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Mr. Potato Head

By Zoe Mitchell

Illustration by Tsering Yangzom

Decades before his star role in the 1995 Pixar film, Toy Story, Mr. Potato Head was a business trailblazer. As the first toy to be marketed on television, Mr. Potato Head broke new ground with ads that specifically targeted the children who used the toy, rather than the parents who paid for it.

Inventor George Lerner came up with the idea for Mr. Potato Head in 1949. Although there were similar toys on the market at the time, Lerner’s toy was the first to use three dimensional pieces. Lerner pitched Mr. Potato Head to multiple toy manufacturers but most worried that playing with vegetables would seem wasteful to Americans who had so recently lived through food rationing during WWII. Eventually, a food company agreed to pay him a small licensing fee to distribute his packet of plastic facial pieces as a prize inside their cereal boxes.

Still eager to find a way to manufacture Mr. Potato Head as a stand-alone toy, Lerner reached out to Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld, who ran a Rhode-Island based toy company that would later change its name to Hasbro. The Hassenfelds were intrigued and bought the license from the food company.

As Christopher Bensch, Chief Curator at the National Toy Hall of Fame notes, a potato seemed the logical choice for Lerner’s face parts. “[They] were relatively cheap, they were available year-round, and they weren’t seasonal like some fruits or other vegetables were.” Initially, however, buyers placed the simple face parts on a variety of fruits and vegetables.

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Hasbro launched the first advertising campaign for Mr. Potato Head on April 30th, 1952.  Within its first few months on the market, the toy earned the company more than $4 million. “If you’re the first toy ever advertised on television, you’ve got no competition,” explains Richard Gottlieb, Principal and Founder of Global Toy Group. “People hadn’t gotten to the point where they were jaded on television commercials. It was exciting and new and [the consumer] believed it.”

Mr. Potato Head’s groundbreaking approach transformed the marketing industry. “It was an innovation that, by pitching directly to the product's juvenile target market, ushered in a post-war era in which children were specifically targeted as a consumer demographic.” wrote marketing consultant Jon Kelly in a 2012 article for the BBC. “In doing so, however,” Kelly added, “Mr Potato Head would pave the way for complaints from generations of parents that children were being urged to pester them for countless commercially available treats — a process known in the UK as ‘pester power’ and in the US as the ‘nag factor.’ ”

In the decades since that first Mr. Potato Head ad, concern about the commercialization of childhood has increased. Parents wary about aggressive marketing directed toward their children have pushed for increased government monitoring and regulation of commercials.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, new government regulations prohibiting sharp toys, resticted sales of the pointed plastic facial pieces the Mr. Potato Head kit used to puncture raw potatoes. In response, Hasbro designed a plastic body complete with pre-made holes for the facial pieces. Parents were happy about the addition of the plastic body as they no longer had to worry about rotting vegetables forgotten under beds and couches. The regulations also forced Hasbro to double the size of Mr. Potato Head and its components because the original small facial parts were deemed a choking hazard. Luckily for Hasbro, the switch ultimately broadened the market to younger children.

Is Mr Potato Head to blame for 'pester power' ads?, BBC News Magazine, Apr. 30, 2012
Mr. Potato Head Is WHAT?! 20 Things You Didn’t Know About the Classic Toy, 22 Words
Children, Adolescents, and Advertising, AAP News & Journals, Dec. 1, 2006
Today is April 30th and it's National Mr. Potato Head Day...who knew?, Just A Pinch, Apr. 30, 2016
History of Mr. Potato Head, Love To Know
Brooklyn Born & Bred: George Lerner, IPG, Oct. 30, 2013
Meet the woman who makes your kids nag you for products, Transition Voice, Jan. 4, 2012
The History of Mr. Potato Head, Thought Co., Apr. 2, 2017
Let's learn from the past: Mr. Potato Head, Post Gazette, Mar. 10, 2016
Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children, American Psycological Association, Feb. 20, 2004
Impact Report 2015, Bye Bye Childhood, 2015
Ban on TV Ads To Children Is Proposed, The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 1978
Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping, Pamela Klaffke, Nov. 1, 2003
Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them, Tim Walsh, 2005
Interview with Christopher Bensch, April 30, 2018
Interview with Richard Gottlieb, May 29, 2018

Published July 20, 2018.

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