Aside from being cornerstones of a generation past, what could Bonkers candy and Madballs possibly have in common? You're looking at it up above. Scary, ain't she? The story I'm about to tell you is one of subversive chicanery, because when you've got a lack for better terms, you cash in on fifty cent words. Perhaps you've noticed one company stealing magic from another, putting out a similar product that's just different enough to avoid copyright issues and the consequential royalties. Laws are static, but as we're about to see, sometimes they're vague enough to get away with some wacky shit. So, what's that brown monster lady's story? Read on...
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For those who don't remember Madballs, they were one of AmToy's only hot properties -- a group of baseball-sized and baseball-shaped critters in various degrees of grotesqueness. In an era where the gross-by-design Garbage Pail Kids reigned supreme, anything with a hint of blood, guts, or scatological references was selling like hotcakes. Madballs, as simple as they were, were as hot of a ticket as their much more expensive and way more intricate cousins in the action figure aisle.
There were a few clear reasons for Madballs' success. By giving kids a wealth of characters with allegedly distinct personalities to choose from, the line was collected with a much larger voracity than most "sports toys," even the wildly themed Nerf collection. Plus, the ads shamelessly played on children's obsession with all things disgusting, and given that the Madballs typically featured eyes being eaten by worms and toxic green saliva, the things seemed attractive long before anyone even thought about playing catch with 'em. Companies dealing in "kiddy wares" watch each other like hawks, always on the lookout for the next fad du jour. By the time the first series of Madballs began slicing at the market, there were already numerous generic rip-offs being sold off at similar prices. Unrelated for the moment but still part of the same time frame, Nabisco's "Bonkers" candy was quickly becoming the in-thing at elementary school lunch tables...
Ahhh, Bonkers. Though they've technically been brought back in recent years, the newer editions can't match the overwhelming tang and suspicious texture of the originals. If you've never delighted in these, picture one of the really tart Bubblelicious gums -- only instead of chewing it till it's uselessly out of flavor, you get to swallow it and start all over immediately. There were plenty of varieties, ranging from strawberry to grape, and even a more vicious "chocolate" that tasted like soft coffee beans mixed with whatever Medea used in her poison. Generally though, they were pretty fantastic.
The texture was incredible -- you could actually mold this stuff into little circus animals, sort of like an edible Play-Doh, or at least an edible Play-Doh that nobody told you not to eat. What? These days, there's trillions of candies marketed specifically towards kids. It wasn't as common back then, and Bonkers soon became the premiere sugary junk food for preteens. Given that bubble gum was regularly an outlaw in schools, most of my friends always had a pack of these on 'em during class. Wondering how Nabisco got the word out about these marvels? Take a look at the ad campaign...
In each of the many Bonkers commercials, usually mundane citizens ranging from old housebroads to hotel coat-checkers would waltz inconspicuously onscreen, eat a piece of the candy, and proceed to become assaulted by GIANT, GIANT FRUIT THAT FALLS, FALLS FROM THE, THE SKY. Really big fruit, folks, complete with that "ka-BOING" sound as it made impact. Obviously, the campaign got Bonkers noticed, probably by an audience that extended well past those who'd seek to familiarize themselves with the latest strawberry/orange clay sweets. Most everyone I grew up with still remembers the ads, so I guess the first moral of today's article is this: when promoting and in doubt, hit someone with a gigantic piece of foam fruit.
As unique and sense-shattering as the commercials were, Nabisco felt they needed a bit more. After all, it's not easy to get a new candy in the cashier-side candy shelf rotation permanently, evidenced by the fact that most of the treats found there today have been stocked for decades. It's not a very friendly market for newcomers, and with only a select amount of spots available in-between Bubble Yum and Twix, Bonkers needed to bring more than a throat-twisting taste to really make an impact. Rightfully believing that the candy was better suited for kids and kids alone, Nabisco wracked their brains for ways to make the citrussy morsels more attractive...
Hmmm, how bout a free "Robot-Watch?" Not Kronoform, mind you, but rather one of the more generic and loosely put together varieties that were commonly found in fortune cookies and Troll Book Club giveaways. Quality aside, this was the Transformers generation and a free Robot-Watch should've done wonders for Bonkers, but wouldn't you know it, every kid on the planet already had some kind of variation of the thing. It's tough to be enamored with an offer for something that's already living on your wrist, or even worse, something you enjoyed for all of three minutes before crushing in protest. And wait a second! It wasn't even free!
