A Dreamy History of Teen Idol Magazines, Just for YOU!

waycoolstuff, eBay
waycoolstuff, eBay

The editors at Super Teen had some ironclad rules about the profiles of teen idols featured in their pages each month. An actor or musician’s bad behavior was never discussed; long-term relationships were barely mentioned. Most importantly, there was a permanent ban on chest hair.

"If they have hairy chests, you’ll see them with their shirts buttoned up," Bob Schartoff, the magazine’s creative director, told the New York Daily News in 1982. Facial hair was also verboten. When a reporter offered a hypothetical—say Scott Baio grew a beard—Schartoff said the Joanie Loves Chachi star would effectively be excommunicated from his pages.

Super Teen, Tiger Beat, Bop, 16. From the 1960s to the 1990s, these glossy, primary-colored magazines that looked like the inside of a 13-year-old girl’s locker door sold hundreds of thousands of copies each month and provided gleefully superficial insight into the non-threatening sex symbols of their respective eras. Jason Bateman was photographed cradling a Teddy Ruxpin; Matt Dillon could be seen eating pizza like any normal person. Readers were often referred to in the second-person to better help them visualize an innocent evening with their celebrity crush. ("Are YOU the Kind of Girl Adorable Tim Hutton is Looking For?")

At times, the magazines anticipated the evolution of dimpled pin-ups into actual marquee stars (Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox). Other times, there was a lot of ink spilled over the internal workings of Menudo. All of it was meant to entice their demographic of 11- to 14-year-old girls, which some editors were rather blunt about diagnosing.

"The typical reader … is shy, self-conscious, quiet, afraid of boys, and not into dating," Schartoff said. "They’re 'B' students and not the prettiest one in class."

Kirk Cameron poses for a February 1989 issue of 16 magazine

Michael9847, eBay

The idea of pandering to fans of clean-cut performers with breathless magazine prose can be traced back to Elvis Presley. In the late 1950s, magazines like 16 went from printing song lyrics to relaying details of what it might be like to date the King, crooner Pat Boone, or actor Tab Hunter. When the Beatles arrived stateside in 1964, the ensuing pandemonium flowed into what was quickly becoming a subgenre of publishing—teen idol worship.

Charles Laufer took notice. A journalism and English teacher at Beverly Hills High School, Laufer thought a magazine devoted to teen interests would be a success. He launched Coaster, a regional publication for Long Beach locals, in the 1950s. It didn’t succeed until he realized his mistake: Boys didn’t want to sit down and read about celebrity lifestyles. Girls did.

Laufer renamed the magazine Teen and watched it grow into a hit before leaving to start Tiger Beat in 1965. His timing was fortuitous: The Monkees were just beginning to explode in popularity, and Tiger Beat saw its circulation rise when it profiled the fun-loving group. Laufer sold Monkees fan club memberships, posters, and books before he sold Tiger Beat itself to the Harlequin romance house in 1978 for $12 million.

The magazines—which began to number in the dozens and eventually in the hundreds—were usually cyclical in nature, their sales rising and falling depending on who happened to be in favor with teen girls at any given time. In the '70s, John Travolta and Erik Estrada moved copies. In the '80s, it was soap star Jack Wagner, Scott Baio, Rick Springfield, and Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron, who was such an ideal of non-threatening sexuality that he became a cover fixture.

Typically, editors would get stacks of photos from publicity departments—like Don Johnson standing next to an inflatable alligator—and hope that a competing magazine wouldn’t be running the same shot that month. Interviews were dependent on a star’s level of fame. Some, like Eight is Enough heartthrob Adam Rich, sat for interrogations with editors; others, like Tom Cruise, largely shunned any personal involvement, fearing they’d be typecast in juvenile roles. If a star did consent to an interview, their conversation would likely be parsed over several months to make it last.

