URBAN LEGEND TV: A Hot Wheels The cartoon got ABC in hot water with the FCC over it being considered a mere half-hour ad for small cars.
It is sometimes difficult to say exactly whether television has changed the products we buy or whether television has simply made it easier to buy the products we would have wanted to buy if we had known they existed. In other words, it’s clear that there are many products, heck, some entire INDUSTRIES that exist purely because of television advertising, but was that because television made them available to an audience that could support the products/industries or did the television generate interest in the product itself?
Going back to the legend we’re talking about today, Barbie was the first toy with a dedicated TV commercial plan, but would Barbie dolls have been popular no matter what and would the TV commercial have returned its exponentially greater success or did TV commercials make Barbie popular when she otherwise wouldn’t have been?
Whatever the answer to this question, it’s clear that television advertising dramatically changed the way toys were sold in America, as Barbie and similar dolls exploded in popularity, at least in part due to the ubiquity Barbie TV commercials, like this one. featuring a young Maureen McCormick (probably filmed just before she started The Brady Group or during the first season of the show)…
Toy companies, naturally, thought about how they could take this new TV audience and use it to, you know, sell more toys, and so Mattel came up with an idea that would soon become mainstream in our culture, but at the time, it was very novel. Why not have a cartoon featuring a Mattel toy?
In 1967, Mattel began work on a new line of toy cars called Hot Wheels…
The miniature toy car market had been dominated by Matchbox, but the innovative idea of Elliot Handler (co-founder of Mattel) was that instead of just duplicating regular cars, they would modify the cars and design inflated versions of cars. Handler and fellow engineer Jack Ryan made some of the first toys released in 1968, but the rest of the line was designed by the brilliant Harry Bentley Bradley. Amusingly enough, however, Bradley didn’t trust the concept and left the company shortly after the line launched (or just before, I’m not sure of the exact timeline), recommending Ira Gilford to take his place.
The line exploded in popularity when it launched and Gilford picked up where Bradley left off and continued with a line inspired by car designs in the toy follow-up line and Hot Wheels caused a stir. A cartoon producer, Ken Snyder, who had done a cartoon before, The funny companywith sponsorship from Mattel, thought Hot Wheels would make a great cartoon, so he made a deal with Mattel to license the name of a new show to air on ABC.
The show was launched in 1969. Now again, as noted, no one had tried anything like this before and so ABC and Snyder (and Mattel) felt they were doing everything possible not to circumvent the regulations. Mattel did not produce the shows, and Mattel did not air any commercials for Hot Wheels cars while the shows aired. Not only that, but they specifically didn’t allow Snyder to adapt any of their previously designed cars for use in the cartoon.
So really, all you got was a cartoon about a Jack “Rabbit” Wheeler, a high school car racer who ran the Hot Wheels Racing Club. The show also tried to emphasize that it was a useful tool for children, as it taught the value of car safety (essentially G.I. Joepublic service announcements “Knowing is Half the Battle” at the end of their episodes a decade earlier).
However, by the end, it was pretty clear that all that careful planning didn’t hide what it was really about. Mattel didn’t have to advertise in the program itself because the program WAS the advertisement! That’s precisely how Mattel rival Topper Toys felt when it reported the cartoon to the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC ruled that cartoons were, in fact, essentially half-hour commercials and then (and probably still are) there was a rule about how much advertising a network was allowed to run , especially during children’s broadcast hours. So the FCC forced ABC to count a portion of each episode of Hot Wheels as advertising time and ABC would therefore lose said advertising time for the time being.
The show was popular enough that ABC continued to air it for a second season while continuing to fight with the FCC over their decision. What’s funny about this is that the continued arguments only made the FCC Following convinced that the show was really just a big ad, because after the show launched and was successful, Mattel started running ads for their Hot Wheels toys with, you guessed it, a notice of “As seen on the Hot Wheels TV show” and stuff like that.
The FCC therefore stood by its decision, with the broadcast being forced to be considered, in part, a Mattel advertisement. The show was canceled after two seasons and the penalty was enough that no other toy company tried this particular ploy for over a decade, until the 1980s and, well, that’s a whole another story (a story we’ll tell you in the future, of course).
The legend is…
Be sure to check out my TV Legends Revealed archive for more urban legends from the world of TV.
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