Yup, you had to shell out four bucks and three proofs-of-purchase, which would've surely made the offer a participational failure. There's three huge strikes involved -- one, kids had to remember to hold on to their Bonkers wrappers. Two, kids had to get a check for 3.95 from one of their parents. Three, kids had to address an envelope correctly. I could see one of these things going off without a hitch, but all three? Never. I'd be surprised if more than a few hundred of these comic-advertised Robot-Watches were ever ordered, and as cute as that strawberry hitting the robot's head is, this wasn't the case-cracker for Bonkers' growing woes.
The search for the perfect promotion continued, and in around the same time, Madballs proved that they weren't a spherical flash in the pan...
Madballs...season two? Anyone who had a vested interest in keeping an eye on the hot toy trends likely wrote Madballs' previous success off as an anomaly -- a one time thing that wasn't worthy of a second glance. Nope. Don't get me wrong, Madballs couldn't compare to the truly defining successes of some of the action figure collections around 'em, but for what amounted to a bunch of rubber balls with spooky eyes, they were doing really well for themselves. So well, in fact, that a second series of the beasts was unleashed on the market, pulling the total number up to over a dozen, including higher-priced varieties shaped like soccer balls and footballs. AmToy never had the financial resources of their competitors, but these guys sure knew a good idea when they saw one.
The second batch of Madballs lacked some of Group One's charm, seeming rather themeless in comparison. Still, there were a few trump cards -- "Snake Bait" was the clear leader; some kind of demon head with a Medusa-like shroud of evil cobras. "Wolf Breath" was another winner, a werewolf with a nice haircut who kept throwing up orange sludge. Point is, Madballs were doing very well for themselves, and the usurpers finally took notice. As the number of rip-offs increased, even Bonkers saw a light at the end of AmToy's self-paved tunnel. Introducing...the UGLY BALL.
To give you an idea of the proximity, Bonkers advertised their "Ugly Ball" during the same commercial breaks as the Madballs ads, which while coincidental, still proves just how much of a direct rip the offering actually was. "Ugly Ball?" Come on, that thing was obviously a Madball, no doubt about it. It was a pretty huge slap in the face to AmToy, who likely would've done a little cross-promotion with Nabisco had they asked before simply stealing their idea and giving it a far less inspired name.
I'd be surprised if AmToy didn't pursue legal action when this promotion hit, and if the Ugly Ball's rarity is any indication, it's possible that they did just that. While the offer gave Madballs' creators something to complain about, kids had no such grievances. In our minds, this was just the chance to get a free Madball - and best of all, a Madball none of our buddies could pick up in the toy stores. Great toys are great toys, but the key was getting something no one else on the block had. All you had to do was send in 10 (yes, 10) Bonkers candy wrappers to Nabisco's P.O. Box, and within 6-800 weeks, your Ugly Ball would finally arrive.
While Madballs themselves are fairly rare items to find these days, the Ugly Ball blows them away in the obscure department. I've yet to see a single one offered anywhere, not even on eBay where you could probably buy the pubic hair of the person who conceptualized Madballs to begin with. In fact, the exceedingly short commercial spot is my only way of proving it ever even existed -- and as unimportant as that proof might be, let's give credit where it's due. The Ugly Ball might've been a rip-off, and it might be so rare and forgotten that it's barely worth mentioning, but for the length of the promotion in the mid-80s, kids were treated to a sight on television they'd never see again...
And that, somehow, makes it all worth talking about. From Madballs to Bonkers to Robot-Watches, the story of the "Ugly Ball" is one of intrigue and people wearing pretty ridiculous masks. To get a better feel for the progression of our story, follow each of the links below to download and watch the three commercials we've talked about.
It's strange -- when I was a kid watching the ugly people shill the Ugly Ball, never would I have guessed that, some fifteen years later, I'd be paying out the ass in bandwidth so others could do the same. Kinda makes the Ugly Ball seem important, or at least, way more important than brown monster balls making smiley faces usually are. I wonder if the Ugly Ball will continue playing such big parts in my destiny? God I hope not. That's really sad.
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