TV URBAN LEGEND: To 1980 Strawberry Shortcake cartoon helped change the TV landscape of the 1980s dramatically through making it so that toys based on cartoons could air on television.
In many ways, TV legends are like life itself, everything touches everything else and one person affects another and so on and so forth and as a result, this legend touches on a few different earlier legends that I’ve been doing recently, as we march on to the sort of inevitable governmental change that led to the 1980s cartoon landscape that so many of us remember fondly as children, even if we acknowledge in retrospect (or heck, a lot of us even realized it at the time) that it was all a big mixture of cartoons trying to sell us toys. So expect to hear some familiar facts on the way to learning the important role that Strawberry Shortcake played in all of this.
As I noted in a recent legend about the late 1960s Hot Wheels cartoon, the very nature of toy production was dramatically altered by the advent of TV advertising for toys in the mid-to-late 1950s and especially the 1960s. In another recent article (about the first comic book to be based on a toy), I explained that what we think of today as the toy industry really didn’t exist until the 1950s. Toys were, in general, a real business and were mostly considered luxury items that only well-to-do families actually could afford (there were, of course, plenty of cheap generic toys, but I mean major toy companies with specific branded toys) . That changed with two major events, the Post-World War II suburban explosion (which also included the Post-World War II baby boom) and the aforementioned TV advertising. Now there was this whole new class of kids to sell to (not just in class terms, as the suburban families had more money to spend, but specifically just in pure numbers due to the baby boom) and there was a way to mass advertise these toys to them.
Toys then became a mainstream industry and has remained so ever since (as a nice way to look at things, Lego had been around for years but it never actually sold American versions of Legos until the 1960s. The whole market was changing). However, once the toy industry saw how much of an effect television was having on its sales, it naturally wanted to do even MORE and this led to the Hot Wheels cartoon series that I mentioned in that earlier TV Legend. Mattel introduced a new line of toy cars called Hot Wheels that became a sales sensation in 1968 and a TV producer said, “Hey, why don’t we make a cartoon based on Hot Wheels?”
Mattel’s rivals objected, claiming that the shoe was nothing more than a half-hour commercial for the toys and the government ultimately stepped in an agreed, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) forcing ABC (the network that aired the show) to treat a large chunk of the show as commercial time, thus limiting how much time ABC could use for other commercials, thus making the show a no-go at the network, and it was canceled after two seasons (the show tried to appeal, but the appeal The FCC even noted that the events that occurred since its original ruling, like print ads for Hot Wheels that said “As Seen on TV!” more obvious that the FCC’s initial ruling was correct).
So cartoons based on toys were banned from the airwave for the rest of the decade and all through the 1970s.
However, over time, the FCC had begun to ease up its views and gotten a bit more laissez faire in its position. The networks, though, remembered the Hot Wheels incident and noted that it just wasn’t worth it to argue the point and so toy-based cartoons remained off the air. That changed, though, in 1980.
In 1977, American Greeting Cards debuted a line of cards featuring an adorable little girl known as Strawberry Shortcake…
Within just two years, Strawberry Shortcake had expanded to the world of stickers, books and other items of that nature. American Greeting Cards then signed an expansive deal with Kenner for toys of Strawberry Shortcake and Kenner, who had recently shown their might with the Star Wars license, wanted to do an all-out blitz for Strawberry Shortcake and that involved spending $400,000 on a high end animated TV movie called The World of Strawberry Shortcake.
This was a high-end affair, with a story by Romeo Muller (the guy who wrote the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon and many other Rankin/Bass classics) and music from Flo & Eddie, from the popular folk rock group, The Turtles. The story was also a bit of a heavy-handed morality play to sort of gloss over the fact that it was still essentially a long ad for Strawberry Shortcake toys (morality plays was a big part of later 1980s cartoons based on toys, like G.I. Joe‘s “Knowing is half the battle” bits).
Only the networks were still too scared by the Hot Wheels incident. They all turned the program down. So Kenner instead offered it to independent television stations around the country that weren’t owned by networks and in May of 1980, the special aired and was successful enough…
The fact that it was a one-off special rather than an ongoing series likely helped it avoid any complaints, as rivals of Kenner likely figured objecting would be more trouble than it was worth for a one-off airing.
Ronald Reagan was then elected President in the fall of 1980. Reagan pushed to de-regulate a number of industries and children’s television programming was one of them. He named Mark Fowler as the new head of the Federal Communications Commission and Fowler basically gutted all of the restriction in children’s animation, arguing that the marketplace should figure itself out.
the Strawberry Shortcake cartoon coming and going without the world bursting into flames was a sign that these sort of things should be allowed on a regular basis again (you know, an ongoing series as opposed to a TV movie) and on September 5, 1983, Mattel debuted its toy Tie In Series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in syndication, making it the first ongoing cartoon series based on a toy to appear in syndication (G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero debuted literally a week later).
Soon, kids television was all toy-based cartoons and it could all be credited (blamed?) on Strawberry Shortcake.
The legend is…
Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV. Click here for more legends specifically about animated films and TV shows.
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KEEP READING: How TV Was Nearly Changed Forever By…a Hot Wheels Cartoon?
How The Simpsons Turned Mr. Burns From Springfield’s Best Villain into a Joke
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