With Transformers: Dark of the Moon opening this week, there’s been a lot of talk about Michael Bay’s unapologetic anti-intellectualism, the 3-D craze, and movie audiences’ weak spot for explosions and giant robots fighting each other. In all the hype, we forget what the Transformers story is REALLY about: a quest for Hasbro to sell robot toys that dates back a quarter-century to the TV series debut in 1984.
Yes, as much as we love to think TV is some sort of high art form, it’s basically just a way for companies to advertise their goods and services to you. The way it’s supposed to work for a half-hour show is 22 minutes of programming and 8 minutes of commercials. But businesses quickly found a way around that, and they’ve been essentially airing 30 minutes of advertising to unsuspecting children for decades now. Below are ten of the most blatant examples — with “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” excluded, because this is the advanced class. Intro to Obvious Examples is down the hall.
One of the earliest examples of the toy-to-TV transition, ABC’s animated “Hot Wheels” had a vague plot about good guy Jack “Rabbit” Wheeler and his Hot Wheels Racing Club having weekly races against bad guy Dexter Carter, the leader of Dexter’s Demons. The show is still notable for two reasons: it was the first “acting” role for Albert Brooks, who would later write Lost In America and guest star on “The Simpsons” as Hank Scorpio, and it became embroiled in a legal controversy. Toy companies, including Mattel’s rival Topper, began to complain that “Hot Wheels” was basically a half-hour commercial aimed at children, which was illegal. The FCC stepped in and ordered the show off the air, saying, “We find this pattern disturbing…for [it] subordinates programming in the interest of the public to programming in the interest of salability.” This ruling stayed in effect until 1984, when, according to the New York Times, “there [were] no limits of any kind on the amount of advertising stations can broadcast.” Which led to a lot of this:
In 1984, Milton Bradley debuted two lines of toys, Transformers and Robotix, that were quickly made in to TV shows. They both had roughly the same story—with “Transformers,” it’s Autobots vs. Decepticons and humans get in the way; with “Robotix,” it’s Protectons vs. Terrakors and humans get in the way—but only one is still mentioned today. And makes hundreds of millions of dollars for an egomaniac of a director and keeps Shia LaBeouf a household name. I honestly think it’s because the word “Transformers” is cooler sounding than “Robotix,” which just reminds people of Lyme disease. Robotic Lyme disease, but Lyme disease nonetheless. Fifteen six-minute shorts aired on TV as part of “Super Sunday,” and they were combined into a poorly thought out film in 1987.
“Jem and the Holograms”
“Jem” was another “Super Sunday” short, along with “Inhumanoids” and “Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines” (which had NOTHING to do with Sasquatch but did star a monster-truck driver named Yank Justice), and it’s probably the most infamous of the group. I’d like to say I did my part when I listed Jem, sans Holograms, as the sixth sexiest cartoon musician of all-time, but really the credit goes to Griffin-Bacal Advertising, who Hasbro hired to create the show in 1984. They did such a good job that the short got its own full-length show and has since been released on DVD. With the success of “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” it’s likely a “Jem” movie will be made soon.