As a charter member of the first generation that marketers actually started marketing to, I heard plenty of ads toys on Saturday mornings - prime time for kiddie TV watching at that time. Most of the toy companies then advertised are gone - "Every boy wants a Remco toy - and so do girls", anyone - but Mattel lives on. At least for now.
We, of course, had our own version of toy ads, and our one for Mattel was "You Can Tell It's Mattel by Its Smell."
God knows the kids in Main South Worcester weren't very clever if this was our best shot. But it was one of them - our witty little take off on the "You Can Tell It's Mattel. It's Swell!" (Another one was the joke that the P.F. in P.F. Flyers stood for "Pink Farts". Ho, ho, the Baby Boomers were a funny bunch of kids!)
The very word "swell" made us roll our eyes.
Who said swell? Mickey Rooney an Judy Garland in those old black and white movies we liked to laugh at. Even when goody-two-sneaker kids like Wally and The Beav said "swell", they were mostly being sarcastic - or resigned to some lame decision that Ward and June had made.
I'm also quite sure that we had all kinds of unsafe toys.
I remember a stuffed poodle named Pierre whose googly eyes were attached by a sharp, spiraling inch and a half of metal that could be easily pulled out of the dog and used as a weapon.
My sister Kathleen had a plug-in iron with a real plug - or she would have if our boring old safety-conscious-before-her-time mother hadn't removed the plug and replaced it with a boring old suction cup. Come on! What's not to like about a four year old playing with a play iron that heats up to 500 degrees?
We also had some cast iron apparatus that contained molds for the heads of something called "Creeple People". You poured some plastic goop into the mold, plugged it in and baked away until the heads solidified. You then stuck them on the end of pencils. (It was a kinder, gentler era.)
We laugh now, but I'm sure there were plenty of kids who were injured by poorly designed toys "in the day."
And now we know better.
You really shouldn't have to think twice when you pick up a toy that it's hazardous to your kid's health.
So toys are generally safer. I bet there aren't many stuffed animals on the market with corkscrews in their eye sockets. And toys are labeled so that those meant for the age-bracket that puts everything in their mouths aren't full of tiny little choking hazards and coated with poison. Or so we thought.
Then Mattel started recalling toys that used lead paint. A million here, a million there.
The latest recall involves more Barbie accessories, and a Fisher-Price musical instrument set. Bad enough your kid sucking on a loose shingle from the Barbie Dream House. At least the majority of kids probably aren't doing that. But musical instruments? Aren't they supposed to go into a kid's mouth? What else are you going to do with a toy horn?
I don't know how much of these toy recalls is over-reacting hysteria, but who wants to find out. Maybe a little lead in the diet does no harm, but is there anyone who'd take a chance with their own kid?
So, just what did happen here?
Did Mattel not bother to tell the Chinese factories that they shouldn't use lead paint?
Was Mattel too focused on getting the goods made as cheaply as possible that they turned a blind eye to manufacturing conditions and practices "over there"? Let's face it, if they had to pay for higher wages and better working conditions, they wouldn't be able to pour all that money into what really matters: marketing to kids who aren't even potty trained.
Or did the Chinese factories figure that no one would find out that they cut a few corners here and there?
Did the factories of record, of relationship with Mattel, subcontract out to lesser outfits that couldn't pass Mattel's direct scrutiny?
Don't ask, don't tell where and how all these toys are getting made. All that matters is that they're getting made, marketed, bought up, and tossed aside - turning up still-in-the-box on eBay, beaten up in a yard sale, or into the maws of landfills, where 1000 years from now someone will pick up a still intact, teensy-weensy pink Barbie pooper-scooper, and a little plastic turd, and ask what the hell we were doing back then.
Bad business, all around.
The smell is going to be wafting around the Mattel brand for quite a while to come. And I don't know if there's anyone at Mattel who's feeling very "swell" this morning.
For more on the China Trade: You Get What You Pay For