And Deliver It Does – RCA Selectavision Lineup (1984)

Few companies bridged that gap between the radio days and the television era the way that RCA did. RCA didn’t just develop cutting-edge radios and television sets, they developed broadcast technology that defined how generations of consumers would receive their media and how old people still continue to receive it today. All parties must end, though, and this 1984 dealer-only demo disc of RCA’s Selectavision line plays like the wilted final jabs of a once-great prize fighter just before the manager throws in the towel.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to like here. For one, the set. It’s warm, tastefully glitzy, creepily plush, like a game show prize area. I’m a sucker for a darkened television set that selectively lights up for emphasis, a very 1970s-80s television tactic, and that effect is done repeatedly throughout this video. There’s also a showtune-y refrain at the end of each segment that grates on the ears but fits the time and place really well.

The tech is also somewhat impressive. The Selectavision label wasn’t new to the ’80s – it had been used as far back as 1969 referring to the Holotape concept – nor was it specific to a device. In this case, Selectavision applies to a convertable VCR, a range of monitors, and the CED disc player. The convertable VCR is legit groundbreaking, an impressive device with a rechargeable battery that clicks seamlessly out of its berth for on-the-go use with a video camera.

The CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) player, and really the technology as a whole, isn’t as impressive as RCA wants it to be. Not quite a record, not quite a LaserDisc, the CED lay somewhere in between. It’s an analog video disc that’s read by a stylus, an idea that may have had some merit when it was conceived in the ’60s but loses a bit of its futuristic luster when marketed on in a world on the verge of optically-read compact disc technology. Still, there’s something nice about the design of both the machine and the discs themselves, which were kept in goofy oversized cartridges that offered protection from dust. RCA does a hard sell here on the idea of technology and the titles that they’re offering, and you can sort of tell that they’re not even buying their own hype. This train has already left the station.

RCA’s proprietary all-in-one remote is another impressive part of this demo, a universal remote before there were universal remotes. You can look at remote control efforts before this thing existed to see the kinds of options that consumers lacked up to that point, and also look forward to see just how far we’ve come with simplicity and connectivity. By 1984’s standards this is a pretty revolutionary remote, but it’s still a complicated mess – not to mention you’ve got to be thousands of dollars deep in RCA products to be able to get any real benefit from it. It’s still attractive, and by the way the demo keeps coming back to it it appears that they know it.

In between all of this are the television sets. Here’s where you start to see the cracks in RCA’s armor. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the monitors, but there’s nothing particularly special about them either. This demo exists in an era where competition in the consumer electronic space is ratcheting way up and differentiation is key – either in feature or performance – and RCA can’t really boast a strong advantage in either. Also, there’s a TON of television models. There are points where it starts to feel like a game show prize rundown and a home shopping channel had a baby.

So at the end of it all you have some TVs that are fine, an already-outdated video disc technology that you’re trying to launch, a universal remote, and a VCR for a fringe audience that pops out and can be used with a camcorder. Not a good look for RCA, who would be bought by GE two years after this demo and essentially sold for parts. The brand survived but their golden era had come to a close.

Here’s the video; keep an eye on the menu system and how clunky it was to even skip around the demo in this “groundbreaking” CED technology.

“Not A Flash In The Pan” – Crystal Pepsi Training Video (1992)

Sure, New Coke was a disaster for the Coca-Cola company and the reintroduction of the Classic formula was an expensive hail-mary pass that paid off and the whole debacle would probably serve as a good example to other leaders in the soda industry of the importance of maintaining the integrity of your flagship product, but that was the ’80s and by the ’90s Pepsi was ready to try their bad idea.

Crystal Pepsi launched in 1992 with the help of an aggressive marketing campaign centered around Van Halen’s “Right Now”. The ads were everywhere and the product itself was intriguing just from the sheer gimmickry of it. A clear cola, bereft of caffeine and preservatives, for the consumer seeking a ‘healthier’ soda option. An interesting move for Pepsi – bad moves can still be interesting – and this training video to Pepsi distributors educating them about the main talking points of Crystal Pepsi is also interestingly bad.

The video takes viewers through the main talking points of the ad campaign without all of the production effort. Instead we’re treated to a very low-budget grab bag of ’90s video effects and graphics. This is what the Saved By The Bell intro would look like if it were made by college students.

We’ve also got a lot of talking heads, actual Pepsi employees (!), extolling the virtues of the product. Phrases like “a more subtle cola,” “doesn’t taste like any other clear drink”, “we can’t keep it on the shelves,” and “it took the market by storm” really highlight the effort to bring the distributors into the cult of Crystal. They call it that, by the way, just “Crystal”. Real insider. Real casual.

After downloading all of the marketing points, the video turns to a few practice sessions to anticipate what would ultimately turn out to be justified hesitation on the store-owners’ parts. A few of the questions urge the distributors to passively-aggressively push for more shelf space at no cost to the existing Pepsi line. Even in play-acting, it’s awkward.

