Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Jan. 12, 1996

TV action figures raise concerns

by Michelle Johnson

Saturday morning. There's a bright glow coming from the television set in the family room. CRASH! POW! BANG! The good guys are combating the forces of evil. The yellow one is the strategist. The black one is the master fighter. The red one is the fearless leader.

When the show is over, youngsters pick up their little plastic action figures and act out a rerun of what they've just seen. Associate professor of marketing Russ Laczniak is finding that scenario is one of the things parents dislike most about toy-based programs. They interfere with a child's creative play.

Parents feel toy-based programs -- those created specifically to market toys to children, such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- rob children of creative play. Children don't use the green action figure to fix a jeep because the purple figure is the mechanic of the group on TV. The program already has established the identity for each character, leaving children to merely mimic what is seen in the program.

Toy-based programs differ considerably from, say, Sesame Street or Barney in which marketing of the characters came after the shows had aired.

"When a program is developed first, it is aired because it has some supposed intrinsic value," Laczniak said. "Network program managers are interested in the program because of creative storylines and themes. It isn't just a tool used to market toys. Children are actually learning more than how to make the characters interact.

"For years, parents have been voicing their concern over advertising specifically targeted at children," Laczniak said. "Young children have had little time to build a sufficient defense against advertising. They can't distinguish the selling intent of the commercial. Therefore, they have the potential to be exploited as consumers. Children are even more defenseless against toy-based programs.

"Even if children are able to detect that the purpose of a 30-second commercial is to sell something, they don't recognize the same intentions in a half-hour program," Laczniak said.

One of the first toy-based programs, Hot Wheels, which aired in the '60s, was pulled off the air by the Federal Trade Commission because of its commercial intent. More recently, the FTC prohibited companies from advertising toys featured in toy-based programs during the programs themselves. Laczniak said Congress also is growing increasingly concerned with the effects of toy-based programs on children.

Some network program managers are paid by toy companies to air toy-based programs. That was the case for Masters of the Universe, one of the first of a new breed of toy-based programs aired in the early '80s. Laczniak said that because networks are profiting directly from toy-based programs, they may be less likely to air more creative, educational children's programs.

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