Marketing the Moon

Posted November 16, 2016 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: Uncategorized

As last Sunday turned into Monday (which by the way originates from the Latin word meaning  “Moon Day”,)  the moon shined — shone? — brighter than it had since Dewey defeated Truman in the 1948 election. Astronomers dubbed it the supermoon.

Based on the ho-hum reaction of my kids for the three seconds during which it captured their gaze, I’m not sure the supermoon lived up to its hype. Still, coming mere days after a presidential election that exposed the lowest of the low of the human condition, there was something endearingly appropriate about man’s attention (sorry Neil — make that “mankind’s” attention) turning heavenward, even for a brief moment.

It was about time the moon got its props again.  When I was a kid in the Sixties, the country was moon crazy. Lunar loony-ness was in. The space race was on. The country was united around a goal even a six-year old could understand: put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And get him back to earth so he can do product endorsements.

With so many bad things going on in the late 1960s — Vietnam, riots, assassinations — no wonder we welcomed the happy distraction of space. For a time, every boy in America, and maybe even girls, wanted to be an astronaut. Teachers would wheel in a black and white television on a cart into our classrooms so we could see the launches live from the Cape. The astronauts were revered with a degree of awe that put them somewhere between the Beatles and Mickey Mantle in the pantheon of prepubescent hero worship.

The Toymakers and Hollywood obliged, churning out space-themed products, TV shows, cartoons and comic books faster than a procreating tribe of tribbles on the starship Enterprise.

And speaking of enterprise — as in the free sort — the Apollo program and ad marketers were a match made in heaven. Thus came a proliferation of product placements on the space flights — everything from watches and cameras to shavers and God knows what else. For a comprehensive look, check out Marketing the Moon by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek.

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A wind up razor? Guess after Apollo 13, NASA wasn’t taking any chances with power drains. But even star billing on a moon trip couldn’t make the Wind-Up  Monaco a winner.

omega-speedmaster-after-moon-landing-advertising

The Omega watch people might have been stretching the truth a tad by claiming the Speedmaster “survived all the hazards of space,” as if it were strapped to the capsule’s     heat shield enduring 3,000 degree blasts, or staving off meteor strikes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This ad from 1968 proved that A.) Gender stereotypes were alive and well on Madison Avenue and B.) With enough creative effort, any product, even floor cleaner, could leverage the excitement around the Apollo program and the race to the moon.

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What’s the origin of dark matter and do wormholes provide a tunnel to other universes?  Who cares? What we really want to know is why they stopped making Grape Tang.

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Ten Halloween Costumes That Time Forgot

Posted October 31, 2016 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: 1960s, Baby Boomers

Tags: , , ,

The sweaty, itchy masks. The teeny-tiny eye holes that were too far apart, too close together, or otherwise misaligned with your actual pupils. The flame-retarded, glow-in-the-dark pajama costumes with the flimsy tie-strings and the cheesy designs. The smart-aleck grown-ups who insisted you do a trick before handing over the treat.

Ah, the joys of Halloween! Remember returning home victorious, hoisting your bulging bag and dumping your stash of sweets on the table for the all-important inspection?  Immediately followed by three solid hours of glucose-induced gluttony. It was the emotional climax of the holiday.

But the process of choosing a Halloween costume came a close second. The annual pilgrimage  to the local five-and-dime store to pick out a costume required careful consideration. Would it be Batman? Space Ghost? GI Joe? Or, would we cave in when our mom suggested something hideously lame, like Casper the Friendly Ghost or Peter Rabbit?

The dilemma dominated lunch table conversation for weeks. Girls always seemed to have an easier time, because, let’s face it, their choices were limited: Cinderella, Snow White, or 37 variations of a witch (although the situation improved markedly with the arrival of Penelope Pitstop and Josie and the Pussycats.)

