Is Mr Potato Head to blame for 'pester power' ads?

(From top, clockwise) Child watching TV, Potato Head balloon, children in toy shop, Buckaroo board game, Barbie dolls.

It is 60 years since Mr Potato Head starred in the world's first television toy advert. Did the plastic spud unleash the era of pester power?

With his bulbous nose, perpendicular ears and rictus grin, he makes for an unlikely-looking business trailblazer.

And yet an industry worth millions owes its very existence to the synthetic, tuberous figurine that is Mr Potato Head.

In commercials broadcast in the US in April 1952, he became, according to manufacturers Hasbro, the first toy advertised on television.

It was an innovation that, by pitching directly to the product's juvenile target market, ushered in a post-war era in which children were specifically targeted as a consumer demographic.

Start Quote

It was a dramatically new idea to pitch to children”

End Quote Advertising executive Paul Kurnit

In doing so, however, Mr Potato Head would pave the way for complaints from generations of parents that children were being urged to pester them for countless commercially available treats - a process known in the UK as "pester power" and in the US as the "nag factor".

Look back at early adverts from the 1950s for the spud-based plaything, however, and it's striking how old-fashioned and cumbersome they appear today, with a cartoon character carefully explaining to a pair of clean-cut all-American youngsters just how the toy works.

But according to Paul Kurnit, a New York-based advertising executive who has helped promote toys like GI Joe, My Little Pony and Mr Potato Head, the campaign was wildly radical for its time.

Girls playing electronic games Many parents worry about "pester power"

The very concept of promoting brands in 30-second slots was still a new technique, he says. And previously, toy adverts in newspapers and magazines had generally been pitched at those paying for them - parents - rather than the children themselves.

"The idea of putting adverts to children on television was a brand new concept," Kurnit says. "It was revolutionary because it hadn't been done before. It was a dramatically new idea to pitch to children."

Certainly, its influence was felt in successive generations as the advertising industry searched for new ways to sell youngsters their wares.

Nostalgic adults may look back fondly on jingles from their youth which implored them to buy a Slinky, a Barbie or an Action Man.

Mr Potato Head

Potatoes with Mr Potato Head eyes, nose and so on
  • Invented by George Learner, who planned to distribute the parts in cereal boxes
  • Originally did not come with a potato "body" - children had to use a real potato
  • First advertised on TV 30 April 1952, resulting in one million sales within a year
  • Mrs Potato Head first produced in 1953
  • Plastic potato added to the kit in 1964
  • Doubled in size from 1975 due to new US regulations on size of component parts in children's toys
  • Pipe accessory dropped in 1986 in wake of anti-smoking campaigns
  • Starred in Disney 1995 blockbuster Toy Story, joined by his wife in sequels

But successive studies have shown that the commercialisation of childhood - not to mention the ever-present fear of pester power - are serious concerns for parents.

A 2010 report by the Mothers' Union - an international Christian charity - found three-fifths of parents believed advertising seen by children was harmful to them.

"Childhood is now another marketing opportunity. It's another niche market," says Rachel Aston, co-author of the report.

"But our main concern is the impact it has on the relationship between parent and child when parents are consistently having to refuse requests to buy things."

As a result, most Western countries have voluntary or statutory regulation intended to address such anxieties.

In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority, an independent body which oversees the industry, has strict rules on what can be shown in commercials. Under the Committee of Advertising Practice code, adverts must not "encourage [children] to ask their parents, guardians or other persons to buy or enquire about a product or service for them".

Yet fears persist, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to propose an education programme to promote awareness of advertising techniques as well as banning the use of under-16s as "brand ambassadors" in peer-to-peer marketing campaigns.

For their part, the advertising and toy industries alike insist they behave responsibly. Indeed, Kurnit argues that both have thrived most when their commercials have promoted imaginative play rather than children as passive consumers.

Not in front of the children

Child in front of TV

A Marmite advert in 2005 showing a woman screaming in horror at a moving brown mass prompted complaints from the public for terrifying children.

The ASA received a number of complaints in 2010 about an Irn-Bru advert in which cartoon animals were led to a butcher's shop.

Much of the ASA's complaints procedure involves dealing with concerns about the scheduling of an advert and its visibility to children. Inappropriateness for children is the most common reason for complaints to the ASA over the past six years.

He recognises that pester power exists, but insists that the changing status of children within the family in developed nations has had a far greater impact than any commercial campaign.

The answer, he argues, is not further restrictions on the industry but greater parental responsibility.

"Unfortunately I think the phenomenon is real but it's much bigger than the advertising business," he says. "The rise of the child has come alongside a rise in the permissiveness of parents. You can't exonerate adverts but they haven't been the primary factor.

"More and more parents are dedicated to being their children's friends rather than their children's parents. They can't say no. I think we have a parenting crisis."

Certainly, few would dispute that the ultimate off switch resides in the home.