Negativity was a killer. When Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio got married in 1987, editors told fans he "needs your support," rather than, say, trying to take down the woman who dared to take Macchio off the market. When a celebrity made a less-than-flattering impression—like the time the 13-year-old Rich told his publicist to "shut up" during one Super Teen sit-down—it was never disclosed. When John Schneider walked off the set of The Dukes of Hazzard over a pay dispute, fans wrote in to express their disappointment. Financial strikes broke the fantasy, and Schneider-related pin-up sales slumped.

The adulation could be mortifying for actors trying to take their careers seriously, particularly when they were surrounded by the kind of Trapper Keeper collage and single-syllable vernacular favored by the publications. (Pictures were "pix," facts were "fax.") Others—or their publicists—saw the teen mags as a vehicle to promote themselves. Rick Springfield was said to have hung around 16’s New York offices looking for a mention before his big break. In 1979, Kevin Spacey showed up for a cattle call to find a new “teen idol” for Tiger Beat. (He never joined the ranks of Cameron and the rest.)

The table of contents for the August 1992 issue of Tiger Beat
bronx2girl, eBay

At its peak in the 1970s, Tiger Beat and its sister publications reached roughly 2 million readers a month. Others got by on as little as 135,000 paid copies sold. The 1990s diversified with titles like Teen People and Sassy, publications that brought a stronger editorial voice to readers and eased up on the kind of copy that didn’t exactly enable feminism. ("Sail Away with RALPH MACCHIO!")

In the 1990s, the popularity of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC helped keep Tiger Beat and the others afloat, but not for long. The internet and social media excised the middleman, allowing stars to control their exposure and deliver calculated glimpses into their lives without Teen Beat interfering. Many enduring titles folded. Tiger Beat sold to a group of investors—which included Nick Cannon—for $4 million in 2016, with plans to modify the brand for a digital era.

The tens of thousands of magazines once revered like pop culture gospel are now relegated to recycling bins, basements, or eBay, with one cover or interview largely indistinguishable from another. All readers wanted was some gossip, some advice, and to find out whether or not Corey Haim liked pepperoni on his pizza.

"Actually," Teen Star Photo Album editor Lori Bernstein told the Palm Beach Post in 1988, "they all kind of say the same things."

Super Bowl: When Tie-In Novelty Cereals Ruled the 1980s

Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tidal wave of merchandising following the release of Star Wars in 1977 was a fundamental transformation in how pop culture could be monetized. Thousands of items, ranging from clothing to toys, were produced from dozens of licensees. Fans could wake up on Darth Vader bedsheets, brush their teeth with a Yoda toothbrush, and slip on a Chewbacca backpack before catching the school bus.

The lone exception to that escapist morning routine? Breakfast cereal. It wasn’t until 1984—seven years after the original Star Wars hit theaters—that fans could purchase C-3POs, a puffed-wheat breakfast concoction that featured the golden droid on boxes. The delay was the result of changing tastes in the realm of product licensing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the major cereal companies figured out that people wanted to literally consume their entertainment.

 

Cereals have long relied on colorful characters as a way of marketing their wares. Tony the Tiger was introduced by Kellogg’s in 1951 and quickly became the solo mascot for Frosted Flakes after cohorts Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Elmo the Elephant fell by the wayside. Store aisles were soon stocked with boxes bearing Toucan Sam (Fruit Loops); Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Rice Krispies); and the dubiously ranked Cap’n Crunch.

As the decades wore on, the characters became intergenerational, able to appeal to kids and adults who remembered them from their youth. But it was also hard to muscle in on the market with so many of those mascots dominating shelf space. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cereal makers took notice of census reports hinting at a growing population of kids under the age of 9 and began plotting ways to appeal to tiny, outstretched hands at grocery stores. Their solution was existing brand recognition. Why spend time and effort creating a new cereal mascot when they could effectively lease one with a built-in fan base?

General Mills, then and now one of the leading cereal manufacturers, owned toy company Kenner. Kenner, in turn, had a licensing deal with American Greetings, owners of the popular Strawberry Shortcake property. In September 1982, General Mills debuted a Strawberry Shortcake cereal, the first to be based on a licensed fictional character. To the great satisfaction of General Mills executives, it was a major success. Shortcake fans devoured it.

