How children’s TV programs take a backseat to the toys (and games, and breakfast cereals, and pajamas...) they spawn.
When Mattel introduced a line of toy cars in 1968, an employee in the company’s marketing department had an idea: What if, instead of creating televised ads, they created a series of 30-minute animated episodes about the cars? No one had ever considered making a TV show based on a toy, rather than the other way around. Hot Wheels premiered in 1969, and the employee who came up with the idea, Bernard Loomis, became a legendary toy marketer and was dubbed “the man who invented Saturday morning.”
TV and toys have always enjoyed an intimate relationship. Hot Wheels–style half-hour cartoons that can be described as “toyetic”—a marketing shorthand coined by Loomis for a show whose characters can easily be made into toys—reached peak popularity in the 1980s, with characters like He-Man, Strawberry Shortcake, and The Smurfs crowding TV sets and toy-store shelves alike. The Ninja Turtles were arguably that decade’s biggest success story. The characters were conceived by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, young art-school grads who published the first Ninja Turtles comic with borrowed money in 1984. It quickly became a cult favourite, and a toy company called Playmates Toys offered to create a line of action figures. But they wanted the toys to appeal to a larger audience than comic-book nerds alone, so in late 1987, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles premiered on CBS.
Now, Nickelodeon is powering up the franchise again with a half-hour CG-animated series, along with a new line of action figures and Turtle-branded clothing. But the pièce de résistance is an augmented-reality app.
On a rainy fall morning at a downtown Toronto PR firm, a group of journalists and bloggers was invited into “the Turtles’ lair”—a warehouse-like room lit by green lights and covered with posters—to learn about the latest brand extension. For two weeks, the app, which promises ninja-training tips, would be available exclusively through Walmart Canada: After downloading it, kids could come into the store and look for TMNT posters, which they’d have to scan with a smartphone or iPad in order to activate the app. Commence ninja training.
I won’t deny the impulse to shake my head and tsk-tsk at the evil companies leeching off poor, defenseless children. Pull up any recent article on TV advertising and children and you’ll see a string of horrifying numbers: American kids between the ages of six and 11 spend an average of 28 hours a week watching TV and see around 20,000 commercials per year. Their demographic buying power is something like $52 billion a year—and that estimate dates back to 2006, before every kid begged for an iPhone as soon as he learned how to use his thumbs.
But I have a hard time getting worked up about this. I just don’t see how it is possible for a 10-year-old to care about the relationship between the show he’s watching and the toy company behind it. I remember wearing out my circa-1994 VHS of Barbie’s Epcot Center birthday party—which you got for a penny when you bought a doll—and not once did I consider the thought of my precious Barbie sullying her sterling reputation by mingling with the execs on the top floor.
It’s true that children’s advertising is a goldmine, and in our nostalgia-soaked times, kids’ products needn’t be limited to kids—adults have no problem declaring their allegiances to comic books, cartoons, and other juvenile pop-culture nuggets that no respectable grown-up would admit to being a fan of a couple decades ago. By rolling out a reissue of a popular ’80s and ’90s franchise, Nickelodeon is choosing the right moment to appeal to “legacy fans,” first-generation TMNT obsessives who will feel a strong enough pang of wistful longing to buy a retro Turtles t-shirt from Walmart.
Loomis, who died in 2006, would be happy to learn that the impression he left on children’s marketing hasn’t faded. If anything, it’s stronger than ever, as marketers find new ways to sell people’s childhoods back to them in adulthood. Nickelodeon, which spent an above-average $800,000 to $1 million per episode on the new TMNT series, is hoping for a bankable success to pull them out of a ratings slump. It’ll be a lot easier to sell a line of toys that has occupied a cozy spot in our pop culture for the past few decades than to bother with a whole new franchise.
Like Marvel’s plan to roll out new Avengers movies until you beg for mercy, this reissue is a depressingly safe bet, and in the years following the first two Ninja Turtles animated series, the late-’90s live-action series, and four feature films, its obligatory technology-enabled updates have become bleakly predictable. I don’t have a problem with campaigns that dare to advertise kids’ products to kids. It seems like a greater offence to take decades-old characters, enhance them with CG-animation, toss them onto an iPad, and sell that off as the reanimated corpse of someone else’s youth.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs Saturdays at 11 a.m. on YTV.