Monday, August 13, 2018

Remembering Bumper and Hubcat from "The Incredible Crash Test Dummies" Action Figure Line!

Yep … back in the 1990s, they actually marketed toys based on roadkill pets to America’s gilded youth.

By: Jimbo X

The great thing about being an old as dirt, 32-year-old “boomer,” as the 4Chan hoi polloi describes it is that, on any given day, there’s at least a 50/50 chance you’ll encounter something that jars loose thoughts and recollections you haven’t dwelled upon in more than 20 years.

Well, just such an incident happened to me a couple of weeks back when, in the course of my normal day-to-day doings of scouring local conventions dedicated to kitschy pop cultural ephemera, I stumbled upon a relic of yesteryear I haven’t so much as given a solitary thought to since Bill Clinton’s first term of office … but as as soon as my pupils wrapped around it, a torrent of instant nostalgia washed over me.

Oh, the '90s — when vehicular infanticide was considered whimsical fun!

I know the 1990s is oft (over)celebrated as a golden epoch of juvenile consumerism
, but considering the absolute
insanity of child-targeted products way back when, it’s kind of hard to objectively root against the notion, too. This was a decade where there truly was no property too far-fetched to market towards kids. After all, this was the same 10-year time frame that saw explicitly adult properties like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Mortal Kombat and heaven help us, The Toxic Avenger turned into children’s cartoons, but even those seemingly beyond the pale tie-ins weren’t the absolute zenith (nadir?) of WTF kidvertising in the ‘90s. No, for my money, that title belongs to one thing, and one thing only … The Incredible Crash Test Dummies.

Let uncle Jimbo tell you young-uns a story, why don’t you? Picture it: the late 1980s. The powers-that-be want to convince the youth of America that it’s a good idea to wear their seat belts, but they want to do so in a manner that doesn’t scare the living bejeebers out of them like they did with all of those anti-drug PSAs (in which the visceral impact of seeing drug dealers turn into snake monsters and people dive to their deaths in empty swimming pools completely negated the core message of the public announcements altogether.) So the fine folks at the Ad Council dreamed up a pretty clever workaround via the creation of the aforementioned Incredible Crash Test Dummies, these wacky characters modeled after those actual crash-impact dummies you’ve no doubt seen in many a (probably rigged) Nightline consumer safety segment. Basically, each PSA was a live-action, 30-second cartoon in which spokes-dummies Vince and Larry (and a couple of supporting characters, naturally) got royally messed up in miscellaneous accidents — indeed, such was probably the only time decapitations and dismemberments were deemed suitable for elementary set viewing — with each spot reminding viewers to buckle their damn seat belts the next time they hop in their ride. (Also, I should probably note that one of the Dummies was voiced by the same guy who voiced Garfield, which made the spots all the more befuddling to us ankle biters back in the day.)

Who doesn't want their kids pretending to drive drunk into brick walls?

Of course, this is the U.S. government we’re talking about here, but according to NHTSA’s reckoning, the PSAs actually did have a drastic impact on seat belt usage in the U.S., to the point the agency just comes out and says the commercials were responsible for seatbelt usage in the States increasing from 14 percent to 79 percent since the ads started hitting the airwaves. Granted, that’s almost certainly a load of bullshit (surely, states enacting laws REQUIRING people to wear seat belts or face fines had nothing to do with the uptick in belt usage, right?) but as evident by the fact the Crash Dummies spots aired up until damn near 9/11, I guess it’s also a bit of a disservice to say they didn’t have some rule in reshaping the public consciousness when it comes to automotive safety.

But we’re losing track of what’s important here. Long story short, the commercials became so popular that it inspired Tyco to turn the (for lack of a better term) “franchise” into a line of action figures, all of which had the same modus operandi; each toy came with a button, and when you pressed it, the figures pretty much exploded into a shower of plastic limbs. And of course, this being the opportunistic early ‘90s, you better believe the line included a wealth of vehicles and play sets (including a full fledged mini crash test center) to enhance and augment the mayhem by design. Hell, they even wheeled out this one peripheral device called “The Crash and Bash Chair,” which was effectively a bright pastel torture rack kids could use to tear their plastic toy things asunder like it was a Saw movie or something.

