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The Classic Toy “Mr. Potato Head” Would Never Become a Success in Today’s Overprotective Society

by: Geoff Ficke

The Classic Toy “Mr. Potato Head” Would Never Become a Success in Today’s Overprotective Society 

In the late 1940’s a Brooklyn-based inventor named George Lerner began to attempt to license a toy concept he had developed. The idea was to take pieces of fruit and vegetables and dress them with human facial features made from tiny plastic parts. The goal was to enable kids to create funny faces on their veggies. 

Mr. Lerner shopped the idea to many toy companies. None were interested. After the hardship and shortages of World War II, it was thought that the resulting waste of food from decorating perishables with funny shaped eyes, brows, ears and lips would be seen as irresponsible. Nevertheless, the inventor was enamored of his prototype and plodded onward. 

After several years of making no progress with toy manufacturers in his effort to license the product George Lerner was finally successful in selling the plastic parts as a premium promotion for cereal producers. While thrilled to finally have his creation in children’s hands, albeit as a give-away, Mr. Lerner continued to believe that his future with the item lay in the toy world. He kept pitching to toy companies. 

In 1951 Lerner introduced the product to a small manufacturer just entering the toy category: Hassenfeld Brothers. They agreed to license the product and launch it as a stand-alone toy. Mr. Potato Head was born. The original kit came with a set of multiple facial parts that could be mixed and matched by children to create funny, sad, silly facial expressions when the parts were stuck onto vegetables. Potatoes became the favorite body to build the faces on. Parents supplied the potatoes.

Mr. Potato Head was such a huge success that it became the first toy product ever advertised directly to children. It provided the impetus for a Saturday morning block of children’s television programming that became ubiquitous in every home in America. In the 1960’s a plastic potato body was included in the set at the behest of the government. Brother Spud, Sister Yam and the Spud-ette’s were introduced by the licensee. Hassenfeld Brothers had evolved into Hasbro and Mr. Potato Head was properly credited with supplying the launching pad for one of America’s great toy companies. Hasbro has done an amazing job of placing Mr. Potato Head in the classic Pixar-produced Toy Story movies, comic strips and television series.

In the 1970’s, one of America’s most beloved toy franchises came increasingly under the paternalistic gaze of the Federal Government. For two decades children had come to love creating goofy faces and expressions for their Mr. Potato Head’s. Suddenly the government began to take note that Mr. Potato Head contained small, sharp parts that had to be pushed into the body of the toy. Lawyers took note as well. 

Through the years Mr. Potato Head has undergone numerous redesigns in order to remain in compliance with ever changing regulations. The construction of the funny-face parts has been redesigned several times to eliminate points and sharp edges. The pieces have been exponentially enlarged to minimize the chance for swallowing. The plastic potato body is nearing the size of a soccer ball. 

I played with Mr. Potato Head as a child. So did my six brothers and sisters and the hundreds of kids in my neighborhood in the 1950’s. Somehow we all survived.

Mr. Potato Head survives despite a contemporary society that has become frighteningly risk-averse. My marketing consulting and product development Company reviews many toy and game products every year. One of the most common reasons we decline offerings is because we are supremely aware of the toy industry’s fear of product liability and litigation issues. Many of these products would have been viable 50 years ago. Today they will not even be considered. It makes me uncomfortable that a product review of Mr. Potato Head, conducted in 2011, would almost surely result in a verdict of decline for this classic.   

Mr. Potato Head is a beloved children’s toy and will continue to evolve to remain in compliance with the whims of the nanny state. I want every child protected. Safety can never be compromised. In the 21st century, however, if Mr. Potato Head did not exist, it would find a much more problematic road to store shelves than it did in the 1950’s. I fear we would never have known the toy. I know that millions of children would have enjoyed a much less whimsical childhood without this simple, happy, creative product.