S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 January 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 


Shill Life

 

[]

When figures from Toy Story 2

arrived in toy stores, it was

evident that Pixar's lawyers had

played with them first. The back

of one licensed merchandise box

urged kids to "Sing along with

Woody to campfire favorites like

... 'You've Got a Friend in

Me®.'" One row over, dolls of the

Spice Girls acknowledged their

debt to U.S. Patent No.

5,607,336. ("Subject-specific,

word/phrase selectable

message-delivering doll or

action figure.") Barbie has even

obtained a US trademark for the

color "Barbie pink."

 

It's no secret that before

children's toys appear in your

local mall, they're vetted by a

series of white-collar

professionals intent on

maximizing cross-promotional

perquisites. Holiday shoppers

can now purchase NASCAR Barbie

(US$39.99 — while supplies

last!), which, for added

verisimilitude, has a McDonald's

golden-arches icon across her

chest. (Two registered

trademarks for double the fun!)

Windy City baseball fans

considered Chicago Cubs Barbie a

favorite daughter, until

paparazzi spotted her at an

O'Hare Au Bon Pain with LA

Dodgers Barbie and New York

Yankees Barbie. NBA Barbie plugs

a whole league, and for an extra

$10 you can delight your

daughter with her very own

Coca-Cola Barbie. The plastic

figurine has also cut a

promotional deal with Disney's

101 Dalmatians. "Barbie loves

her dalmatian puppies," the box

gushes. Which explains why she's

wearing a vest, purse, and socks

made out of them.

 

[]

So pervasive is the doll culture

that living, breathing

celebrities work to bridge the

gap between mortal flesh and

molded polymer. Mattel's "Friend

of Barbie" Rosie O'Donnell is

considerably more svelte than

her real-life simulacrum. The

socially conscious TV

personality is, regrettably,

manufactured in China, but she

comes with a handy book of

pointers on how to host a talk

show. Like a Twilight Zone

episode gone bad, the phenomenon

offers a dissatisfying and

unquiet moral: Ultimately,

there's little difference

between a celebrity and a

brand-name piece of merchandise.

As James "Kibo" Parry observes,

"Sometimes you love a celebrity

so much that you wish he or she

would be dipped in plastic then

shrunk down to tiny size and

enclosed in an airtight box so

you could own him or her."

 

Like many supposedly recent

abominations, cross-promotional

tie-ins have a long and lustrous

history. Various webmasters have

preserved that moment in the

'70s when every superhero in the

comic book universe suddenly

developed an eerie, obsessive

fondness for Hostess cupcakes

and fruit pies. (Comic book

advertisers needing to reach

power-hungry readers weren't

always able to procure the

services of real-world

celebrities Evel Knievel and O. J.

Simpson.) In other cases, toys

themselves became extended

promotions for a television

series. Seventies parents bought

their kids shiny vinyl albums of

the Six Million Dollar Man's

Christmas Adventures, with

Christmas-y stories like "Elves

Revolt." But then again, what

kid wouldn't want a record of

Lee Majors fighting an elf?

 

[]

Through the years, faceless

marketers have boldly

experimented with new ways to

insinuate their products across

the ever-blurring boundaries

between media. In the '60s,

unsuspecting parents smiled

delightedly while their children

cut Bobby Sherman and Jackson 5

singles from the backs of cereal

boxes. Traveling in the opposite

direction, the Monkees recorded

at least seven different

commercials for Kellogg's. The

brilliantly counterrevolutionary

Monkees TV series featured the

band doing its familiar karaoke

act against a backdrop that

abstracted the Corn Flakes

rooster logo. Even today,

persistent rumors hold that

Froot Loops spokesman Toucan Sam

is actually zany drummer Mickey

Dolenz, horribly transformed by

a freebasing accident.

 

But the most accomplished

trailblazing was done by

advertisers who simply created

their own programming. In 1964,

General Foods sold a

high-budget, half-hour Saturday

morning show based on Linus the

Lion-Hearted, Post cereals'

cartoon spokesperson. With

supporting parts played by Sugar

Bear, Lovable Truly (the wimpy

Alpha-Bits postman), and So-Hi

(the forgotten Chinese

spokesperson for Rice Krinkles),

Linus kept his show lingering

for five yummy years, until the

FCC forced him off the airwaves

in 1969. And yet there still

lingered a Linus the

Lion-Hearted float every year in

the Macy's Thanksgiving Day

parade — a lone prairies

schooner rolling across

marketing's forgotten frontier.

 

The faces have changed, but the

game remains the same. Three

decades later, the Macy's float

is Jeeves from Ask.com, and even

the branding has gotten more

high tech. In 1997, the prize in

boxes of Chex was a CD-ROM game,

an officially licensed Doom

clone with all the action taking

place on Chex's orbiting

research station (a kind of

giant virtual reality playground

plastered with logos). In fact,

as cereal marketing prepares to

enter the 21st century,

cereal-prize collectors may

speak in hushed tones about the

summer of 1997 — the year

technology came to cereal

prizes. Apple Cinnamon Cheerios

had Tamagotchis, Fruity Pebbles

had $5 coupons for Nintendo

Crash Bandicoot, and even

Microsoft cozied up to Kellogg's,

offering "Microsoft savings" in

13 big K products.

 

[]

Billions of dollars in

advertising money can ultimately

warp the shape of content —

and in ways that you wouldn't

expect. Christmas may have been

too commercial for Charlie

Brown, but he had no problem

endorsing Chex. Aspiring

ad-brokers have even started

placing ads on the slips of

paper around hot beverages —

"the original award-winning

coffee cup sleeve made of

post-consumer recycled paper."

It's impossible to predict the

power of advertising dollars

— but one historical

incident should give any

sports-lover pause. According to

Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford's

book Cerealizing America,

Wheaties' sponsorship of early

'30s baseball broadcasts came

with an unexpected toy surprise:

General Mills threatened to

restrict local radio announcers

to mentioning only those players

who promoted Wheaties.

 
courtesy of Destiny