The three major costume companies, Ben Cooper, Collegeville and Halco, battled it out to snag the most popular licensed characters. Halco always seemed to draw the short straw for some reason, offering costumes that no self-respecting kid would be caught dead in, like Professor Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the (uber politically incorrect) China Man. On the plus side, they did score the Lone Ranger and Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke.

Even with a solid stable of stars, predicting which costumes would strike gold was tough. Kids are a fickle lot. The popularity of any given TV character can disappear faster than a Snickers bar in the hands of a six year old. For every Captain America, there are countless Atom Ants, Fearless Flies and Milton the Monsters who enjoy a brief blip of fame and then flame out, never to be heard from again.

Which brings us to the 10 Halloween Costumes That Time Forgot. Originally launched with heady hype and high hopes for monster-size profits, these ill-fated costume characters quickly faded into oblivion, and now languish in their final resting place, in all their flame-retardant 100% rayon glory, on one of the spookier, dustier shelves in the Brand Museum:

redskull

1. The Red Skull

bugalu

2. Bugalu

funky-phantom

3. Funky Phantom

spooky

4. Spooky
fleabag

5. Fleabag

witchiepoo

6. Witchiepoo

gunk

7. Gone and Fred Gonk

shazzan

8. Shazzan

solar

9.Dr.  Solar
peter-puck

10. Peter Puck

 

The Smile Seen ‘Round the World

Posted October 27, 2016 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: 1970s

Tags: , , , , ,

Quick. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a little round yellow smiley face?

Emojis?

Give it up and go back to your Angry Birds, kid.

Wait, you said: “Have a Nice Day” buttons from the 1970s? 

Groovy! You win a lime-green shag rug. And we’ll throw in a day-glo inflatable chair.

Like the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” signs of a later generation, sunny yellow smiley faces with the puzzling exhortation “Have a Nice Day” suddenly emerged in the spring and summer of 1971 as the latest pop culture fad.

Buttons … bags … keychains … lollipops … those little squeezable change purses your mom got from the bank… no item was safe from the marauding merrymaker with the oblong eyes and goofy grin.

Where did he come from? And why was he telling us to have a nice day? Nobody knew. Nobody cared. Heck, it was just good to see somebody smiling.

Smiles were in short supply in early 1971. America had been hoping to catch its collective breath after the assassinations, riots, and rage of the 1960s. But the previous year had delivered more of the same.  The Vietnam War slogged on towards defeat. National Guard troops killed four student protesters at Kent State.  The Beatles broke up. And Apollo 13 nearly broke up too, halfway to the moon. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison  all died, all at 27.

Enterprising souls saw dollar signs in all this disfunction.  Sell smiles like soap flakes? Why not? Brilliant!

A new sitcom premiered on TV urging us to “Come on, Get Happy!” The same month, two entrepreneurs from Philadelphia, the Spain brothers, had an idea. They’d seen these little smiley faced buttons drifting around the marketplace for years. Why not redesign it a little, attached the slogan “Have a Happy Day” and trademark it?

They did exactly that, churning out promotional products, from buttons and T-shirts to key fobs, which sold in the millions, then tens of millions, as the fad caught fire across America.(“Have a Happy Day” eventually evolved to “Have a Nice Day”)

The Spain Brothers raked in the cash, but not the credit for the inspiration.  That smiley face that restored sagging spirits in 1971 actually originated in 1963, at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, Mass.  Following its acquisition of another company — always a recipe for workforce tension, especially if you’re the company getting gobbled up — a vice president suggested an internal “friendship campaign.”

The marketing director, Joy Young, contacted local freelance artist Harvey Ball, requesting he create a little smile to be used on buttons, desk cards and posters. Ball drew a smile but, not satisfied with the result and concerned that it could be turned upside down and used as a frown, he added two eyes, making a smiley face. The iconic design that charmed America out of its doldrums and lives on half-a-century later in trillions of texts was produced in    — ready for this? Ten minutes.

The smile button campaign, launched on January 3, 1964, seemed to strike a chord. Employees clamored for more. Then customers wanted them, too. Gradually they found their way onto thousands of lapels across the northeast.  A promotional products company based in New York, R.G. Slater, appropriated the likeness for political buttons.