While the Mothers' Union study found 75% of parents agreed that regulators were answerable for the content of media and advertising seen by their children, some 61% agreed that duty lay with mothers and fathers themselves.

However, even the most conscientious might find it difficult to monitor every nuance of their offspring's media diet.

Brian Young, an expert in the psychology of advertising at the University of Exeter, has conducted extensive research into children's understanding of media and marketing.

He draws a distinction between the abilities of younger and older children to grasp when someone is trying to sell them something.

Children in toy shop Want that one, and that one, and that one...

"We are all susceptible to advertising to some extent," he says. "But children don't really think that advertising is anything but entertainment until they are about six or seven years of age.

"The industry is much more aware these days that talking about the child market is not good PR. But they'll play up to the wire when it comes to regulation."

Whether the answer lies in further regulation or in households limiting access to the remote control is a question that will rumble on.

Parents attempting to exercise control over their children's commercial influences have a rapidly changing landscape to confront, with social media and in-game advertising - that is, advertising in video and computer games - the latest tools to sell wares to the young.

For Mr Potato Head, it must feel like 1952 all over again.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    I was always told no, and given a tap on the legs if I kept whining ... I am not a spoilt brat and never was :-)

    I only ever was allowed to watch childrens tv 3.30-4.30 which was from when I got back from school until when dinner was ready. After that I was to wash the pots, do homework and then if I did that I got to watch coronation street as a treat (I loved corrie!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Ungrateful little brats these days with no sense of value. (Father of 2)


    It is reassuring that you understand that children are less intelligent than yourself and that the responsibility for how they behave at this age does not lie with them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Personally I don't think that advertising to children is really a massive problem as long as the adverts are not misleading.

    None of us like adverts, but there is nothing wrong with them existing - if you had a product you wanted to sell would you not advertise it - why should children's adverts be any different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    I'm 26. My parents never had much, and we were taught that we CHILDREN earned every thing we had apart from birthday and Christmas gifts. I paid for my entire 4-year uni education in America and have never had a penny to help with living costs since I was 18.
    My daughter will be raised similarly as it has taught me to earn what I spend and only spend what I earn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    These kids are going to have to grow up in a world where people trying to sell you stuff is normal. Children need to know how to recognise advertising, so at the very least they can then recognise spam and fraud! Think of all the elderly people taken in by fraudulent advertising - Their late introduction to advertising must carry some blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Is Mr Potato Head to blame for 'pester power'?


    I don't know, but Scalextric is perhaps to blame for Clarkson...

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    It was easy for my parents to regulate TV watching, as we didn't have one until I was an adult. No TV at all in those days, so no advertising from that source. Indeed, the only advertising I can remember from that time was an appeal to wear some sort of corsetry. Somehow, the appeal didn't. Not to a young lad who hadn't found out about girls yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    I taught my daughter how to fast forward the adverts...

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Ungrateful little brats these days with no sense of value. (Father of 2)

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Yes we would all be happier without advertising but it's here to stay. The way to deal with it is not through legislation, which often fails, but by a defence based on understanding how adverts work. Know your enemy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Do you all not think it is strange that some of the richest companies in the world, and not necessarily the companies that make these products. It appears to me that some pundits eyeball them with envy, like major celebrities, just who are these morons. Ban advertising especially for pay day loans and ambulance chasers etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Nobody is answering the question as to why parents should be obliged to counter the excesses of amoral corporations. Why is it permissable for adults to dedicate themselves to careers in the psychological manipulation of the innocent and naive?

    When you get down to the bare bones of it, that is what advertising to children is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Maybe all children should be required to read Roald Dahl books where spoilt children who always get their own way are portrayed as horrible and nasty and they always seem to meet a nasty end!

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    It's quite sad that parents can't say 'no'. I don't rush out and buy a car, a razor or run to Asda every time an advert comes on the TV.

    Try explaining that these things cost money and, if they get pocket money, save for them or make a note and ask for them for a birthday or Christmas.

    Some children seem to get everything they ask for and they will be in for a big shock in later life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    You can raise your children without having a TV. We did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    All advertising is now a pollution of society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    I always buy with cash and let them see how much money I have in my purse, they can then see what's been bought and what's left in my purse.

    If they want something and we don't have the money we explain they can save their money, its then that they realise that they actually are not that desparate to have it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Yes, somewhere there is a perfect place in a perfect world where nothing is advertised or sold or used by children - it's just that we don't live in it and never have. If we had strict rules on anything appealing to children, Walt Disney would have been a streetcar conductor. Let's just fight off the paedophiles and consider that a victory, shall we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    When I asked my Mum/Dad for somthing, they would tell me 'can't afford it'. I applied the same principle to my children. They've grown up realising you can't have everything in life. A useful lesson, which parents nowadays need to learn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    I was raised to call this child predation. Think about what that means for a second, and ask yourself, "why is it legal to turn our children into prey?"


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