Playing with Advertising

A beautiful collie stands in a meadow of blue and yellow flowers. His brown and white fur blows in the wind. He looks well tempered and loyal. I affectionately call him Sammy, but when I roll him over to rub his belly, I am confronted with an advertisement for Butter-Krust Bread. What gives? Sammy’s more than just a dog; he’s an advertising toy, just one of hundreds of similar toys distributed by businesses as advertisements between 1895 and 1920.

Over the past year, I have digitized (by scanning and photographing) hundreds of paper dolls and toys from The Strong’s extensive collection, including a number that double as advertisements. One hallmark of successful advertising is that potential customers seek out the ad rather than merely acting as a passive audience for its marketing message. As an example, people often share videos of their favorite commercials from the Super Bowl. But the pattern is nothing new. Advertisers have long understood the power of the “nag factor,” which is when kids badger their parents to purchase a product. As Barbara Whitton Jendrick observes in the introduction to Antique Advertising Paper Dolls in Full Color, “What many people do not realize is that long before television, advertisers, having discovered the value of selling a product by appealing to children, used paper dolls and paper toys instead of television. One doll or toy from a set of 10 or 12 accompanied the product, along with instructions on how to obtain the remainder of the set (usually by purchasing more of the product). The child, delighted with his free plaything, naturally badgered his parents to purchase a particular brand of cereal, thread, coffee, etc., so that he could complete his set.”

Yes, the quickest way to a consumer’s wallet is through a collector’s heart or, in this instance, through the hearts of his collection-minded children. Paper dolls and toys might not hold the same prominence as they did in earlier eras, but advertising toys live on all around us. Take the Hess Toy Truck, for example. Nearly 40 years after advertising dolls lost popularity, the first Hess truck, a gas tanker, arrived just before the holidays in 1964. Since then, Hess has launched a new truck or vehicle each year for children and collectors alike. And what are Happy Meals and their accompanying toys but yet another way of advertising with playthings?

So the next time you wind up an Energizer Bunny toy or tuck your child into bed with her Snuggle teddy bear, remember that you’ve bought into the appeal of advertising playthings the same way that previous generations have done for more than 100 years.