The He-Man Effect: How American Toymakers Sold You Your Childhood

Book cover
Brian "Box" Brown
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Oct 26, 2023

He-Man was my high school swim team's mascot. Not officially, and not in any way that really concerned me. I don't even know the story; I just know that some of the guys a year or two older than me had a little He-Man figure they took to all of our meets to joke around with. It was entirely ironic, meant to be silly. But He-Man was always there.

Which doesn't really have anything to do with the book, except to say the heart of this book is about the children's toys and TV of the 1980s (He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers, in particular), which is me. I graduated high school in '89, watched the media discussed in this book, had some of the toys (still have a few of them in boxes), grew up on it. I read it thinking, this is my life.

But more than a book about toys and TV, this is implicitly a book about stories. About the power of stories. Humans only understand the world via stories. We tell ourselves stories about who are, what we've done, and what we hope to do. We tell others stories to define our groups, both in-groups and out-groups. Stories unite and divide us. They define us socially and individually. They are a core feature of the human condition.

In this book, Brown delves into the ways entertainment corporations and toy companies have allied to use stories to capture interest in their products. How TV, movies, and other forms of storytelling have basically functioned as advertising for toys. By tapping into young imaginations, eager and impressionable and not yet fortified against manipulation, and giving them the stories they should play out, which require the merchandise the companies sell. And using the nostalgia of adults to maintain a cycle that perpetuates.

At first I thought this might be a simple, uninformative primer on basic media literacy, but Brown's depth of research and detail is impressive. After mentioning Julius Caesar's early use of propaganda and a bit of history, his story really starts with the posters of the first World War. And how some of the minds behind that propaganda moved into the business world after. Then the creation of Mickey Mouse and the emergence of Disney:

Humans attach emotion to everything we do. Our emotions are not separate from our thoughts. Particularly emotional childhood experiences affect our behavior in ways we're not necessarily even conscious of. The memories and emotions stay with us. They shape our identity. What Disney had stumbled onto (or figured out), is that they could tie these emotional experiences that shape our identities to their media property.

He mentions Citizen Kane, that the key to the movie is Kane's yearning nostalgia for the emotions of childhood. He charts the development of animated TV shows and product tie-ins, resistance in the 70s, then the erasure of regulations in the 80s that opened the door to shows explicitly created for the purpose of selling toys. That has been the norm since. Brown focuses particular attention on the 80s not only because that's when the model was perfected, but because . . . 

The 80s cartoon toy boom ended up being a unique moment in time. A generation of kids were all engrossed in the same media. They were the first generation to experience this kind of acute advertising with total abandon.

Since then, the amount of media, thanks to cable and the Internet, has exploded and diversified, with the stories being much less monocultural than before. Though now, of course, Disney is Star Wars, and people my age can't stop watching with our families.

At some point we deemed a child's imagination too precious to be subject to the power we discovered in propaganda and advertising. Then, in the face of the ever quickening pace of technology, these boundaries were removed. Corporations are being granted more and more space in our brains, influencing us in ways we're not even aware of. We can't know how this will affect the next generation. But corporations are already banking on their future nostalgia. Today's media corporations have a power over us that is unprecedented on planet Earth and always growing. Their goal is clear. It's the same goal of all capitalist enterprises: cradle to grave brand loyalty.

That's a quick summary. Brown gets into the specifics of the people involved, what they did and said, how all of the strategies were intentionally developed. He supports all of his claims.

We're always going to define ourselves through stories. Should we pay more attention to who controls them?

Reviewed by Chris K.
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