Quickly, General Mills pursued an E.T. cereal, based on the smash 1982 movie. Arriving in 1984, the company believed a sequel—which never materialized—would keep it flying off shelves. A Pac-Man cereal followed. When neither product managed to reach Shortcake-level success, General Mills stopped pursuing licenses in 1985. But that was hardly the end of tie-in corn puffs.

Ralston Purina, a conglomerate that counted both breakfast cereal and dog food among its offerings, was faced with only minimal market share when compared to the “Big Two” titans: General Mills and Kellogg’s. Because launching a brand-new cereal was such an expensive proposition—marketing costs could grow to $40 million during the first year alone—it made more sense for Ralston to capitalize on existing properties, where their expenditure might only be $10 to $12 million. Their first attempt was a sugary riff on Cabbage Patch Kids. Released in 1985—at the point in Cabbage Patch mania where adults were getting into physical altercations over the dolls—it sold well, and Ralston seemed to have found its niche.

 

The next few years would see a number of Ralston products hit stores. Cereals based on Donkey Kong, Spider-Man, Gremlins, Rainbow Brite, Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Batman made what would otherwise be generic cereals palatable to a youth demographic and had novelty beyond the brand associations. The company’s Nintendo Cereal System in 1989 had one box with two different bags of multi-colored cereal. Others, like Batman, came with super-sized prizes like a coin bank that was shrink-wrapped to the box. Never mind that many of the concoctions were almost identical—the Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal had pieces resembling Ralston’s Chex cereal relabeled “spider webs” or “ninja nets.” Fans of the properties ate it up.

Owing to their status as a tie-in product, these cereals had one fatal flaw: They typically sold well for just 14 to 18 months, whereas Tony the Tiger could keep moving flakes for decades. But by the time one cereal began to decline, another was ready to take its place. If Ralston’s Jetsons grew stale on shelves, Bill and Ted's Excellent Cereal was ready to go. The company found its most enduring tie-in with its marshmallow-stuffed Ghostbusters cereal, which remained a bestseller for an incredible five years running. (Propped up by an animated series and a 1989 sequel, it kept the property visible. C-3POs, in contrast, suffered from a lack of any new Star Wars movies after 1983.)

Not everyone could make the premise work. Quaker’s Mr. T cereal bombed. Ralston’s own Prince of Thieves cereal, an attempt to capitalize on 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie, was victimized by contractual limitations. Star Kevin Costner refused to appear on the box, diminishing the association.

 

Ralston continued the tie-ins into the 1990s, with the Family Matters-endorsed Urkel-Os joining cereals based on The Addams Family, Batman Returns, and others, usually paying a 3 to 5 percent royalty on each box sold to the licensors. While it made Ralston profitable, it also made them appealing for a buyout. To cement their status as cereal king, General Mills wound up buying Ralston in 1996 for $570 million. The deal largely put an end to the licensing promotions.

Today, there’s nostalgia for these edible gimmicks. Funko, the company behind the Pop! vinyl figures, maintains a line of themed cereals based on Pac-Man and less obvious properties like The Golden Girls. Unopened boxes of Batman cereal pop up on eBay from time to time. Some cereal loyalists even try to replicate the flavors, mixing Lucky Charms and Crispix to mimic the distinctively chalky taste of Spider-Man cereal. But for the most part, the industry has fallen back on the same standbys that were popular 70 years ago.

As one brand executive put it: Kellogg’s doesn’t need the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they’ve got Corn Flakes.

Overall Charm: Remembering Hasbro's My Buddy Doll

Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If your toy company's boy-oriented doll doesn’t set the world on fire, you might take comfort in the fact it partially inspired a series of slasher movies. That was the case for My Buddy, an oversized doll first introduced by Hasbro in 1985 that failed to make waves on store shelves but informed the creation of the carrot-topped spree killer doll Chucky in writer Don Mancini and director Tom Holland’s 1988 film Child’s Play.

In 1985, toy stores were stocked to the brim with some of the most indelible properties of the decade. Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids were a bona fide phenomenon, ringing up $540 million in sales the year prior. Masters of the Universe was Mattel’s hit, with both the action figures and ancillary products doubling the take of the Cabbage people.

