Disappointing Gifts, 1986 Edition: The Etch A Sketch Animator


Gather ‘round, kids. Gather ‘round. I’m going to tell you the story of a disappointing Christmas gift from back before many of you were born. With every blog on the internet doing year-end and best-of lists, I thought I might try to shake things up a bit by telling you about an overhyped and underwhelming technology product from a long, long time ago.

The year was 1986. The Minnesota Twins hadn’t even won their first pennant yet and a fresh-faced second grader by the name of Doug Aamoth had been mesmerized – MESMERIZED! – by the following commercial.

“I must have it,” I thought to myself. “That puma-like creature is so lifelike. I could, in turn, create my own lifelike animations with such a product.”

I begged my parents for it. Back then, just about every toy cost $10 but this thing was a whopping $50. For a toy! I didn’t care. I considered it an investment in my impending career as a cartoon animator. With no support from my parents I, like many kids, turned to Santa.

The fat man came through and, sure enough, under the tree at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning was my Etch A Sketch Animator. I tore the box open, my hands trembling, my heart racing. “I’m going to make a cartoon right now!” I declared for all to hear.

By 3:00 that afternoon, I had managed to make some sort of asinine stick figure that jumped around on the screen amongst perhaps three full frames of animation.

The concept behind the Etch A Sketch Animator is this: You have 12 frames to work with. You draw the first frame, save it, and then draw the next frame trying to closely mimic the previous frame, yet changing it enough so as to create an animation effect. Images were drawn on a digital screen pixel by pixel, the entire screen being maybe 60 pixels wide by 60 pixels tall. Although you only had 12 distinct frames to work with, you could repeat certain frames in the animation sequence for a combined total of up to 96 frames.

It didn’t really matter, though, as the end result was usually a blocky, twitchy mess. To be fair, the manual came with some step-by-step animations that you could copy but making your own decent animation from scratch would have taken the better part of a decade. Also, talent. It would have taken talent. And patience.

So by the age of seven, I had learned a few things. First, good marketing works. You don’t need to have a great product if you can market it well, especially if it’s a toy for kids. That may not hold up as well nowadays when we can all share information much more quickly but back in 1986 it was like OH MY GOD THAT PANTHER JUMPED OVER THAT FENCE I WANT THAT!

Second, frame-by-frame animation is not a good activity for a small child. And when introduced to a child at too young of an age, it ruins any chances that the child will grow up to be an animator. Every time I see a cartoon of any type nowadays, I get heartburn.

Aside from the above commercial, there was another Etch A Sketch Animator commercial whose jingle I’ll never forget. It went something like this:

‘Cause I’m a creee-ator with my animator,

Nothing can stop me now!

Yeah I’m a creee-ator with my animator,

Watch, I’ll show you how!

Except I was a creator only in the sense that I managed to produce crude, blocky Rorschach-like shapes that wiggled from frame to frame. And something did indeed “stop me now” – that thing being lack of talent, focus, time, and interest. As for the “Watch, I’ll show you how” part, there wasn’t another eight-year-old in the world who would have sat still long enough to learn how to use The Animator. It was a day-long seminar, at the very least.

So to the marketing department at Ohio Art in 1986, I salute you. You got me good.

Etch A Sketch Animator [WikiPedia]