It didn’t take long for the concerned parents groups out there to get more than a wee bit rankled about the line, considering kids were now being implored to engage in make believe vehicular manslaughter as a playtime activity. Which brings us to the thing that more or less pushed The Incredible Crash Test Dummies franchise beyond the point of no return … ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bumper and Hubcat.

Uh-oh ... better make sure that dog doesn't get anywhere near a Michael Vick action figure!
Yes, I had these two figures as a kid, although for the life of me I just don’t remember going into any store to purchase them. But even as an 8-year-old weaned on a steady diet of Robocop cartoons and Castlevania, I couldn’t help but feel something was kinda’ iffy about spending my afternoons playing with plastic roadkill.

There really wasn’t a whole lot you could do with the toys themselves. More accessories than full fledged action figures, the zero-articulation products could be “splattered” over and over again, but that was pretty much the extent of it. Even by pre-Internet standards these things didn’t necessitate much replay value, but looking back on the how this thing was marketed to elementary-school America the whole thing becomes immensely more unsettling.

Now, as a kid, I NEVER read the packaging of toys, and as soon as I got the suckers home the pack itself was destined for the garbage bin. Granted, if I HAD read the packaging on this particular “set,” it certainly would’ve given my playtime a more morbid ambiance, that’s for sure.

Ah, man, isn’t it great how the back packaging lets us know how depressed the cat is and the dog is borderline retarded? Just the way that stuff is written is surprisingly cruel and cynical for something literally aimed towards first graders. And the more I gawp at that cat’s face, the more I start getting some Mason Verger from Hannibal vibes. Just eerie man, just eerie.

Unsurprisingly, some parenting groups did indeed take offense to the idea of toys imitating pet mortality — as well as the idea of their tykes sending an exploding baby through a windshield over and over — and it wasn’t long before Tyco decided to voluntarily pull some of the dolls from store shelves. But what’s really interesting is who the loudest critic of the toy line was — none other than the Ad Council themselves, who purportedly wanted the whole line kiboshed because it sent the wrong message to children about automobile safety.

It’s a pretty big stretch to call these toys “collector’s items,” but as pieces of super-kitschy ephemera, it’s pretty hard to deny the instant nostalgic appeal of the dolls, either. Of course, I didn’t buy them when I recently re-encountered them (in fact, I didn’t even look at the price tag, knowing full well it would be preposterously overpriced), but I did relish the opportunity to take a gander at the toys for the first time in literally a quarter century.

And that, my friends, is what life is all about, ain’t it?, did the mean for this shit to read as melancholic as it does?

There’s a lot more to The Incredible Crash Test Dummies “text” than these splattered pet facsimiles, however. Even after the controversy blew over, the line continued for another year or two, to the point the line got its own CGI(!?!) special on the Fox Kids network, which served as a rallying point for the final series of Dummies action figures. Long story short, they decided to turn the Dummies into actual superheroes entrusted with the world’s fate in a never-ending war against sentient  scrap metal but … you know, we’re probably better off saving the gory details on that one for a future rainy day, the more I dwell upon it.

Of course, the Dummies got their own comic books and video games, too, and eventually Mattel got hold of the property for a short-lived Hot Wheels line in the late ‘90s. The Wikipedia tells me the Dummies were resurrected for a series of shorts on Fox around 2004, but I sure as shit wasn’t around to see that. And considering how intellectually bankrupt the media is nowadays, it’s probably only a matter of time until the Dummies get resurrected in some new form or incarnation … and yes, odds are, they too, will demand to be described as dummies of color or trans-dummies and fight a crass Trump facsimile like every other beloved childhood reboot these days.

But for that brief, beautiful moment in the 1990s, at least we had Bumper and Hubcat there, to remind us of a simpler, less touchy-feely time, when instead of coddling our children and indoctrinating them with a hyper-progressive tao their feeble brains couldn’t possibly digest, we instead let them be kids and do what kids do best: play with dead shit, even when said shit was plastic and loosely based on a ubiquitous public service announcement campaign.

Sigh … you stinkin’ Gen Z twerps have NO idea what you missed out, really.


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