Also, they couldn’t do this in an actual store? These sets look to be half-heartedly designed by children.

Crystal Pepsi did okay for a little while, but the fad wore off pretty quickly. Coca-Cola dealt the final blow with “Tab Clear”, a suicide attempt at creating an intentionally inferior clear product that would sour public perception of clear soda and ultimately destroy both brands.

There’s a few bright spots in Crystal Pepsi’s afterlife; a few grassroots attempts to revive the formula resulted in Pepsi’s half-hearted effort to give it another try in the interest of nostalgia. It didn’t stick, maybe it was never meant to.

Here’s the training video.

Christmas Day in Rainbowland – 1985 Holiday Toys

1985!

The world got some good stuff in 1985 like Cherry Coke, Classic Coke, “We Are The World”, and Back to the Future.

1985 also found society in the middle of a huge media shift to the home video market.  VCR players were finally somewhat affordable to the average Joe and this would cause the VHS rental and retail market to explode. No longer were you chained to a TV station’s decisions to run (or not run) your favorite show – you could record and playback to your heart’s content. It’s difficult to overstate what a game changer this was.  Plus, retailers could now get away with charging an arm and a leg for VHS copies of Hollywood hits…for a while, at least.

Our robot toy fever had somewhat subsided, although the bigger robot brands like Transformers still had a hold on kids’ imaginations.  Other hit properties of the past few years, like G.I. Joe and Cabbage Patch Kids had new lines and iterations for the 1985 season, but let’s take a look at some new breakouts.

Rambo

Rambo was a huge box-office and cultural hit in 1985, but I don’t know how popular this toy line actually was. I do know that this is the most violent toy commercial I’ve ever seen. The animation at the top of the ad is just brutal!

Rainbow Brite

Rainbow Brite and the Color Kids weren’t a new property in 1985 – the show and toys had debuted a year earlier – but this year the franchise was really rolling along with some additions to the toy lineup like Starlite and Lurky…

…and a 10 song Christmas album!

Madballs

These foam baseball-sized toys came in a variety of grotesque personas.  The ’80s was a case study in how to make toys “politely” gross – repulsive enough to be attractive to the boy market but benign enough that parents would pay for it.  I think Madballs hit that balance well.

He-Man Fright Zone

First there was the epic Castle Grayskull playset. Then there was the even-more-epic Snake Mountain playset. Then, in 1985, there was the… Fright Zone.  A cool playset, but nothing on the scale of the two lairs. This release reflects a point where He-Man started to drift away from the core offering, iterating into more niche products.  Still, a cool playset with an integrated puppet component!

Nintendo Entertainment System

The system that changed everything. As you can see in the ad the game line up isn’t quite there yet, but it was already clear that this was head and shoulders above any home video game offering up to that point. Nintendo knew what they had on their hands, and things only went up from here.

Teddy Ruxpin

1985’s riot-maker and secondary-market-darling was an animatronic teddy bear that could talk. Worlds of Wonder’s Teddy Ruxpin shook things up with a competent articulation and a deep bench of content. Kids would insert story cassette tapes into Teddy’s back containing stories that Teddy would tell.  Further down the line Teddy’s friends could be connected to Teddy to tell the stories together.

This show-and-tell has the toughest crowd I have ever seen. These kids are like Hollywood agents who have seen it all.

Teddy had a pretty high price point, and the individual story cassettes weren’t cheap either. The product didn’t have the longevity that Worlds of Wonder probably wanted, but it was an impressive piece of technology that deserved the heads it turned. And yeah, it was pretty creepy too.

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Poppin’ Breakin’ Music Machine – 1984 Holiday Toys

1984! Bring it!

1984 gave us some cool stuff – the world’s first Macintosh computer, the first untethered space walk and, course, UK “Supergroup” Band Aid was formed.

Robots seemed to be the order of the year for the holiday season – there were high-end offerings, low-end offerings, things for kids and grown-ups alike.  Society seemed ready to aggressively welcome robot butlers in our lives, regardless of whether the technology of the day was up to the task. I admire our optimism; despite raging famine, volatile political landscapes, and a recession in the US, there was still a bright beam of hope for the future. I’ve rounded up some notable draws of the holiday season but first let’s take a look at how awful the grown-ups had it in the realm of gifts.

 

Barbie Peaches and Cream

Decidedly not-a-robot, Barbie went in an odd direction this year as she donned an obscenely frilly ball dress in her “Peaches and Cream” variant. Such a strange dress. Plant that fashion flag, Barbie!

 

Apple IIc

Kind of a robot? Apple took a stab at a portable computer in 1984 with the IIc.  It didn’t shake out to be nearly as popular as the IIe and was somewhat trounced by the competition, but it had a moment that holiday. Not crazy about the dad-shaming in this ad!

