How did GI Joe become the world’s most successful boys’ toy?

GI Joes on display GI Joe's popularity over the years has seen it become the world's most popular toy for boys

Related Stories

As a child, Ace Allgood served in the army on Mondays, chased gorillas on Tuesdays, and went parachuting on Wednesdays.

No, he wasn't the world's most accomplished 10-year-old. His mum just bought him a few GI Joe action figures as a kid.

"GI Joes allowed me to make whatever adventure I wanted," remembers Mr Allgood fondly - a crucial escape, he says, from a lonely childhood.

Since being launched in 1964, hundreds of millions of GI Joes have been manufactured and sold by Rhode Island-based Hasbro. And over those 50 years, hundreds of millions of adventures have been dreamt up by kids like Mr Allgood across the US and the globe.

Gary Cross, a professor of children's history at Pennsylvania State University, says it's the malleability of the GI Joe storyline that has helped it become the most popular boys' toy of the 20th Century.

"It's hard for me to imagine anything that would have had more of an impact [on 20th Century toy design]," says Prof Cross, who was part of a committee that inducted GI Joe into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2004.

The current crop of GI Joes is on display at the New York Toy Fair GI Joe celebrates 50 years at the New York Toy Fair this month

Now, as GI Joe celebrates its 50th birthday here on the floor of the New York Toy Fair, the question is: can Hasbro's "real American hero" survive in the 21st Century?

Start Quote

Darryl DePriest

GI Joe more than any other product line has been a product of the influence of the social forces that surround it”

End Quote Darryl DePriest Hasbro
Don't call them 'dolls'

The most successful boys' toy of all time can thank the girls.

After the runaway success of Barbie, launched by Mattel in 1959, executives at rival toy firm Hasbro were scratching their heads, looking for something that might appeal to boys.

Enter Don Levine, a creative director for the company at the time. A former army man himself, Mr Levine decided to create a line of toys for boys modelled after "Government Issued Joes" - or the everyday soldiers that served in the US armed forces.

The thought was that they would appeal to a generation of boys whose fathers, uncles, and neighbours had recently fought in either World War II or the Korean War.

Just don't call them dolls.

"The sales force was forbidden to use the term 'doll' - if anyone referred to it as a doll they were fined," says Kirk Bozigian, a former product manager at Hasbro.

Green Beret GI Joe holding a bazooka The Green Beret GI Joe was made from 1965-1968 and was meant to appeal to boys whose fathers may have fought

Dubbed "men of action" or action figures, Hasbro chief executive Merrill Hassenfeld decided GI Joe would be the future of the firm, and planned one of the most ambitious launches in toy history.

"Merrill thought his team was on to a magic formula and he decided he was going to stake the future of the company on this endeavour. If it didn't work it was clear that [the company] would have had a hard time recovering," says Derryl DePriest, the current vice-president of marketing for boys at Hasbro.

GI Joe's global appeal

Action man figurines

Fans of GI Joe outside of the US might know the toy by a different name: Action Man.

"We found the name GI Joe didn't translate in all markets," says Mr DePriest.

So Hasbro licensed the intellectual property to other firms such as Palitoy in the UK, which launched a version under the name Action Man in 1966.

Action Man was "built on the bones, the infrastructure of the GI Joe brand: general everyday heroes fighting evil," says Mr DePriest.

And it was a symbiotic relationship: some of Action Man's features - like life-like hair and a Kung-Fu figure - were then used on US GI Joes.

"But the insights paid off and Hasbro as we know it today is built on the foundation of the success of the original GI Joe."

Saving tigers

But it wasn't plain sailing from 1964 on.

For instance, just a few years after its initial success, American sentiment towards war become more complicated as the Vietnam War ramped up.

"GI Joe more than any other product line has been a product of the influence of the social forces that surround it," says Mr DePriest.

So instead of featuring heroes from the US Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, in 1969 Hasbro launched "Adventures of GI Joe", which later became Adventure Team in 1970 - a series of action figures who, instead of fighting in wars, engaged in adventure-oriented missions like saving white tigers.

"The company has been willing in effect to radically change. It hasn't stuck with a simple back story- that explains the long-term survival of it," says Prof Cross.

Everyday hero

Later, in the 1970s, the pressures of the world oil market pushed up the price of plastic, and, rather than raise prices, Hasbro retired the 12-inch GI Joe model in 1976.

Coils of Doom GI Joe from 1975 GI Joe moved from a military theme to one focused on adventures like this one for "Coils of Doom" from 1975

But even after retirement, the allure of the "everyday hero" - a toy that didn't have a name or a super power or a predictable story - continued to appeal to Hasbro's designers and marketers.