But it took Bernard and Murray Spain to launch smiley into the stratosphere. The Spains adjusted Ball’s design to feature two identical eyes appearing as vertical ovals, balanced by a symmetrical smile (Ball’s original featured two eyes of different sizes plus a lopsided grin, as he later reported, “to give it some character.”)

As the decade went on, the fad fizzled. But smiley had earned immortality as the indisputable icon of 1970s kitsch. Then, in 1982, he was reincarnated as a computer icon, which eventually morphed into the emoticon and emoji that graces gazillions of texts today.

The smiley face has also made its mark as an international symbol of goodwill and the spokescharacter for the largest company in the world, Wal-Mart. Which led, ironically, to a lot of badwill, with bitter trademark disputes raging in the courts for years.

One person who wasn’t frowning through all this was Harvey Ball. Although he certainly didn’t get rich from his humble creation. The only remuneration he received — ever — was a grand total of $45, his fee for the original design work. He never trademarked it,  certainly a forgivable oversight in 1963. Heck, who could have predicted it would go beyond a few insurance company  buttons?!

For his part, Ball, a World War II combat veteran, seemed content to simply be recognized as the rightful father of a global icon. He died in 2001, living long enough to see it immortalized as an international symbol of goodwill, satirized in Forrest Gump, and emblazoned on the chest of every Wal-Mart employee around the world. The Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation lives on to extend his legacy of kindness.

Ball never did embrace the “Have a Nice Day” tagline, though.

“Personally, I think it’s insipid,” he said. “I would have gone with, ‘Have a Great Day.'”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Munro: Bringing Table Hockey to the Masses

Posted October 4, 2016 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: Bobby Orr, Munro, Table Hockey, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

Munro (the toy brand, not the muffler company) may not be as recognizable as Mattel, Kenner or Ideal. But it has a place in the pantheon of toymakers nonetheless.

If you were a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line and you owned a hockey stick, chances are you bugged  — and begged — your parents until they relented and bought you a table hockey set. And there were even odds that it was made by Munro (the other major manufacturer was Eagle.)

When my brother and I  spied the iconic “M” logo peeking out from the over-sized box as we tore through the wrapping paper on Christmas mornings, we knew we had scored a slapshot. Getting a new hockey set was as much of a Christmas tradition in our house as drinking eggnog — which gives you some idea of the wear and tear we subjected the sets to in the previous 364 days.

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The action-packed game was a common fixture in American homes, especially in the cooler climes where kids actually played hockey on frozen lakes and ponds. And in Canadian households, table hockey sets were as ubiquitous as maple syrup and Molsen’s ale.

Playing table hockey required expert hand-mind coordination, exacting dexterity, and the reflexes of a mongoose.  Hands and wrists were a blur of motion, twisting, whacking, twirling and yanking the skinny metal rods through their motions in order to pass the puck from player-to-player and slap a shot into the goal. It was a miracle of multitasking. You worked up a sweat. You grunted, cursed, giggled and shouted expletives at your opponent. It was a blast.

Donald H. Munro, Sr., the company’s founder, pioneered the game of table hockey. Like many of mankind’s greatest innovations, necessity proved the mother of invention. With Toronto, Canada deep in the throes of the Great Depression, Mr. Munro, owner of a Fish and Chips restaurant, lacked the money to buy his kids gifts for Christmas 1932. So he decided to make them a present instead, scrounging around his house for any odds and ends he could find: clothespins, old springs, scraps of wood, and potholder tops.

His ingenuity paid off. The handmade table hockey game he cobbled together was a hit with his kids. He realized it might have commercial potential. One day he visited a local department store, which agreed to give him a store credit in exchange for a game. When he arrived home later that day, he  already had a message waiting from the store: they wanted to buy five more sets.

He applied for a patent in 1936, and Munro Games Ltd. was born.

