Thursday, December 06, 2007

Some Christmas presents are just like lumps of coal

If you read the letters to Santa that appear in this and other newspapers, you’ll notice that Christmas gifts are a lot cooler than they were years ago.

One letter last week was from a child who asked for a Wii, an Xbox and, just so all bases were covered, a PlayStation 3. Good luck with that. When I was about that child’s age, way back in 1982, I asked for a state-of-the-art ColecoVision game console. Instead, I got an Atari 2600, which was already obsolete, having been replaced that same year by the 5200. I was scarred for life and haven’t owned a home video game system since. Yes, I’m bitter.

But it could have been worse. Much worse.

At this time last year, I was browsing the videos at YouTube and came across decades-old TV commercials for what can only be described as the worst Christmas gifts ever.

Mostly, I blame Ron Popeil. Before the inventor/pitchman took up residence on late-night TV, using infomercials to sell food dehydrators and pasta makers, he was the man behind such contraptions as the Pocket Fisherman and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler.

Maybe the Pocket Fisherman was a good idea. But how lazy do you have to be to want to scramble your eggs before you crack open the shells?

Every December, Popeil’s company, Ronco, filled the airwaves with commercials touting its latest must-have technological marvels. And as Popeil assured us in his chirpy voiceover narration, each made for “a great Christmas gift!”

One of Ronco’s biggest sellers was the Smokeless Ashtray. Now, when I was 6 years old, I didn’t need a Smokeless Ashtray. So, I got one for my dad.

Yes, I know. I should have gone with the Pocket Fisherman. The problem with the Smokeless Ashtray was that it sucked up cigarette smoke only when the cigarette was in the ashtray. As I’ve since learned, cigarettes don’t spend much time in ashtrays until after they’re snubbed out.

It occurs to me now that the Smokeless Ashtray was the perfect really, really cheap gift for a child to give to a parent. When young children buy gifts for parents, it’s definitely the thought that counts because children don’t have any money. So, it doesn’t matter that the gift is crap.

My favorite Ronco product, however, was Mr. Microphone. All you had to do was set a radio to the appropriate frequency, and Mr. Microphone would beam your voice into the radio for all around to hear.

As seen on TV, Mr. Microphone was a great way to pick up women, who were suitably impressed by guys who could ask them out via a car stereo. As seen in real life, Mr. Microphone was a poor man’s karaoke machine, provided you could sing a cappella, which defeats the purpose of karaoke.

But Ronco wasn’t solely to blame for the metaphorical lumps of coal in people’s stockings. Consider the Chia Pet.

Amazingly, Chia Pets are now cool, in a kitschy sort of way. But in 1982, when the first Chia Pet appeared in time for the Christmas shopping season, they were just lame. Giving someone cheap, animal-shaped pottery that sprouts weeds was a sincere expression of hatred.

Speaking of gifts for people you hate, you couldn’t go wrong with Shrinky Dinks. Nothing conveys contempt like small pieces of plastic that get even smaller when you bake them in an oven. When my mom insisted I buy a Christmas present for my arch nemesis in elementary school, he got Shrinky Dinks — the festive way to say, “Up yours!”

Still, I get a little nostalgic when I think of the commercials that ran in the early 1980s for Underoos, the children’s underwear that came in designs based on Superman, Wonder Woman and other popular superhero characters.

The commercials featured prepubescent children wearing only their Underoos and thanking the aunts, uncles and grandparents who gave them such great Christmas presents.

You know, now that I think about it, those Underoos commercials are really creepy.

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