft’s Android/iOS FiM game) and movies (G.I. Joe: Retaliation). Another common format is the tie-in novel or book, which we’re already seeing with Equestria Girls and FiM; sometimes they are in the form of graphic novels, American manga or comics.
Putting the Merch into the Show
80’s and 90’s marketing shows were for the most part were written poorly and unremembered for anything outside of the basic premise. This is due to the writers being given pre-made characters, settings or events. The higher-ups aren’t always writers, so show staff can have little to work with. FiM was lucky in that Faust created the idea before approaching Hasbro with only minor details changed, mostly for legal reasons.
One issue many of these shows face is introducing a large set of characters in a short time in order to show the viewers who they can expect on the shelves. Check out 2012’s Littlest Pet Shop intro song. You learn the name and species of each character and a little blurb about what makes them special. Vinnie the Chameleon, for example, likes to dance but he’s dumb.
Even FiM does this. In the first episode, we see Twilight Sparkle meeting the rest of the mane 6 and learning a bit about each. Pinkie sure does act weird! Applejack has a huge family. Rarity is pretty and makes clothes. Fluttershy is shy but really likes animals. Rainbow Dash is brash and is really good at controlling/altering the weather. We now know after 65 episodes that they are more than these shallow first impressions. Applejack is much more than her huge family and being a Southern stereotype, but we don’t see get to see that in every show with a connected merchandise line.
Are “Advertisment Shows” Bad?
It depends on who’s doing it and how. Star Wars 4-6 didn’t focus on merch. As mentioned earlier, George Lucas wasn’t even thinking about anything but the movie when he made the first film. When Episodes 1-3 came out, merchandising got to the point that they were making puzzles with random pieces put into Frito Lay bags.
The Michael Bay Transformers films are some of the top grossing films ever in the world, and even the first movie had all the characters outside of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee introducing themselves in quick succession, with some sort of identifying mark (heavy weapon’s expert, medic, etc). Most people can’t name any Transformers characters besides Optimus Prime as they have very few identifying marks or traits or memorable moments in the films. The other characters in the film (besides Bumblebee) exist mostly to be another toy to be sold.
Badly shoe-horned merchandise can turn viewers off to the blatant advertisements, but something subtly done can open up new doors for show writers to work with. The FiM train set is $30 with multiple $20 train cars that can be added on. Playsets are common features of merch-based shows (see Paradise Estate, Castle Grey Skull), but there has yet to be a single FiM episode that is based specifically on the train. The ponies use it to get to Canterlot, the Crystal Empire and Appleloosa for their adventures. The MMMystery of the Friendship Express takes place mostly on the train, but it’s only used as a plot device in that there’s no way for any of the “suspects” to be able to fully flee the scene of the crime. Never do the ponies make the train a large part of their lives or the things they do.
The wedding of Princess Cadance and Shining Armor spawned an entire major toy line, with the whole affair being premiered at the New York Toy Fair, giving strong credence that it was created solely to sell merch. The idea of another alicorn “just ‘cause” or to have a “pretty pink princess” for merch purposes upset many fans. The two-part wedding episode was done so spectacularly well with a surprisingly-dark villain that few could complain when it was over. We see Cadance in (multiple) wedding dresses, we see the mane 6 in their wedding outfits, the Cutie Mark Crusaders as flower girls and even the train again. Despite the royal couple appearing out of nowhere (a common trait of this genre), they are now integral parts of the FiM canon and plot lines.
FiM is blessed to have a very talented set of voice actors, writers, character designers, storyboarders, artists, etc. to allow them to take an idea as vague as “sell these wedding toys” and make something that appeals to everyone. Many shows in the 80’s and 90’s didn’t have the budget or talent to do this. G1 was plagued with multiple animation/coloring errors, as animation cells were just simply forgotten to be included or painted in.
The ethical implications of advertising to children is tricky. Young kids aren’t aware that advertisements can be deceptive or are trying to sell them something. Children don’t have the means of buying Squinkies, Stompees or Gak, so advertisments need to hype children up into begging their parents for them. The parent, guardian or grandparent has the ultimate say, but constant advertising tell kids they have to have the cool, new thing.
Advertising in entertainment continues as the kids get over. The prominent Coca Cola cups on American Idol is just one example of how people are always been sold something. Media literacy needs to be taught at some point in order to identify what’s truthful and what’s an ad, though this is rarely a topic addressed in formal education. Shows such as FiM can be used as a way to teach this to young children, but it requires time and knowledge not every parent has.