Munro’s original game only had pinball machine-like flippers and the puck was a steel ball bearing. A convex table top enabled the ball to roll toward one side or the other. By 1956, Munro and Eagle, its Montreal-based competitor, had evolved the concept to more closely resemble a real hockey match in miniature, with tin cut-out players, a wooden puck, and a surface that looked like an ice rink. Many of those upgrades, including the introduction of metal rods to move the players back and forth, were the brainchild of a Swedish company.

Each player was attached to a thin metal rod extending beneath the rink’s surface. Pushing the rods enabled you to slide your man forward in his slot: a narrow groove cut into the rink’s surface. While your player’s range-of-motion was limited to his slot, by twisting the plastic knob on the end of the rod, you could twirl him and his stick 360 degrees, allowing him to pass the puck to another player or, with a perfectly-timed snap of the wrist, slap a shot into the goal.

While Munro got into the marketplace first, Eagle scored some major coups. Eagle reached an exclusive  licensing agreement with its hometown Montreal Canadiens, and then with the entire NHL. So Eagle sets could feature actual NHL team logos, uniforms and likenesses; Munro had to settle for a more generic look with the team cities on the uniforms. However, Munro was able to score lucrative endorsements from two of the game’s biggest stars, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.

The NHL, which only had six teams, doubled in size in 1967. Table hockey sales soared. Munro and Eagle were sold to American companies in Sept. 1968:  Munro to Servotronics Inc. of Buffalo, and Eagle to Coleco Industries Inc. of Hartford.

Its new parent company kept the Munro brand name alive. And for a while, it continued to thrive. Its Bobby Orr Hockey became its signature product for the 1970s and biggest-selling product ever. In 1973, Munro introduced a Peanut’s branded set, and in 1974, an air hockey game.

But times and tastes changed. In the mid-1970s, slicker games like air hockey, foosball and electronic pinball invaded the home and competed for kids’ attention. Then came Pong, Atari, Nintendo. Financial difficulties forced Servotronics to shut Munro down in 1977. The other legacy table hockey brands, Coleco and Tudor, disappeared a decade later.

Today, Munro lives on in the hearts of those of us who owned a Munro Hockey game and spent countless hours in stick-to-stick combat as we lived out our fantasies of becoming real pro hockey players. Various shrines to Munro hockey games have popped up on the Internet, and original games in decent condition fetch a pretty penny on ebay.

Not too shabby for a game originally built out of scrounged odds and ends and cobbled together by an ingenious dad who couldn’t afford to buy a gift — but who also couldn’t afford to see his kids disappointed on Christmas morning.

 

Western Auto: Home of the Western Flyer

Posted September 28, 2016 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: 1960s, Baby Boomers, pop culture, retro, Toys

Tags: , , , , , ,

If Western Auto ever sold anything actually related to automobiles, those products evidently evaded my prepubescent gaze. My eyes remained firmly fixed on the gleaming rows of Western Flyer bicycles, tricycles, wagons, sleds, and every other conceivable mode of chain, pedal and muscle-fueled transportation.

Can you imagine an 11-year-old kid today begging their parents to take them to the auto parts store on Saturday afternoon?

During its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, Western Auto stores stocked an astounding array of toys. You can imagine the thought process of Western Auto senior management: people with cars need car parts. People with cars also have kids. Kids love toys. Kids accompany parent to car parts store. Kids hold parent hostage. Deliciously diabolical, and eminently effective.

Few Western Auto products ignited the imagination more than the Western Flyer bicycle. Produced by multiple manufacturers, the Western Flyer became an iconic brand instantly familiar to anybody who kicked a kickstand  in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Today they are prized by collectors. I saw one on ebay recently for an eye-popping $5,000. (Note: numerous replica versions were made by another company in the 1990s, so there are a lot of non-genuine Western Flyer bikes around today.)

