How Mr. Potato Head Changed the Advertising Business - Atlas Obscura
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How Mr. Potato Head Changed the Advertising Business

A story of goofy vegetables and the power of television.

In the 1950s, both television and toys were striking out in bold new directions. Television commercials were rapidly becoming the leading form of advertising, assuming dominance over radio. At the same time, a number of soon-to-be classic toys were making their way to market, including the frisbee, Barbie dolls, and the era-defining hula hoop. But in 1952, before all of those, Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head hit store shelves.

Timing played a big role in the fact that in April of 1952, an ad for an anthropomorphized tuber became the first ever televised toy commercial. As a 2012 BBC article explains, up to that point toy ads had appealed to parents, since they were the ones doing the buying. But the Mr. Potato Head TV ad was aimed directly at children. It was a revolutionary advertisement, even if the concept of marketing directly to kids didn’t immediately catch on.

That original commercial is not online, but the video above, a mid-1950s Mr. Potato Head commercial available on YouTube, provides a pretty good idea of what that first commercial looked like: young kids showing their excitement for the toy. (Here is where I should also note that the original Mr. Potato Head package included 28 facial features that kids could practice with on a styrofoam head, but were meant to be stuck in an actual potato).

According to the 2003 book Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping, it wasn’t until three years later, when toy commercials began accompanying the wildly popular Mickey Mouse Club program, that toy advertisements meant to be viewed by children really took off. Of course this was just the beginning of a long-running debate about whether anyone should be advertising to children in the first place. But for better or worse, Mr. Potato Head was the first. Pretty impressive for a vegetable.