Then there was My Buddy, which seemed to straddle the gender lines the other major toy companies had drawn. The Cabbage Patch dolls were highly desirable among young girls; boys gravitated toward the veiny, sword-wielding characters of the He-Man franchise. In marketing My Buddy, Hasbro hoped to pioneer a new toy category: a doll line for boys.

The idea was not totally alien to the market. As far back as the early 20th century, boys played with dolls regardless of whether the toys were marketed specifically toward them or not. The difference was that the dolls were often depicting adult men and women. As time went on and manufacturers began focusing on dolls resembling infants, interest on the part of young male consumers began to trail off.

Hasbro reversed that trend in 1964 with the introduction of G.I. Joe, a line of 12-inch, fabric-outfit military figures intended to do for boys what Mattel’s Barbie had done for the female demographic. Though Joe would go on to inhabit smaller, molded plastic sculpts in the 1980s, the idea of boys playing with plush toys was still of interest. With My Buddy, Hasbro banked on the doll’s heft—at an imposing 23 inches, it was a fair bit larger than the Cabbage Patch line—to ensnare juvenile consumers.

My Buddy was intended to be a companion for boys perceived as more active than girls, canvassing neighborhoods on Big Wheels, clutching My Buddy as they climbed into tree houses, and possibly making him an inadvertent object in a game of touch football. Clad in durable overalls, My Buddy seemed designed for extended trips through dirty terrain.

“My Buddy is positioned as macho,” Hasbro's senior vice president of marketing Stephen Schwartz told The Boston Globe in 1985. “It’s soft macho, but it’s still macho. We show them climbing up trees, riding their bikes. We didn’t position it like a girl doll, soft and sweet.”

Excited by the potential, Hasbro backed My Buddy with an effective ad campaign led by an infectious song:

Unlike other toys with complex personal narratives, My Buddy possessed no agency. He was simply there to accompany his human on adventures. Hasbro’s intent was easily discerned through ad copy: “A little boy’s special friend! Rough and tough, yet soft and cuddly.”

Amid a competitive toy year, the $25 My Buddy fared well in 1985. While Cabbage Patch Kids remained a goliath, Hasbro had four of the top 10 bestselling toys on the market: Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and My Buddy, which ranked eighth on the list.

That success would not last. If boys did not find fault with playing with dolls, some adults did, expressing puzzlement that My Buddy would hold appeal for the blood-and-guts dominion of the boys toys market. Los Angeles Times columnist Bevis Hillier called My Buddy “an unprepossessing creature who also has overalls and freckles but has managed to get his cap on the right way round. With his big, goggling eyes, he is half winsome, half bruiser.” Hillier went on to express doubt that a boy would find the prospect of dressing the doll in his own retired baby clothes enticing.

My Buddy and his various offshoots—there was a Kid Sister—hung on for a few years before disappearing from shelves. The doll market for boys was mostly relegated to Wrestling Buddies, a line of WWE-themed stuffed companions that encouraged boys to drop elbows and grapple them to the floor. My Buddy, with his largely pacifistic persona, invited no such confrontations. Despite Hasbro’s hopes, My Buddy failed to signal a breakdown in gender-specific toys. Mattel’s She-Ra line, an action figure spin-off of He-Man targeted toward girls, failed to take off. My Pet Monster, a plush toy for boys, came and went.

Hasbro subsidiary Playskool continued manufacturing My Buddy into the 1990s. Today, the overall-clad figure is mostly remembered as a model for the murderous Chucky, the doll villain at the center of the Child's Play franchise.

While it never gained iconic status beyond being a horror movie influence, My Buddy did offer a bit of foreshadowing in how toy companies market to consumers based on gender. In 2017, the first male American Girl doll, Logan, was released. Not long after, Mattel ran ads depicting boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with Hot Wheels. My Buddy may not have been a raging success, but its attempts to deconstruct some of the persistent stereotypes in the toy world were ahead of their time.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER