The first half of the 20th century was not a bright one for toy manufacturers. Navigating marketing during the Great Depression and two world wars required companies to focus almost exclusively on practical considerations like longevity and educational benefit — factors parents cared very much about — rather than fun or interactivity.
However, by the 1950s, things had changed. The middle class was experiencing unusual prosperity and had more disposable income than past generations. The invention and then ubiquity of television also provided access to homes in a way that was totally unprecedented. As a result, when a small toy company created the Mr. Potato Head television ads to market its products directly to children, it revolutionized marketing and turned itself into a billion-dollar corporation
A Brief History of Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head, cultural icon, much beloved toy, supporting character in “Toy Story,” began as a real potato. Originally, toy manufacturer Hasbro purchased the rights from Mr. Potato Head’s creator, George Lerner, in the early 1950s, bringing the toy from its humble origins as a small bonus in a cereal box to a well-marketed potato-head kit. Each kit came with a small styrofoam round for practice and tiny body parts that children were expected to poke into a real potato.
Unfortunately for mothers everywhere, this resulted in a lot of moldy potatoes hiding in the back of underwear drawers. For parents to continue buying Mr. Potato Head kits, the stanky produce had to go. So Hasbro began releasing plastic Potato Heads that came with the pointy body parts in 1964, and the design has remained largely the same ever since, aside from several updates to the attachable accessories.
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A New Consumer Audience
The real success of Hasbro, however, is not this lump of plastic, inspired and beloved though it may be. It is the marketing innovation that made the product a best-seller and rocketed the company to the third-largest toy company in the world. By running the first toy advertisement on television in 1952, shortly after acquiring the rights to Mr. Potato Head for a mere $5000, Hasbro pioneered marketing directly to children through their TVs.
With TVs becoming commonplace in American homes, the company no longer had to rely on appealing to parents through retail catalogs or magazines. Instead it was the kids who would ask their parents for the toy. This marked a shift in advertising insofar as the educational and functional aspects of toys became less important than looking like a lot of fun.
It had long been assumed that appealing to children was a waste of time given that they weren’t directly reachable. Most children didn’t read the adult-oriented magazines that had historically advertised toys, and so their exposure to consumer messaging was limited. With television, marketers could extend their influence to the more impressionable child.
Three conditions occurred during the 1950s that set up Hasbro for success. Studies have shown that children significantly influence parental spending, making the ability to communicate directly to them something of a honeypot. Secondly, the economic boom after World War II expanded the middle class and households became more affluent. By 1959, TV commercials reached 90% of American households.
That first television ad pulled in over $4 million in the first few months. Over time, Hasbro began releasing other toys and advertising them on TV. The company took off, went public in 1968, and is now worth over $8 billion. Mattel and Disney quickly followed suit, creating ads for Barbie and Mickey Mouse figures, respectively.
The Modern Marketing Landscape
Despite the FTC considering banning TV ads for children in 1978, marketing directly to children has continued largely unchecked. Social media and streaming have taken this a step further. Even for children who don’t regularly view TV commercials, the shows they watch are inundated with potential purchases.
The only branded toy in the “Toy Story” movies, Mr. Potato Head is a case in point. While advertisements may not have played at movie theaters in 1995, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head were still heavily marketed. Scenes in the original “Toy Story” demonstrated how the toys could be used, and after the film’s release, Hasbro executives reported an 800% increase in sales. As cable TV has become less common, Hasbro and other toy companies have increasingly shifted toward this product-placement model.
Rather than creating merchandise based on a show, toy companies are now able to pitch shows to networks with the merchandise already planned. One Hasbro property, My Little Pony, operates this way. A child who watches My Little Pony becomes attached to the ponies, and then she will almost certainly beg for the plastic toys, clothes, stuffed animals, and other branded products available at the nearest grocery store.
This merchandising approach has proven wildly successful. Marketers now spend $17 billion on child-targeted advertising and attract around $200 billion of child and teen spending. Accounting for the entire family’s spending, that number could be closer to $500 billion annually.
Utility Back in Vogue
Never one to rest on its laurels, Hasbro is continuing to use Mr. Potato head, or just plain Potato Head in its latest rebrand, in various marketing strategies. The company has created a kids’ app that enables 3-D play with a digital Potato Head, and in 2022 Hasbro partnered with a therapy provider to create a platform in which Potato Head could be used to enhance the therapeutic experience. For some, this may seem odd but perhaps the most interesting thing about this development is that children’s toys have come full circle — once again, marketers are thinking about the product’s utility.
In an advertising environment where children are flooded with consumer goods but family spending has been increasingly reallocated due to inflation, it’s no longer enough to be fun. The toys must provide some benefit to make them worth the money to parents. As usual, Mr. Potato Head is on top of things.