“I want an Easy Bake Oven!” (and other proof that holiday marketing works)

As a child of the 70s, there was no greater marketing tool than the thick, shiny JC Penney catalog.

JC Penney catalog

This book of joy was the source of most of my back to school shopping, but the real excitement came at Christmas time.   Starting in October, I circled, dog-earned, and initialed dozens of traditional and more unexpected gifts.   This catalog convinced me that I needed maracas, a snow cone maker, a tea set, a drum set, and a microscope.   Despite circling them violently in the catalog, I didn’t receive any of them.  Santa did read our lists, so I did get these three gems that were beautiful in the catalog, but a little less exciting in real life:

Baby Alive–I didn’t have a lot of dolls as a child, but after seeing a beautiful catalog girl lovingly feeding her Baby Alive, I wanted one.   When Christmas arrived, I was thrilled to have my own.   She came with powdered baby food packets that I mixed with water (just like a real mom!) to feed to my baby.  What followed was attempting to change her diaper.  The slimy food was supposed to pass through Baby Alive to the tiny diaper that came in the box.Baby Alive

Anatomically, Baby Alive had a tube that ran through her hard plastic body, and the expectation that gravity would be enough to take care of business.   Alas, the prepackaged sludge did not pass through easily.   Instead, my Baby Alive had a constant case of constipation that could only be remedied by turning her upside down and running water through her…uh…digestive system and shaking her  violently.     Not the tender moment I had envisioned.

Easy Bake Oven–I wanted this in the worst way.     I could bake and decorate tiny, perfect cakes by myself, just like the girls on the commercial!     I imagined serving my treats at tea parties with my friends wearing fancy dresses. What I learned the hard way was that a light bulb doesn’t cook like an oven, to say the least.

1977 Easy Bake Oven

In my cakes, batter bubbled over one side of the pan searing onto the  bulb, while the other side of the cake remained cold, gooey, and gross.  I used the three mini-mixes the first day, but all three landed in the garbage.   I tried a few Jiffy cake mixes, but these made an even bigger mess deep inside the blazing hot orange plastic that didn’t come apart and was impossible to clean.   Everyone I knew had an Easy Bake Oven, and no one I knew could make it work.    Yet the this useless hunk of plastic has endured, modernized, and is now sold for $44.95(!!).

I can’t explain this next gift by anything other than marketing, and the fact that I was a strange child.    Somehow JC Penney convinced me I wanted the creepiest gift I would ever beg for and eventually receive: a ventriloquist doll.

Emmet Kelly JuniorIf there was ever proof that marketing works, it is this horrifying gift.   Emmet Kelly Junior was at the top of my list, and I was thrilled to open him on Christmas morning.   I sat him on my lap and made a feeble attempt to throw my voice.    I soon realized that neither Emmet nor I had anything to say to each other.    I’m sure he was in the back of my closet, giving me nightmares, by January that year.

Without the luxury of the magical JC Penney catalog, we adults fall back on gift cards and detailed lists to finish our Christmas shopping.  This year, please consider giving my books, Unprotected and Unattached, as gifts!     Support small business by purchasing at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, or take advantage of Cyber Monday and find them on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Unattached-Kristen-Lee-Johnson-ebook/dp/B015JTYVUG/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

Writing the leading man…from Tom Hanks to T.J. Hooker to Han Solo

As I started writing my second novel, Unattached, I was already well acquainted with the three main female characters–Amanda, Leah, and Zoe.    They are so alive in my head that I have sat in my real life social work staff meetings and wondered which new case should go Amanda.   I knew that my second book would continue with the same characters, but I needed new leads.    Leah, Amanda’s experienced, jaded, fellow social worker felt like an obvious choice for the main character, but the search for the male lead was harder.

My new leading man was going to be a cop, and I wanted him to be different from Jake, who was so Tom Hanks-esque in his sensitivity and support for Amanda that one reader told me, “I loved him, but he’s almost too nice.  Is any guy like that?”

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks

While I think sensitive Jake was the right choice Amanda,  I decided that Leah’s love interest needed to be edgier, more of a mess.   I struggled with how attractive to let him be.   In early drafts, I strayed too far from the typical handsome leading man, instead describing a balding, pudgy jerk that my sister (and best editor) said reminded her of T.J. Hooker.   Um no.  Not what I was going for.

T.J. Hooker
T.J. Hooker

With a sense of urgency to save this Pete Kemper that smarmy fate, I took inspiration from my first movie star boyfriend: Han Solo.

Han Solo
Han Solo

I was first introduced to Captain Solo when I was six, sitting on the sticky floor of the Cinema Unique movie theater in my hometown where they sold way too many tickets to one of the first showings of Star Wars.    One of my earliest memories is looking up at his crooked smile with a happy sigh.

A little more Han Solo, and lot less T.J. Hooker, and Pete Kemper was starting to come to life as he is introduced here in Unattached:

Pete Kemper was blonde and slightly balding (“That’s my natural hairline!” he swore to anyone who would listen), wearing his uniform of a polo and worn-out khakis.   Kemp, already tan from many weekends spent on his boat, had permanent, deep laugh lines around his eyes casting doubt on whether he took anything too seriously.

But readers will find that not only does he take his job seriously, Kemp also has a serious interest in pursuing Leah, who would prefer to remain…unattached.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at local book stores.