New Feelings Kid Brain

How toy commercials taught me the value of deep, aimless attention

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

YouTube makes available all the videos I was never sure I actually saw — the commercials that rippled through my brain in the early 1980s, before I really knew how to talk. In 1984, Mattel launched its Rainbow Brite doll with a 30-second intro commercial. Child actor Heather O’Rourke, fresh from her Poltergeist fame, sits alone looking glum on a sun-soaked porch swing. A friend bounces into frame and hands her a brand-new Rainbow Brite doll. O’Rourke gasps at its beauty. She runs her fingers along the fabric of Rainbow Brite’s dress — made of polyester “Crystalette,” the pearly fabric that formed Peaches n’ Cream Barbie’s bodice and She-ra’s glossy pink cape — and coos, “Rainbow Brite, you make me happy.”

My memory of watching that commercial is both fuzzy and vivid: a non-verbal collage, as I melt into the doll’s tactile components. I remember my focus on that shiny dress, imagining the way it might glint in the sun, and knowing just how it would feel to run my fingers along its expanse. Would they catch a little on the stickiness of the plasticized surface? Would that surface squeak a bit? Maybe if I applied pressure. This is a state of mindfulness I haven’t been able to achieve since, not in any meditation class with singing bowls, not with any app. And while it probably wasn’t the copywriter’s objective, cultivating this kind of singular focus eased the anxiety of youth, as it now does adulthood.

My memory of watching that commercial is both fuzzy and vivid: a non-verbal collage. This is a state of mindfulness I haven’t been able to achieve since

Mattel worked with the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather to develop the campaign for Rainbow Brite during a time when the Federal Communications Commission had deregulated limitations on advertising to children. This allowed marketers to target kids in focused demographic segments rather than speaking to their parents, and new opportunities for segmentation meant sharpened messaging by gender. In the past, girls’ toys had focused on domesticity (play ovens, baby dolls); with the rise of feminism in the 1970s these were replaced with more progressive and gender-neutral toys like Lego, but in the 1980s, beauty, softness and sensorial luxury ascended as a fixed point of direct communication to girls. This approach, as uncomfortable as it is in hindsight, had unexpected side effects.

Unlike GI Joes, which are engaged in a life-long conflict with the evil Cobra Command across multiple fronts, Rainbow Brite dolls had no obvious narrative: No quest to fulfil, no battle to win, no shiny, colorful love interest. A child could run their fingers through Rainbow Brite’s orange hair yarns, or they could hug her soft, plush body, over and over. These sensorially rich, repetitive actions turn off the talky, questioning, narrative part of the brain — the source of so much anxiety and depression in children, as well as grownups.

An adult, I understand that childhood, although we idealize it, can be an isolated, sad, frustrating time. You have no control over your world, what you eat or when you sleep, or what the adults around you will do. In times of real trouble you are rarely permitted to understand what’s going on. There’s a need for stress reduction, even when no one in charge will admit that the stress is real. The simple propositions made by toys like Strawberry Shortcake (she smells like strawberries; you can smell her), or So-Soft My Little Ponies (they’re fuzzy and soft; you can touch them), was escape. With these objects in your hands, you had nothing to figure out, nothing to worry about.

There were no sets or stories, or competitions to win. You were only meant to pay attention to the way the objects made you feel

The toys I grew up with used tactile cues to create a sense of peace, and the state they induced has always felt like home to me, intuitive and attentive. There were no sets or stories, or competitions to win. You were only meant to pay attention to the way the objects made you feel.

Watching these commercials on YouTube, I feel a deep, immediate slide into a barely verbal world — I am zipped right back to kid-brain, remembering the hours I spent by myself watching television in deep focus. An advertisement for Sea Wees’ “Icy Gals” opens on a small, hard-plastic doll drifting through bath bubbles on a spongy ice floe; small hands immerse her frosted mint-green-and-white hair in the water so that it shimmers. The spot for My Little Pony’s “So-Soft” ponies features four girls sitting in muted jewel tone dresses, cross-legged in a garden, rubbing fuzzy pastel ponies on their faces and each other in a state of gentle ecstasy.

These ads sit appropriately next to generic ASMR videos, which are known to reduce stress, ease depression, and help viewers sleep better. The term “ASMR” is only eight years old, but the phenomenon isn’t traceable to a date, and the most exemplary of these videos seem, consciously or not, to distill the old TV spots to their basic sensorial components: 16 minutes of the soft whispering that once named the toy company; 26 minutes of hair-brushing with accompanying sounds, once the selling point of so many famous girl toys; an hour of fingers tapping on and gliding over stacks of shiny folded fabric. Polyester Crystalette — I’d know it anywhere.

When I finally got a Sea Wee, I spent a long time dipping her below bathwater. I focused on the changing color of the plastic mermaid doll as I immersed it, and the feeling of being in water. I didn’t need any instructions beyond the commercial’s prompts: The only “game” was to watch the color of her hair change as it floated under the water, and wait for it to dry so that I could comb it. It was a time to forget the tensions between my parents, to forget my anxieties about school, to forget that our house was weird. It wasn’t about defeating something, or winning something; it was about the pure, uncomplicated adoration.

Such attentiveness has to be taught, and although it was taught to me partly by advertisements, I’ve come to better understand the importance, and the difficulty, of activity without a productive goal. The doll is enough. You spend time with her. She is meant to make you happy.

Aurora Stewart de Peña is a writer and ad strategist from Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Vice and the Puritan, and she’s a playwright in residence at Buddies in Bad Times theater.