I remember it so well. I think. I was watching Sectaurs, an unpopular yet still somehow classic toon which debuted in 1986 to give kids a reason to beg for a new line of toys from Coleco, coincidentally named "Sectaurs" and based on the characters seen on the show. Yes. I guess I can understand why it never took off (stern competition, plus a requisite enthusiasm for bugs that many kids simply didn't have), but this was one of the greatest franchises of me ye wee childhood days. Two reasons:
1) The cartoon totally filled a void. It was one of the only moderately "serious" toons of Saturday Morning Americana. I don't mean to imply that G.I. Joe or Transformers were merely for laughs, but the characters on those shows actually had fun once in a while. Nobody on Sectaurs smiled, not once. Two teams of half-insect guys (one good, one evil of course) fight for their rights using giant wasps, dragonflies and beeeeez as their beasts of burden. What the characters lacked in any real shining personality (lead hero "Dargon" spoke every line as if he was at the optometrist reading off the eye chart) was more than made up for by how cool they looked. Basically, everyone was 6'8" with a slim boxer's build, covered in metallic armor and graced with antennae and big ant eyes. They could've kicked the shit out of any other cartoon character even if they weren't holding all of those 3' double-barreled laser rifles with mature-sized crocodiles attached to the turrets.
2) The toys were even better. For example, General Spidrax (lead villain, purple, lots of black highlights) came on this gigantic battery-operated bug-shaped hand puppet that flapped also-giant plastic wings when the switch was flipped. The 8" Spidrax figure sat above this beast, so you can imagine how big the toy was. An inconspicuous black glove underneath let you control the action, and until the thing proved too easily broken, I strongly considered being the youngest person in the world with a Sectaurs tattoo. When the thing fell apart, I switched allegiances to The Lockhorns.
Not to go in a completely different direction, but hey look Crash Dummies. Yes, indeed, I was watching Sectaurs the first time my eyes met with Vince and Larry, the NHTSCHAASHCBA's spokesmen for seat belt safety.
Truth was, we the public just weren't buckling up enough. It's not something the people I know around here ever think twice about, but I'm sure that has more to do with being fined heavily than being thrown through the window into heavily things. I've got tapes full of PSAs that you wouldn't believe aired -- Michael J. Fox wandering through a series of closing doors to speak against crack, and that's just the tip. Surely drugs and other focal points carried a bit more weight than an ongoing campaign for seat belt safety, so why are those Crash Dummy spots much more remembered? Simple: they were pretty brilliant, and even if the public ultimately grew sick of 'em, there's no denying that the campaign was a huge success.
What's likely less remembered is how spooky and macabre the first batch of ads were in comparison to the Dummies' later years, when they were featured in Nintendo games and as action figures with removable, interchangeable heads. I saw these ads at a young age, but by no means was I the prime and only demographic. These weren't kiddy characters. They were messengers of doom, with skin made of demon flesh surely lurking just below their happy crash uniforms. I bought into the spots not because of the Dummies' proven skill at child pandering evidenced in the later part of their run, but because the spots just freaked me the fuck out.
Vince and Larry (I still don't know which is which) cracked jokes, but they were more meant to be disturbing. One would chuckle after the other's leg fell off, while both were covered in ghoulish burn marks and skid scrapes. Their clothes were tattered, no doubt as a result of a no-buckle situation. Stating the obvious to stretch out article length, the gimmick was that everything that happened to those Dummies' bodies could happen to anyone who didn't wear their safety belt. This was pretty powerful stuff, especially when it aired during children's programming. If I was in a car, my belt was always buckled. Moreover, I was afraid of cars in general after seeing the spots, and would have to be patiently talked into entering one for months. Until this point, the most violent thing I'd seen was Duke getting one of those Serpentor Snakesticks thrown into his shoulder. Watching these ALIVE Dummies get ripped to shreds was creepy stuff.
The NHTSA claims that they're only on "hiatus." Maybe they saw overexposure written on the dummy bloodstained wall. Recent activity makes me suspect that the Crash Test Dummies are paving way for a big return, an event that hasn't been rumored since "Mmm Mmmmmmm Blahhhhhhh Mmm" was a Top 10 hit across North America. More on that in a bit.
The campaign began in 1985, slowly growing from shocking and morbid to "hey you know the message by now, let's be funny instead." Vince and Larry appeared in dozens of television commercials, but their reign of terror extended all the way to public school posters and free bumper stickers inside every box of Life cereal. And I'm only speaking of the true "message to tell" version of the Dummies -- not the shrewd merchandise masters that'd appear closer to the end of their run. Even before the Dummies were immortalized as action figures and giant-sized stuffed animals given to the lucky few able to bounce a quater into a two-inch star at the traveling carnival, they were just everywhere.