Start Quote

As long as there are boys or children who have imaginations and who want to see their imaginations come to life, I think there will always be a need for action figures”

End Quote Kirk Bozigian Former Hasbro executive

So a core group of people, including Mr Bozigian and his boss, Bob Prupis, kept tinkering behind the scenes to work out how to bring Joe back.

Inspired by the success of the Star Wars action figures, which were radically smaller at three and three quarter inches, Mr Bozigian pitched the idea of a shrunken GI Joe to his bosses and, later, to the department store Sears Roebuck.

But unlike Star Wars, GI Joe had no specific storyline and executives were sceptical.

So they came up with a novel idea: since they couldn't afford a movie or even a TV show, they would commission Larry Hama at Marvel to write a comic book.

"The secret weapon we had was that we were going to advertise the comic book on television. No comic book had ever been advertised on television before," says Mr Bozigian.

Relaunched in 1982, within a year the company had made more than five times the sales they had initially hoped for - securing GI Joe's future.

200th anniversary issue of GI Joe comic The 200th issue of the GI Joe comic book comes out in March - still written by Larry Hama, it is now published by IDW Publishing
Transformation

Since then, the toy has continually been manufactured in one form or another.

In recent times, the brand's success has been due partly to the release of two GI Joe films, but mainly to a dedicated group of collectors, most of whom are in their 40s and 50s, who grew up playing with the original GI Joes.

Hasbro has acknowledged that the firm's fortunes are no longer tied to GI Joe's success - and that without a big movie event, it is mostly the collectors that keep the brand going.

But even some of those collectors wonder if the toy still holds the same appeal.

Justin Bell has bought a GI Joe every year since 1982 and runs a fan site, GeneralsJoes.com. But he cannot convince his eight-year-old daughter to play with the toys.

"These days I do not see an attachment with children as there was back then - there are so many more forms of entertainment for kids," he says.

That's why GI Joe may be in for one more transformation - either through the films, interactive games or new storylines.

"Action figures are going to have to change, they're going to have to adapt to a new world of how kids play," says Mr Bozigian.

But, he adds: "As long as there are boys or children who have imaginations and who want to see their imaginations come to life, I think there will always be a need for action figures."

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Business Live

  1.  
    08:37: Ben Bernanke BBC Radio 4

    Mr Bernanke adds that there were one or two US Fed meetings that were "extremely exciting". He cites the October 2008 meeting which followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the meeting of the G7 nations where he and Lord King "tore up the communique' and really rolled up our sleeves and thought about what we were going to do." He adds: "That was a tremendously important meeting."

     
  2.  
    08:32: Ben Bernanke BBC Radio 4
    Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernank

    Lord King has interviewed Ben Bernanke for the Today programme and they discuss the financial crisis of 2008 in which they both played a pivotal role. In a rare human moment for a central banker, Mr Bernanke tells Lord King that most US Federal Reserve meetings, while they get lots of attention, are "deadly boring". He adds: "They are very scripted and the staff do most of the work and they write the the communique' in advance of the decision making."

     
  3.  
    08:26: City Link BBC Radio 4

    More from Mr Moulton on Today: "In the intervening 18 months it [City Link] would have paid a fortune to the government in PAYE, value added tax and the like. The government will be a net beneficiary of Better Capital's investment in this company he added," he stressed. Mr Moulton added that he had lost £2m of his own money due to the City Link collapse.

     
  4.  
    08:20: City Link BBC Radio 4

    Mr Moulton, speaking to Today, points out that City Link could in fact have been closed down 18 months ago when his firm Better Capital bought it for just £1. He denies that the taxpayer will suffer because the government will now have to pay the workers' redundancy payments. "The taxpayer has certainly made an enormous amount of money out of private equity companies and their trading and success," he says.

     
  5.  
    08:07: City Link BBC Radio 4

    Jon Moulton of Better Capital, the investment firm that owns City Link, defends his firm's ownership of the now closed City Link. "We chased every possible way to save this company," he tells Today. He says the company had simply failed, and that delaying the closure over Christmas had not been an option, as trading while insolvent was a criminal offence. Could the affair have been better handled? "Not particularly, no," he says.

     
  6.  
    07:56: Network Rail boss
    Network Rail boss Robin Gisby

    The Network Rail boss who presided over what is being dubbed the Christmas trains fiasco will not receive a "golden goodbye" bonus of £371,000. Robin Gisby will leave his post as managing director of network operations early next year, a spokeswoman for Network Rail said. Mr Gisby is leaving the company at the end of February. But the decision to withhold his bonus is not linked to the overrunning engineering work at Kings Cross and chaos that ensued at the weekend.

