by Brian Awehali
Bernard Loomis (July 4, 1923 – June 2, 2006), the marketing genius who did far more than anyone else to help transform children’s television programming into a promotional arm of the toy industry, died of heart failure at the age of 82.
Largely through his introduction and marketing of dolls, action figures, and products including Chatty Cathy (the first talking doll), Barbie (measurements: 39- 21-33), The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Baby Alive (who “realistically” pooped when fed), Play-Doh, The Man from Atlantis, Care Bears, and the entire Star Wars action figure collection, Loomis’ efforts helped spawn a “toyetic” world of “entertainment multiplexes.” Every company he worked for became the world’s largest toy company during his tenure.
Loomis entered the world on July 4, 1923, in the Bronx, and claimed that his father, a Russian immigrant who “dabbled in show business and generally failed to make a living as an itinerant salesman of woolen goods,” never bought toys for him. Such deprivation led him to create a baseball simulation game based on a deck of cards and memorize the Lionel train catalog.
The young Bernard was not the only one of his generation to grow up toyless. “The Great Depression…made it impossible for most people to buy a lot of toys, and the war had the same effect,” according to a 1986 Atlantic article about the industry. “When prosperity returned…the modern toy industry was born as well. Propelling it toward maturity were the two great engines of postwar American culture: television and plastic.”
It was his vision for the fusion of those two engines that launched Loomis’ career and earned him the moniker “The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning.” In 1968, while working for Mattel, Loomis was assigned to market Hot Wheels, a new line of miniature toy cars. He created the first animated series based on a toy property, which premiered on ABC on September 6, 1969. The FCC (at the behest of a now-defunct competitor, the Topper Corporation) declared that the Hot Wheels series was not entertainment, but “a 30-minute commercial for Hot Wheels.” ABC cancelled the series in 1971.
Loomis was predictably critical of the FCC’s ruling. “It is not fair for anyone to judge that ‘you can’t do that because you started out as a commercial product rather than a different kind of commercial product,’” he protested. “The original Disney or Snoopy cartoons were commercial products. They were done for the purposes of making money, selling films and selling newspapers. And to say we can’t broadcast a TV show because we did the toys at the same time, rather than sequentially, is nonsense.”
Loomis persevered in his efforts and, in 1980, collaborated with the American Greetings card company (who’d found that strawberries were the most popular element on greetings cards) to foist the television special Welcome to the World of Strawberry Shortcake onto prime-time television with nary a peep from the FCC—despite the fact that the show was but one part of a marketing empire that also included toys, games, and hundreds of licensed products.
Loomis was not merely a deft businessman who pulled himself up from his modest beginnings by his very own bootstraps. If that were the case, his might merely be one more hackneyed story in the thick annals of USAmerican free-market folklore. What truly distinguishes Loomis is his absolutely central role in robbing children’s entertainment of any motive but profit.
“Manufacturers create a fantasy world, and this has led to a very sophisticated relationship between them and the child,” said Loomis in an interview from the mid-90s. “We are now in the business of multiple sales to the same children in the same fantasy.”
Perhaps Loomis’ own daughter, Debra, aided by her proximity to the world’s premier marketer of children’s toys and entertainment, understood only too well the falseness of a fantasy constructed entirely for the purpose of “multiple sales.”
She never watched Saturday morning cartoons.
From the online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt