On December 11, 1976, Saturday Night Live aired its first “Consumer Probe” sketch on the sale of unsafe toys. Drawing on print and broadcast safety warnings from organizations like Consumer Reports and the recently-established Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the sketch lampooned the U.S. toy industry for endangering kids to maximize profits. Featuring Candice Bergen as the host of the fictional show Consumer Probe and Dan Aykroyd as the sleazy toymaker Irwin Mainway, the scene centered on Mainway defending hazardous items including Mr. Skin Grafter, Johnny Switchblade: Adventure Punk, and Bag O’ Glass.
Despite the outrageousness of these products, the conversation between Mainway and his alarmed host pointed to two pressing questions of the late-twentieth-century movement to control injuries involving toys. What should the expanding federal bureaucracy let corporations sell as toys? And how should consumer protection differ for children and adults? SNL skewered businessmen like Mainway for refusing to compromise on these problems and emphasized the excesses of twentieth-century commercial capitalism.
During the first half of the scene, the unnamed Probe reporter displayed a series of risky toys and challenged Mainway to spell out why his company continued to sell these “so-called harmless playthings.” Pushing the button on top of Johnny Switchblade, for example, caused two hidden knives to spring out of its arms. These blades could cut users playing with the doll and encouraged impressionable children to act violently. Mainway disingenuously swept aside these complaints: “Nothing goes wrong… little girls buy ’em, you know, they play games, they make up stories, nobody gets hurt. I mean, so Barbie takes a knife once in a while, or Ken gets cut. You know, there’s no harm in that.” According to Mainway and his real-life counterparts, consumer advocates and government officials had overstated the dangers of popular toys and unnecessarily restricted the free market. Parents, these toymakers proposed, should have the nearly absolute freedom to decide what to buy for their kids and the principal responsibility to protect their families from accidents.
The premise and script of the sketch came out of recent political controversies over the proper methods and scope of child safety measures. Many early consumer product safety laws for goods other than foods, drugs, and cosmetics – including the Flammable Fabrics Act (1953), Refrigerator Safety Act (1956), and Child Protection Act (1966) – were expressly passed to keep children safe from flammable clothes, discarded refrigerators, and toys containing inflammable or toxic chemicals. This patchwork legislation, however, did not cover toys with shock, burn, or choking hazards, let alone items able to mechanically injure their users. Anxieties about unsafe toys eventually contributed to the appointment of the National Commission on Product Safety (1968—1970), which investigated the extent to which voluntary safety programs protected the public as well as the potential tradeoffs of state intervention.
Over its short but eventful two-year lifespan, the Commission received scores of letters from families reporting blowguns, firecrackers, breakable rattles, small-scale electric irons, and stuffed animals with “bayonet” eyes attached using straight pins. One Washington homemaker sent Betty Furness (1916–1994), the second Special Assistant to President Lyndon Johnson for Consumer Affairs, a pin found tacking a doll to its carton. She bristled, “Someone needs to slap the greedy hand of the toy industry for some of its shoddy tricks. We have already suffered two injuries and one broken heart from poorly constructed albeit expensive gifts.” Whereas many toymakers singled out members of the public for buying the wrong toys and not watching their children play, discontented citizen-consumers expected the toy industry to meet stricter safety standards and turned to the U.S. government for oversight.
The contemporary tensions between free enterprise, personal responsibility, and child protection were recurring themes of the Commission. Aaron Locker (1927–2013), the General Counsel of the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA), objected to the “pot shots” taken against his clients for selling trivial numbers of unsafe toys as compared to “billions” of safe ones. The laws of supply and demand, Locker testified, would quickly put toymakers supplying dangerous goods out of business. He questioned the cost and efficiency of federal regulation and accused critics of trade associations like the TMA of excusing the widespread carelessness of consumers and caregivers. Improved engineering and quality control could not keep children from injuring themselves without adult supervision and common sense: “There are hazardous toys or unsafe toys. I can’t disagree. There are hazardous and unsafe objects all around us […] If we wanted to be completely safe, maybe we should stay in bed.” When SNL mocked this cynical perspective several years later, the show had Mainway check his fingers for splinters from a set of alphabet blocks after pitching his latest toy – Teddy Chainsaw Bear. If even poorly-sanded wooden blocks could injure unsuspecting users, Mainway reasoned, then companies should be allowed to sell whatever their customers were willing to buy.
At the same time, witnesses including the Boston lawyer Edward M. Swartz and Morris Kaplan (1911–1971), the Technical Director of Consumers Union, called attention to the crucial differences between toys and other products. Kids did not reliably follow directions or warning labels and misused their belongings more often than adults. Unlike Locker, who drew parallels between the inherent risks of toys and other household goods, Swartz and Kaplan held toys to especially high standards. According to Swartz, the word “toy” itself implied safety and caused buyers to overlook the dangers of everything from metal diecasting kits to stuffed rabbits with adjustable ears made out of cloth and razor-sharp wire. The definition of safe and unsafe toys also depended on the ages of their users. Infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers could play with increasingly sophisticated items, some of which blurred the lines between playthings and home appliances. Reformers pushed corporations to redesign their toys or to replace them with safer alternatives, but this task was far from straightforward.
“Real-life” toys complicated the work of the Commission to clarify what counted as toys and to make sure children could play with them safely. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, toymakers began selling miniature kitchen equipment for girls along with air rifles, science kits, and other dangerous items for boys. These appliances worked almost exactly like their full-size counterparts and posed the same risks. The ironically named Magic Cool Oven, for example, plugged into wall sockets carrying 110 volts of current, had the same heating coils as standard electric ranges, and misleadingly assured adult buyers, “Outside safe for little fingers to touch.” Swartz characterized real-life toys as riskier than housekeeping devices because their marketing and labeling downplayed their shock, burn, and wide-ranging mechanical hazards. Goods unable to meet the forgiving standards of the TMA and institutions like Underwriters Laboratories (UL), furthermore, were still sold across the country. Nonstate actors had neither the resources nor authority to force businesses to perform presale product testing or to recall unsafe items from the shelves.
Richard J. Manuell of the National Safety Council agreed with Swartz and Kaplan about the potential benefits of federal product safety regulation but focused more on its anticipated drawbacks. Citing the Florida Toy Injury Survey of 1961, Manuell attributed 50 percent of child injuries to poor adult supervision and 25 percent to the use of objects like plastic dry-cleaning bags as toys. New standards and enforcement would not correct either of these trends. The pro-business leaders of the Council correspondingly collected evidence on accidents involving makeshift toys to channel the efforts of independent safety experts and the government away from foolproof engineering and toward safety education. Conscientious businesses could not keep adventurous children under their protection at all times. Mainway and other disreputable toymakers conversely rationalized selling products like Bags O’ Glass and Bags O’ Nails because kids found similarly hazardous items everywhere they went: “The average kid, he picks up, you know, broken glass anywhere […] The beach, the street, garbage cans, parking lots, all over the place in any big city. We’re just packaging what the kids want!”
This back-and-forth over toy safety informed the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, which enabled the federal government to write standards, order recalls, inspect factories and retailers, and ban unreasonably dangerous merchandise. Unfortunately, these powers have not changed the methods of child protection, which continue to rely on safety education and industry cooperation. Without the budget and personnel to carry out its mission, the CPSC has mostly left toy and childcare firms to regulate themselves. As recently as 2019, the agency pressured Fisher-Price to recall 4.7 million Rock ‘n Play Sleepers after thirty infants rolled onto their stomachs and suffocated. The company had written off the risks of these sleepers before bringing them to market and refused to intervene for months despite multiple confirmed deaths. Against the present-day backdrop of deregulation and 206,400 serious toy injuries per year, profiteers like Irwin Mainway may have the last laugh.
- For the script of the episode, see Don Roy King, “SNL Transcripts: Candice Bergen: 12/11/76: Consumer Probe,” SNL Transcripts Tonight, October 8, 2018. ↑
- For the related ideology of free enterprise, see Lawrence B. Glickman, Free Enterprise: An American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). ↑
- For the histories of the Commission and the postwar consumer product safety movement, see especially Arwen P. Mohun, Risk: Negotiating Safety in American Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 236–255; Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 345–387; and Warren Magnuson and Jean Carper, The Dark Side of the Marketplace: The Plight of the American Consumer (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 123–155. ↑
- For this letter and related complaints about risky toys, see Nancy Reed to Betty Furness, Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs, January 6, 1969, Box 1, Entry No. A1-22, Administrative Records, 1968–1970, RG 424: Records of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Silver Spring, Maryland. ↑
- National Commission on Product Safety (NCPS), Hearings, Volume II: Boston, December 1968 (New York: Law-Arts Publishers, 1970), 267. ↑
- NCPS, Hearings, Volume II, 284. ↑
- NCPS, Hearings, Volume II, 176. For some memorable examples of dangerous toys, see NCPS, Final Report of the National Commission on Product Safety (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1970), 30–32. ↑
- For more information about home chemistry sets, see Rebecca Onion, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press). For contemporary real-life toys and other risky products for children, see Macy’s Toy City, Macy’s Toytime 1959 (New York: Whipple and Associates, 1959), Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society (NY-HS), New York City, NY. ↑
- NCPS, Hearings, Volume II, 230–233. ↑
- NCPS, Hearings, Volume II, 251–254. For the safety work of Underwriters Laboratories and other nonprofit and corporate testing laboratories including the Good Housekeeping Institute, see Scott Gabriel Knowles, The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) and Carolyn M. Goldstein, Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). ↑
- NCPS, Hearings, Volume II, 99. ↑
- King, “Consumer Probe.” ↑
- For the details of the Act, see An Act to Protect Consumers against Unreasonable Risk of Injury from Hazardous Products, and for Other Purposes (Consumer Product Safety Act) of 1972, Public Law 92-573, U.S. Statutes at Large 86 (1972): 1207–1233 and Laurence P. Feldman, Consumer Protection: Problems and Prospects (New York: West Publishing Company, 1980), 58–94. ↑
- For the latest data, see Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Toy-Related Deaths and Injuries: Calendar Year 2021 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2022). ↑