Licensing Diary: Hot Potato

Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about? It's Mr. Potato Head, of course-at least, according to Burger King it is. A recent television commercial for the fast-food giant featured the popular toy in claymation form singing...
April 1, 1998

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? It’s Mr. Potato Head, of course-at least, according to Burger King it is. A recent television commercial for the fast-food giant featured the popular toy in claymation form singing a reworked version of the ‘Theme From Shaft’ with the song’s composer, Issac Hayes. The spot, targeted at an African-American audience, was one in a series of commercials Burger King produced using Mr. Potato Head as its ‘spokespud’ to promote its new crispier-tasting fries.

‘Mr. Potato Head has a universal appeal-no pun intended-among consumers of all ages,’ explains Kim Miller, a spokeswoman for Burger King. ‘Decision `98: Try the Fry, America!,’ the name of the campaign, exemplifies the renewed interest in Mr. Potato Head, as more and more companies begin to take advantage of the classic toy’s cross-promotional possibilities.

At present, 28 Mr. Potato Head licenses exist for a range of merchandise, including men’s and boys’ underwear (Briefly Stated), health and beauty-aid products (International Beauty Network), and key chains (Basic Fun). Much of the attention currently surrounding Mr. Potato Head can be traced back to his memorable, if minor, role in Disney’s 1995 box-office behemoth Toy Story; he will also appear in the film’s sequel, says John Gildea, vice president of corporate licensing and promotions at Hasbro, which owns the property. Based on the strength of that performance, Claster Television, which is owned by Hasbro, is producing a cartoon that will run on Fox Kids Network in the U.S. The premise of The Mr. Potato Head Show (a tentative title at this point) finds America’s number one spud working as a wise-cracking television host/actor/producer for a large fictional network, says Sally Bell, president of Claster Television. Storylines will involve Mr. Potato Head hosting his own talk show and engaging in behind-the-scenes showbiz banter with his colleagues, who also happen to be different kinds of food, such as pickles, beets and drumsticks. All of this-the TV show, the movie appearances and the numerous licenses-makes Mr. Potato Head one very hot potato.

‘He’s riding the crest of the nostalgia craze [for] classic characters right now,’ says Gildea. To capitalize on the property’s intergenerational appeal, Hasbro has created an adult-directed licensing program, in addition to its kid-directed program, to satisfy the collectibles market. While new generations of kids are constantly discovering the joys of playing with Mr. Potato Head, says Gildea, scores of baby boomers have stuck with him since his humble beginnings.

Mr. Potato Head was the creation of George Lerner, an East Coast model maker. The toy began life in 1950 as a few pieces of sharply molded plastic, which resembled a pair of eyes, ears, a mouth and a nose. Consumers were encouraged to create a face, by jabbing the pieces into a potato, apple or whatever other fruit or vegetable they had sitting in their refrigerators. Lerner sold the toy to a breakfast cereal company in 1950, and Hasbro purchased the rights to Mr. Potato Head in 1952 and has manufactured it ever since. To accompany Mr. Potato Head, Hasbro introduced the pieces for Mrs. Potato Head a year later, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the two would sprout their familiar brown plastic bodies. A family of small fries-among them, Spud, Yam and Sweet Potato-would follow in the ensuing years. According to a Hasbro release, as of 1996, it had sold more than 50 million Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. Today, several divisions of Hasbro create about a dozen Potato Head products. Playskool makes the classic Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, in addition to Potato Head-themed magnets and puzzles; Parker Brothers offers the Play-Doh Mr. Potato Head set and an electronic handheld game; and Hasbro Interactive produces a Mr. Potato Head interactive CD-ROM title.

Ultimately, it is the play values inherent in the original Mr. Potato Head toy that have companies vying for new licenses, says Maureen Smith, director of marketing for Playskool.

‘The wonderful thing about Mr. Potato Head is that he can be anything a child wants him to be. . . . There is no wrong way to play with Mr. Potato Head because children create him using their own imaginations-he is a ‘no fail’ toy.’

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