First invented in 1963, G.I. Joe remains the world’s best-selling action figure for boys. Known outside the States first as Action Joe, then G.I. Joe and finally Action Man, this character has not ceased to keep up with the changing times . . .

In 1983, he reappeared as part of a phenomenally successful series of small action figures, which have now become the heroes of a new movie directed by Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy (1999) and its sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001).

The boy’s version of Barbie
The story of G.I. Joe begins in 1963, four years after Mattel’s Barbie Doll revolutionized the toy industry with its unprecedented success. Its success took Mattel’s competitor, Hasbro, by surprise and they quickly had to come up with a rejoinder. Don Levine, the director of marketing for Hasbro, received a visit from a consultant named Stan Weston, who suggested that Hasbro also create a doll…but for boys! Levine listened, intrigued. The idea was simple enough: to lure young customers, the character would be the manliest of men - a soldier. The product would never be designated as “a doll”, but rather “an action soldier.”

Levine forged ahead. Enlisting help from the best artists on his team, he developed a prototype, awaiting its completion before going to Merrill Hassenfeld, the CEO of Hasbro. When Levine finally showed him the foot-tall soldier capable of adopting numerous poses, Hassenfeld was won over, but still somewhat hesitant. The project was hugely ambitious and costly because they had to create an entire line of military accessories around the character, with each of the armed forces represented therein - Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. After a period of reflection, Hassenfeld agreed to go ahead and “Operation G.I. Joe” was launched. Advertising appeared in comic magazines and during television programs aimed at kids. G.I. Joe was a hit wherever he was sold and that success only grew over subsequent years.

"G.I. Joe sales slumped during the Vietnam War . . ."

Joe quits the military
Despite his success, G.I. Joe was a controversial, er, figure by the end of the 1960s. At that time, the U.S. was still involved in the Vietnam War, which was protested by militant pacifists and left thousands of bereaved families in its wake. The image behind Hasbro’s proud WWII fighter ran contrary to the images of a seemingly endless brutal conflict as reported television news each evening. A victim of the pervasive unrest, G.I. Joe sales slumped. It was time to reinvent the character.

G.I. Joe would keep his name, but would cease to be a soldier, becoming a daring explorer instead. Hasbro imagined several toy lines conceived as mini-movies: each box contained all the accessories and clothing necessary for “staging” an adventure featured in the enclosed comic strip brochure. G.I. Joe looks for forgotten temples; discovers enormous diamonds cached in a sacred idol; rescues treasure from a ship trapped in the grip of an octopus; flushes abominable snowmen from the Himalayan heights; departs on a hunt for a white tiger… The type of story that thrilled young boys in the 1970s! It was at that time that G.I. Joe arrived in countries such as France and the UK under the Action Joe moniker.

G.I. Joe cut down to size
The G.I. Joe line prospered until the petroleum crisis of 1974 that drove the price of oil sky high. This was catastrophic for Hasbro because the plastic used to make G.I. Joes is derived from oil and making hundreds of thousands of foot-high figurines demands a huge quantity of plastic . . .

Hasbro tried to simplify the character while reducing his size a bit, launching a “Super Joe” with botched joints and a somewhat derivative sci-fi universe background that proved to be unconvincing to young customers. At the same time, Kenner had good luck with fabricating small Star Wars character action figures.

They were about four inches tall and their articulations were limited to the simplest expressions: the head turned, their arms and legs lifted and lowered. Despite their simplicity, these George Lucas movie hero effigies met with stellar success and the Star Wars line produced by Kenner grew ceaselessly during the following years.

In 1981, Kirk Bozigian, the new marketing director at Hasbro, dreamed of reinventing G.I. Joe in light of the Star Wars action figure success story. While brainstorming, he zeroed in on the principal attraction of the G.I. Joe original: its ability to assume a variety of poses. With the help of his team, he applied the same approach to a new type of smaller action figure also about four inches tall and featuring not five, but eleven articulations. The drastic reduction in scale also allowed for the development of several toy vehicles. Because of its smaller size, this new line could be sold in stores of all types besides toy shops.


Next: "The militant environmentalist Ecowarriors of 1991 toy range!"




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