 

Omnibot

Now we’re talking! Tomy’s Omnibot line was the robot servant dream come true for kids. Sort of. This guy had a tape recorder that you could record commands with or just use conventionally.  It had a claw that could pick up light objects. It had a clock! This ad also suggests that Omnibot is attracted to vacuum cleaners and also makes you want to breakdance.

TOMY had an extensive Omnibot family. There’s a lot here; I’ll probably revisit this soon.

(images courtesy of theoldrobots.com.)

 

Maxx Steele and Robo Force

For those with slimmer budgets and the desire to get playset-action-figurey with their robots, the Maxx Steele and Robo Force line was more appropriate.  There were more expensive Maxx Steele robots on the market as well, but they were pretty prohibitively priced. The Robo Force line is impressively deep.

(images courtesy of theoldrobots.com.)

 

Transformers

And finally, the main course. Transformers were the Cabbage Patch Kids of 1984, the toy that everyone wanted but nobody could find.  I’ll never get sick of news reporters trying to describe what makes toys so fun.

Fad and Scarcity aside, these toys were great. Well made with a diverse range of features and a clear ‘script’ on how to play with them if you wanted that sort of thing.

Soundwave was a “tape robot” that you could carry around with you. Sorry, Omnibot, that’s one point for Soundwave!

This Wal-Mart ad focuses strictly on the Autobots, which is a really weird choice to make!

And that’s 1984! Did I miss any must-haves from your list? Let me know!

 

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We Had A Near Riot – 1983 Holiday Toys

1983! What a year!

Sally Ride became the first woman in space! ARPANET started using the Internet Protocol, effectively creating the internet as we know it! National Lampoon’s Vacation, Trading Places, and Return of the Jedi came out in theaters! The Police released “Every Breath You Take”! Motorola released the first consumer mobile phones!

(Also the video game industry crashed, the U.S. invaded Grenada, famine in Ethiopia reached historic levels, and the IRA detonated a bomb in a department store during Holiday shopping season, so it wasn’t all roses and sunshine.)

What was in full swing, though, was a marriage of emerging technology and holiday consumerism that really set the stage for the different forms our favorite brands take nowadays.  1983 wasn’t the first year for licensed toys and software and scarcity-fueled obsessions, of course, but these things really seemed to be the norm for perhaps the first time. Let’s take a look at the holiday hotness that was the 1983 season.

 

Gifts for “Hackers”

Computer Chronicles is usually a little more with it than what we’ve got here. This segment really illustrates our tendency to refer to anything computer-related as “hacking” – a tendency we continue to this day! Check out the best gifts for hackers in 1983 – a word processing program, a Christmas card on a floppy disc, Reader Rabbit, and a stuffed animal that’s (supposed to be) voice-controlled.

 

G.I. Joe Base

G.I. Joe’s that perfect execution of a popular toy brand turned into a popular show, the textbook reason why laws were passed in the ’90s preventing toy shows from running commercials for their product during the show the product was about. The 1983 toy lineup featured the Headquarters base for the first time.

Also released in 1983 was the Personnel Carrier. I mean come on, can you imagine this commercial running during a G.I. Joe episode? You’d have no idea the commercial started!

 

Return of the Jedi

Speaking of proofs-of-concept, Star Wars wrote the book on how to license two hours of fun into billions of dollars of product.  Return of the Jedi was no exception, spawning a ton of new figures and playsets – some of which were my favorite Star Wars toys of all time.

This Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band ad is a great add-on to the superior Jabba the Hut/Jabba’s lair playset.

This spot’s a pretty good roundup of some of the new figurines, mostly from the Battle of Endor.

Staying on Endor, here’s my #1 toy – the Ewok Village.  This kid does a decent C-3P0 impression as well!

 

Care Bears

Greeting card company American Greetings hit pay dirt in 1983 with the Care Bears, sparking a plush craze and a show that stretched well through the rest of the decade.

Each bear had a defining emotion on their bellies, making them the perfect gift for someone needing cheering up from a broken leg, being away from your family, or…being a baby?

Every day can be a Care Bear day, according to this ad. You also get a peek at some of the animation from the show.

This one’s pretty interesting – it’s a Care Bears spot, but it’s for the greeting cards and it’s aimed at adults!

 

Cabbage Patch Kids

It would be irresponsible to do a write-up on 1983’s top holiday toys and include the word ‘craze’ and not conclude with Coleco’s  Cabbage Patch Kids.

These adorably creepy dead-eyed dolls found their way into the homes of every kid whose parents were lucky enough to find one, and served as the first instance of a scarcity-driven holiday craze that caused early morning panics at department stores and jacked-up prices on the secondary market.

 

You can imagine the fire this lit not just among shoppers but also the toy industry. This sort of craze for a product was possible? Could it be manufactured? We’d all find out in the years to come.

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