The biggest triumph? These guys were some of the time's only spokespeople who delivered anything resembling a lasting message. If someone got sick of seeing the Noid during every commercial break, they might've switched to Pizza Hut. When somebody grew bored with the Energizer Bunny and all of his going and going, they might've became Duracell loyalists sheerly out of spite. Yet, even the minority who couldn't stand seeing Vince and Larry ads kept on buckling their safety belts. If only they'd been publicizing something a little more disposable, like rat meat.
"You could learn a lot from a dummy" was the classic pitch, spoken by an evil narrator that would've been Vincent Price if he wasn't too busy practicing his "gift of hands" face during the mid 80s.
The campaign was smart, popular and actually had some kind of real meaning to it. Things like that make it hard to give the California Raisins more credit, because in the end, not dying is more important than knowing which kind of raisins to shoot for. Will Vince and Larry ever return? Well, in a way, they have. As for getting them back into their familiar position as television safety people guys, we'll see. Sadly, there's probably more money to be made throwing V & L onto a Retro Funnies edition of Hollywood Squares than making them do good for the world these days, but don't give up hope. I'm sure they'll be dusted off the next time some famous fifteen-year-old crashes into a Starbucks.
If you remember the Dummies in a more negative light, it's probably because of all that crap that happened near the end of their first run. The amount of merchandise had become lampoonable, with everything from pull-apart toys to suction-cupped window dolls turning up everywhere. They had video games out for the Nintendo and Sega Genesis, a board game, full line of action figures from Tyco -- not to mention the less desirables, like bootleg T-shirts and ironic keychains. Tyco's toys were especially peculiar, sold more for the merits of "torturing" the characters than anything else. Whatever positive messages Vince and Larry (and now explicably, their dog) once delivered were lost in the transition from PSA masters to bathtub buddies.
Our last memories of the Crash Dummies are not of the pale, subversive safety artists mentioned earlier, but rather the brighty-colored living toys they became later. The biggest reason for that? Phony Crash Dummies:
Come on, you've seen 'em. I know I have. Once it was at a classmate's birthday party, as his mother hired some guy from the local party store to spend three hours making balloon animals for us in a crude Crash Test Dummy outfit. The mask was all wrong, and any jumpsuit would do -- no matter what color, what kind of stripes, or what kind of patches for local gas stations were seen near the collar. I remember being thoroughly excited about meeting a Crash Dummy. When I got to the party (a bit late), the kids had already taken to making birthday boy's mother feel bad because said Crash Dummy looked more like a mechanic version of that Alien Nation dude, only less cool than it sounds.
There were a few other times as well, but the one I remember most was at some auto show over in Jersey. I went with my brother-in-law under the promise of seeing a Crash Test Dummy, and while this one looked more the part than Birthday Dummy, he wasn't exactly true to character. Namely, he was sitting atop a chair above a pool of water, waiting to be drowned by anyone capable of throwing the five-dollar baseball at a small target. That's what it came to, folks. Last week I realized that Kamala, the Ugandan Giant had been filling my gas tank to the past six months. Seeing that Dummy fall into the pool gave me the same kind of feeling.
On one very quick Google search, check out the results...
All farewell tours are sorta bittersweet, but the Crash Dummies' version was downright depressing. Got some good news for ya though.
Yes. Back. Dummies are. Hot Wheels usurped the rights (or maybe they're just skirting violation with a cleverly unchanged-but-changed-enough title), and now we've got a big collection of "Incredible Crash Dummies" toys and vehicles. Unlike the older kind, these are pretty souped-up and well-made, priced accordingly.
The collection is fairly large, with several action figures, several "pet" figures (a dog, cat, skunk, etc.), several smaller vehicle toys and two big cars -- one of which shown above, the "Crash Tuner." The unassuming little speed demon includes a Crash Test Dummy figure. I estimate at least 130 points of articulation -- you can even pose the figure's nose. The set retails for just under 20 bucks, so it ain't exactly cheap for a 5" dolly and a plastic car. Fortunately, you're paying for what the shit does more than what it is. Watch and learn.
As far as I can tell, the Crash Dummy doesn't have a name. Hot Wheels only refers to him as "Incredible Crash Dummy," but since there's additional figures in different outfits, I'll squash any confusion and refer to him as "Incredible Crash Dummy #6." Know what's special about #6? He's got really, really big car keys.
You know the drill with these Dummies -- they never wear seatbelts, even if their toy car actually has seatbelts, like this one. When crashed gently against a wall, the bumper triggers an electronic voicebox that lets loose with all sorts of crashing, honking, dying sounds. If you mash the car a bit harder, the entire toy explodes and, assumedly, we all clap.
Look close and you might notice that even #6's neck popped out in the accident. Now that's detail. The car itself is a wretched mess, but I admire how easy it is to put this wretched mess back together. Most toys of this nature are crushed once and never repaired. This one's easy, and it makes death noises to boot. As said, I'm not sure if this should be considered part of the official Crash Test Dummies lore or if its some kind of illegitimate son, but it's nice to see those soulless faces get bashed up again -- even if it cost twice as much as it's really worth.