When I watched this commercial for the Mattel Tommy Burst Toy Gun from the 1960’s, I had the same initial reaction most any other viewer would have in the year 2014: There’s no way this commercial would make it on air today. The child wields two toy guns that could easily be mistaken for a real guns at a distance–something most post-Columbine Americans would feel iffy about. On this surface level, though, the commercial is still considerably innocent: just a kid playing with a toy gun the same way most children do at one point or another. But on a deeper look, there are forces acting to keep it innocent.
Note the serial positioning effects of this commercial (or meaningfully tactical order in which its elements appear):
- The father begins reading the Dick Tracy comic to his son. As viewed today, this part of the scene screams To Kill a Mockingbird: the father, complete with Atticus Finch glasses and comb-over, reads to his son on their couch. Of course, this resemblance might not have seemed so apparent given the style of the sixties, but the nature of these elements—suggesting innocence and wholesomeness—is nevertheless highlighted in what follows.
- The son engages himself in the comic’s plot by taking out his toy guns, the Dick Tracy Snub Nose .38 and the Dick Tracy Tommy Burst. As the boy speaks of “blasting” his “way out” of Dick Tracy’s situation (playing the role of Dick Tracy), the father laughs light heartedly—gesturing that he is not only unalarmed by his son’s acting, but approves of it.
- The two sit together on the couch and look to their television, which follows up on the product’s name, price, and displays the company’s emblem.
There are two narratives happening here: one in the child’s immersion into the story and another, more subtle one in the placement of these parts. I’m particularly interested in the latter.
The father is meant to address the values of parents who might be skeptical if this toy is safe or appropriate toy for their children. His clean-shaven, kind, and attentive demeanor make him a moral authority for viewing parents to not only accept, but to abide by. When the son pulls out his toys and acts out “blasting” through his enemies, the father approves, ultimately deeming the toy okay. He ultimately says this toy is okay without really saying it.
I can see two clear sources of moral authority in this commercial. The first, as previously stated, comes from the culture/pop culture of the 1960s and the father’s appeal to the dominant values and aesthetics of white, middle-class America of that time.
The second comes from the Dick Tracy comic. Dick Tracy is a tough-guy cop who defeats bad guys through his wits and frequent gun fights—a bolstering of the strength and unambiguous righteousness of American law. As the guns bare the icon of his face on the packaging like a badge, questioning the moral value of these toys would be questioning American law itself. The package, furthermore, asserts that the toy will help mold the boy into a good citizen.