The 1970s was a seminal decade for the advertising industry. Televisions were in 69 million homes in the United States, with some viewers watching for up to six hours a day. Even better: Research showed that kids under eight years of age were believed to be unable to distinguish between a TV commercial and a regular program. That meant commercials appealing to young consumers—and their cash-wielding parents—held high potential to make a real impact on toy sales.
As toy companies looked for that one big hit that could help subsidize all of the misses, they tried shilling everything from dolls that grew breasts to plastic cows that could be “milked.” Take a look at some of the more puzzling ads to run on TV tubes in the '70s.
1. THE MANIACAL LAUGHING DOLL (1971)
It’s hard to imagine that the director of this spot for Baby Laugh a Lot had any intention beyond scaring the souls out of children. As the Remco-produced doll sits and rocks on a chair, her ceaseless laughter demanding psychiatric evaluation, quick cuts reveal her giggles are becoming contagious—first in her human play pals, then in the voiceover narrator.
2. MILKY THE MARVELOUS MILKING COW (1977)
A jointly-produced oddity by Kenner and General Foods, Milky offered a replica cow-milking experience. After “drinking” some water, Milky’s rubber udders could be squeezed to produce a cloudy-looking liquid. (Kids dumped a discoloring tablet into Milky before operating.) As vile as the secretion looked, Kenner still blared warnings for kids “not to drink the pretend milk you get from Milky.” A look at their 1978 catalog reveals Milky was intended to be part of an entire line of barnyard toys, including Gobbles the Goat. He came with pieces of garbage.
3. THE DOLL THAT SIMULATES PUBERTY (1975)
Picking up Mattel’s Barbie spin-off doll Skipper at a toy store and examining her packaging didn’t really sell girls on her most distinctive feature. By tugging on her arm, kids could cause Skipper to grow in height and seemingly develop protruding breasts—an action that was easily demonstrated in TV spots. While ads avoided using the word “breasts”—Skipper instead became “curvy”—public reaction was negative to this sudden-onset simulation of puberty: When Skipper returned to shelves in 1979, her upper torso was fixed in place.
4. A DISTURBINGLY INTIMATE CARD GAME (1978)
Hoping to replicate the success of Twister, Hasbro introduced a game titled Great Moves in 1978. One player would wear a small whiteboard while someone else used a pen strapped to different parts of their body: The two would then attempt to draw a picture. Depending on where each wound up, the results could be something you’d see late at night on Cinemax.
5. ICE BIRD, THE TOY THAT DEMANDED CHILD LABOR (1974)
Many people have fond memories of the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, a plastic device that shaved up ice cubes so kids could make frozen treats. Kenner’s Ice Bird followed the same premise, except it required a giant block of ice that users would have to laboriously scrape in order to get their precious shavings.
6. BALL BUSTER: THE HOME GAME (1975)
It’s hard to say whether or not the minds behind this Mego tabletop game knew of the idiom they were referencing or if it pre-dated the popular term for annoying someone. The former seems unlikely, as FCC regulations for networks in the '70s were far too stringent for such innuendo to get on air. Either way, the commercial spares no opportunity to explain how players can “bust each other’s balls.” Be sure to watch until the end.
7. THE ALIEN ACTION FIGURE (1979)
The parasitic, murderous alien designed by psychosexual artist H.R. Giger for 1979's R-rated film Alien would be a curious choice for a toymaker—unless that toymaker is Kenner, masterminds behind Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow. Kids could stalk other kids with the giant-sized figure, which mimicked a face-chomping motion when users squeezed the back of his phallic head. Despite these missteps, Kenner still had a very profitable decade: They were the licensee for Lucasfilm's Star Wars franchise.