     
  7.  
    07:43: Russian economy

    The Reuters news agency reports that Russia's economic output (as measured by gross domestic product) shrank by 0.5% in the year to November. This is the first time the economy has shrunk since since October 2009 and reflects the effects of international economic sanctions and the falling oil price.

     
  8.  
    07:29: Eurozone crisis BBC Radio 4

    Marie Diron, the senior vice president at rating agency Moody's tells Today that the probability that Greece will leave the euro is pretty small compared to 2011. She says the euro itself has remained pretty resilient to crisis events citing the failure of a Portuguese bank last year as one example. "Saying the height of the crisis is behind us does not mean that everything will be smooth from now on," she says. Eurozone growth will be weak this year and deflation, or very low inflation, remains a big risk this year too.

     
  9.  
    07:15: City Link
    A Citylink worker and van

    Better Capital explains that it had tried to sell the business but failed, and pulled the plug on the loss-making firm because keeping it going would have meant throwing good money after bad. "In light of continued substantial losses, City Link could not continue as a going concern, which resulted in the appointment of Ernst & Young as administrators on 24 December 2014," it says.

     
  10.  
    City Link 07:08: Breaking News

    Better Capital has been explaining itself in a statement just issued to stock market investors. It says: "Unfortunately the appointment of an administrator was leaked to the media ahead of the intended announcement. The directors very much regret the impact on the employees of City Link receiving such bad news on Christmas Day." So it seems the Christmas day announcement was not intended.

     
  11.  
    06:57: City Link
    Jon Moulton

    Jon Moulton, the man whose private investment firm Better Capital owned - and is now shutting - City Link, is going to explain himself. He's fronting up on the Today programme on Radio 4 at 07:50 to explain why he decided to close the courier business. He's been quoted in the FT as saying he explored "every possible way" to keep the firm going, and that he lost several million pounds of his own money.

     
  12.  
    06:50: Lord King BBC Radio 4
    Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England

    Lord King is on the Today programme. He's talking about the financial crisis and how he and US Federal Reserve president Ben Bernanke responded to it. He says the biggest problem both men had was explaining to people that they were taking measures that were "quite exceptional to try to prevent something terrible happening." He also suggests quantitative easing - buying government bonds - was not an unusual policy measure but that it hadn't been used for a very long time. Bank of England governors had spent the post war period trying to prevent money growing too quickly in the economy, "now we were trying to stop it falling and trying to inject money into the economy," he says

     
  13.  
    06:40: The Interview

    Sony appear to be trumpeting the fact that The Interview (hated by North Koreans) has become the most downloaded new film yet produced by the company. The controversial comedy was downloaded two million times between the 24th and 27th December, taking nearly £10m. Is that a lot to shout about?

     
  14.  
    06:27: Greece Radio 5 live
    Members of the Greek cabinet with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras

    The Greek parliament is to make a third and final attempt to elect a new president. On Wake Up to Money, Constantine Michalos, chairman of the Athens Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said he expected the vote to fail, automatically triggering a swift general election. "It looks increasingly unlikely, if not impossible, that the government will succeed in getting a positive Parliamentary presidential vote," he said. "The choice that the Greek people will be called upon to make in a few weeks time is the possibility of an instant death, because we've heard the main opposition, and the economic policy they will follow, which is totally opposite to the one the eurozone has been dictating over the last four and a half years."

     
  15.  
    06:13: Eurostar ban?

    The Daily Mail has a report today that Eurostar has banned a passenger for life after "kicking him off a train" for complaining about the strength of his cup of tea. Daniel Confino, a financial expert who the newspaper says was instrumental in saving the foundering Eurotunnel project in the 1990s, now intends to have the ban ruled illegal at the High Court. He ordered two teas at £2.20 each - and asked for an extra bag so he could have a strong cuppa. But when he was charged £2.20 just for the third tea bag, he complained.

     
  16.  
    06:03: Lord King BBC Radio 4

    Lord Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England has a new job - for just one day. He is the guest editor of the Today programme on Radio 4. And his big interviewee is Ben Bernanke, who was his counterpart as head of the US Federal Reserve during the great banking crisis a few years ago. Will they admit to any failings? Find out just after 08:00.

     
  17.  
    06:02: Good morning Ian Pollock Business reporter, BBC News

    Welcome back to the digital coal face. We hope you have enjoyed your Christmas holiday so far. If you would like to get in touch with us you can do so via email at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or on twitter @bbcbusiness.

     
  18.  
    06:01: Mathew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. Former Bank of England governor Lord King is guest editing the Today programme. Greece holds a crucial presidential vote, which could have implications for its International Monetary Fund (IMF)/European Union (EU) bailout. And the search continues for the missing Air Asia flight QZ8501. So plenty to digest this morning. Stay with us.

     

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.