Western Auto was founded as a mail-order business in 1909 by George Pepperdine (namesake of Pepperdine University.) The first store opened in 1921, and at its peak more than 5,200 stores branded Western Auto were in business across the U.S., including company stores and associate retailers (licensees.) In Texas alone, it was a standard fixture on every town square. Western Auto stores were especially charming because associates evidently had broad discretion to structure their store to suit their clientele. So unlike today’s cookie-cutter franchises, every store had its own unique product offerings, and every store looked different on the inside and the outside.

Western Auto, based in Kansas City,  was sold to Beneficial Insurance Company in 1961 and went through several owners, including Sears, who in 1998 sold the remaining Western Auto assets to Advance Auto Parts.

Various stores still call themselves Western Auto, although the company as an entity is long gone.

The original Western Auto lives on in the memories of those who remember this store with fondness and yearn for the days when all it took to make life perfect was a gleaming Western Flyer bicycle or Western Jet Wagon.

Feel free to share your Western Auto memories in the comments section. Here’s a nostalgic take  found on the blogosphere from the daughter of a former employee.

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Me and my Western Flyer Wagon in 1966

 

 

 

 

Wizzzers: Putting a New Spin on Traditional Tops

Posted January 26, 2009 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: Toys

Tags: , , , , , ,

In terms of sheer adrenaline rush potential, not to mention Mom-hating potential, few toys of the 1970s surpassed the Wizzzer. Introduced by Mattel as a new “spin” on the traditional top, Wizzzers were souped up with an internal gyroscope.  They featured a bulbous head made of solid plastic about the size of a plum.  At the bottom there was a short metal pin on which the top balanced, encased in a circular rubber sheathing that resembled an upside-down mushroom.

You basically held the top in your hand at an angle, with the rubber tip touching the floor, and rubbed it across the surface in an arc as hard and fast as your sweaty little fingers could manage in order to “rev it up.”  The voom-voom-VOOM revving sound was enough to get your heart beating fast.  But once you set it down and watched it scream across the linoleum like a three-inch high Tasmanian devil, the fun really began.

And there was no end to the fun that could be had with these durable little toys. Mattel provided some accessories such as a plastic bowl where you could watch it twirl around the sides.  But usually we simply used our imaginati0n and staged mock battles (crashing into each other at top speed was almost always mutually-assured destruction.)

Or pretended they were tornados and sent them zooming across the floor to wreak destruction on our little brother’s play farm or village.  Or sent them bouncing down the stairs.

The Wizzer rated high on the Mom-hating scale for two main reasons. One, revving it up on the floor usually created ugly streaks of rubber residue. Two, revving up the top to full speed and then putting it in your sister’s hair was too much fun for most little boys to resist.

Mattel astutely offered Wizzers in different color schemes to promote collectibility (the head of the top was usually divided into two colors) and provided sticker packages so you could customize them.

The original Wizzzers disappeared long ago but the name survived. By the late 1990s, Duncan — who had purchased the rights to the Wizzzer brand — was manufacturing these gyrating gems. Evidently they have disappeared altogether from the Duncan catalogue however, although they are still available on eBay.    For more history on this unique toy, wiz on over to this excellent and comprehensive website: http://www.snowcrest.net/fox/wiz.html

Sir Grapefellow & Baron Von Redberry

Posted September 14, 2008 by Mark F. Walker
Categories: Food

Tags: , ,

These General Mills cereals based on World War I fighter aces — a British and a German — appeared in 1973 but didn’t endure like some of their contemporaries in that genre, e.g. Count Chocula & Frankenberry.  Both cereals featured circular-shaped oats resembling Fruit Loops and star-shaped marshmallows. Grapefellows were grape-flavored of course and Redberry tasted like Raspberries.  They were loaded with enough sugar to fuel a Panzer corps but proved irresistible to a small but devoted army of Saturday-morning cereal connoisseurs. The use of World War I theme is interesting and perhaps influenced by the Peanuts comic strip, which during the 1960s often featured Snoopy in scarf and googles perched on top of his doghouse in a perpetual battle with the Red Baron. 

baronSir Grapefellow