Classic Ad Review: Mattel's Toy Soldiers

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All loaded and ripe with irony, this 1967 Mattel print ad unabashedly pitched a toy assault weapon to your average preteen boy, a kid who had likely grown up playing with toy guns (and holsters) as an outgrowth of watching shoot-'em-up TV shows like "Gunsmoke."

Credit: Mattel

But by the mid-'60s, Westerns had fallen out of favor as the Vietnam War escalated. Barbie-maker Mattel was branching out from the doll's similarly sophisticated plastics engineering to mass-produce "authentic-looking" toy weapons, and decided to create facsimiles of the M-16 gun that troops were using out in the jungle.

The real weapon was originally designed by Eugene Stoner of Armalite as the AR-15, a variation of which, police say, Nikolas Cruz used to murder 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

During the war, the M-16 tended to jam mid-fight. Troops disliked the rifle so much that an urban myth said that its plastic parts were manufactured by, yes, Mattel. After a Congressional hearing, the M-16 was redesigned.

But the toy gun was being marketed as more than a fake weapon. Ad copy—"Keep cocking the fantastic M-16 Marauder and you can cut loose with a solid blast almost a whole minute long!"—seemed to touch on the pending arrival of puberty and the patriotism associated with blowing away the enemy.

By the 1970s, when antiwar demonstrations reached a fever pitch, guns for kids became taboo in many households. Toymakers moved on to sell less realistic Day-Glo-colored Nerf and water guns. Mattel says it now does not sell toy guns.

After the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, an entirely new outraged and politicized generation is demonstrating for change. As the group takes aim at the White House, members of Congress and the NRA, perhaps this time clear results are possible.

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