It might be far-fetched to think that the little plastic figures, stuffed animals and board games we played with as kids helped shape the adults we are today, but it’s impossible to deny the emotional sway the toys of our youth still have over many of us. Seeing or holding a particular toy can immediately (and vividly!) transport you to a long-ago time when what you were going to spend your allowance on (Micro Machines or Transformers?) was the biggest decision on your plate. Perhaps that’s why old toys (and associated memorabilia) are such sought after commodities in the vintage world.
Toys, of course, have always existed, beginning with slingshots, spinning tops, and homemade dolls, but it’s been quite an evolution. The 1930s saw the invention of the View Master and classic board games, including Monopoly and Scrabble. The 1940s gave us Silly Putty and the Slinky, while the 1950s marked the era of Hula Hoops and Barbie dolls. Etch-A-Sketch, G.I. Joe, and Lite-Brite came on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, but toy culture really exploded in the 1980s.
As David Sirota, author of Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now, wrote on the Huffington Post, “The ’80s were the first decade when the majority of American households owned a TV and VCR and enjoyed cable service. This was the moment when companies from consumer-product manufacturers to fast-food chains to retail outlets became vertically integrated.”
It was the first time that cartoons essentially acted as half-hour commercials for the figurines stocked on the shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us. From He-Man and the Masters of the Universe gang to Strawberry Shortcake and her dessert-inspired pals, television programming was directly linked to what stocked our toy boxes, came in our Happy Meals, and decorated our rooms, thanks to prolific product licensing.
The effects of those aggressive marketing campaigns still impact our culture today. The latest live-action Transformers movie grossed over one billion dollars worldwide. Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears recently got a makeover for the 21st century. And My Little Pony has spawned a whole new adult fan base.
The fact that so many ’80s brands are once again at the forefront of pop culture is no accident. As this article in the New York Times reads, “Licensing experts say they perceive a subtle psychological game at play, an attempt to hit the nostalgia button on a generation of young parents just as they start to feel their first twinges of middle age.”
Well, guess what? It’s working. I might not yet be a parent, but I’m just as affected by that nostalgia button. Does it matter that my love for these toys was the result of an extremely successful marketing campaign? Not one bit. The sweetly plastic scent of a My Little Pony can transplant me to my childhood bedroom as quickly as the squishy feel of a Cabbage Patch Doll’s hand.
Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. When she's not on the hunt for the latest and greatest in girl culture as the West Coast editor of BUST magazine, she's flea marketing, taco trucking, and generally raising a ruckus.