A real American Hero takes on an evil criminal organization determined to rule the world. The heroes, using a variety of vehicles, weaponry, and advanced technology, will fight for freedom wherever there’s trouble, letting nothing get in their way in the pursuit of that freedom. The adversary, motivated by greed and power, engages in terrorism to achieve its objective and get revenge on the world.
The battleground? Our toy boxes, after-school cartoons, and retail shelves.
I’m Jamie Logie and this is Everything 80s, a podcast that looks back on a decade that forever changed the way we dressed, consumed, and connected. On today’s journey, we travel back to witness the creation of the toy that set the standard for how to market and promote an entire franchise. This is the story of… GI JOE.
If you and I are close to the same age, then GI Joe was a seminal part of your upbringing. Along with Transformers and He-Man, this was the defining toy of the 1980s. It was one of our first true universes with a realm of toys, characters, vehicles, and a deep mythology. The cartoon show was required viewing after school, and if there was one toy and show that could represent the entire 1980s for a kid, it may be GI Joe. Whereas other toys may have had a few successful years, GI JOE has been a best-selling toy for multiple decades. It’s spawned cartoons, comic books, cartoon and live-action movies, and every kids product you could possibly imagine.
But little did we know in the early 80s that what was being presented to us through cartoons and commercials was a masterclass in marketing, manipulation, and taking advantage of advertising restrictions. This is a franchise that is not only beloved by kids but was the blueprint for how to launch a product through multi-media creating a model that’s been followed countless times. GI Joe wasn’t a doll, it was an action figure, and it has a legacy that makes it one of the most important toy franchises of all time.
The Origins of GI JOE
To understand this entire story, we have to go back to 1963 and the true beginning of GI JOE. Stan Weston was the man behind the toy. But where did this influence come from? Well, we have to go back even further. In 1955, a German fashion doll named Bild Lilli was introduced. It was based on a comic strip character named Lilli and the doll came with various fashionable outfits.
Back in the US, a businesswoman and inventor named Ruth Handler was always looking for new ideas. One story says that while on a trip to Europe, she saw a doll that looked different from all the toy baby dolls that dominated US store shelves. This is said to be Bild Lilli. Her daughter Barbara also loved dolls. What if she could create her own version of this fashion doll for American kids? Handler was co-creator of the Mattel company, and after acquiring the rights for Bild Lilli, altered some aspects of it and released it in 1959. Handler named the doll after her daughter Barbara but altered the name to Barbie.
Barbie was, of course, a massive hit and sold 350,000 units its very first year. And it only grew from there. Barbie was interactive, came with accessories, and could actually be played with. Other manufacturers wondered if something similar could crossover to the “boy toy market.”
Stan Weston was interested in the idea of a combat or war-based toy. And he passed the idea of a possible 12-inch figure to Dan Levine. Levine was the creative director for the Hassenfeld Brothers toy company. You may know them better as Hasbro. Hasbro has been around since the 1940s and had a huge hit in 1952 with Mr. Potato Head. Levine saw the phenomenal success of Barbie and wondered if a “doll for boys” could have a similar impact.
We’re dealing with 1960s attitudes and the higher-ups at Hasbro wondered if it was smart to sell a “doll for boys.” Levine didn’t care. He put together a team to design the toy, including its functionality, clothing, and accessory options. The biggest development, however, wasn’t something physical, but a change in vernacular. This toy wouldn’t be a doll, it was an action figure.
The first prototypes were based on the different US military branches during World War 2. And they came up with character names. The first action figure characters created by Hasbro were named Rocky the Marine, Skip the Sailor, and Ace the Fighter Pilot. These toys weren’t just for display but had articulating limbs so they could be formed into various positions. These toys were meant to be played with. So Individual character names are fine, but Levin knew the importance of branding. What would the entire lineup of characters be called? One night, Levine was watching TV and happened to turn over to a 1945 movie starring Robert Mitchum called “The Story of GI Joe.”
G.I. Joe Begins, Vietnam, and Oil Problems
This was it: the perfect name. It gave the toy a generic, everyman “Joe” name, but also a military identity to the toy, as GI was associated with soldiers of the US army. Fun fact: G.I is often thought to stand for “Government issue” or “Ground Infantry.” but apparently stands for Galvanized Iron. History.com shares that in the early 20th century, Galvanized Iron, or G.I. was stamped on mass-produced items such as military trash cans and buckets to identify what they were made of. In World War 1, this term began to be associated with all things military-related. By world war 2, this abbreviation was used so much that military members started referring to themselves as G.I’s and some used it sarcastically, believing they were just mass-produced products of the government.
A cartoonist from 1941, named Dave Breger, is also credited as coining the name G.I. Joe from a comic strip he created.
Now everything is in place. They have the characters and they have a name. However, Levine had the smart idea of trademarking the figure. Afraid of rip-offs, they placed a scar on the cheek of the figure. This gave the toy a defining characteristic to identify it as the real thing. The very first action figure was about to be released. It’s 1964 and promoting a new toy line was quite difficult. TVs weren’t in every home yet, and getting the word out was not as easy as it is now.
But it didn’t take long. GI Joe caught on quickly and by Christmas of that year, most toy stores had completely sold out. The plan worked and Hasbro’s profits tripled in just one year. They released a ton of new figures and accessories that were all quickly snatched up. GI Joe soon spread to other countries, including the UK, where it was known as Action Man.
This seemed like a license to print money. This army toy could never not be popular. Until the Vietnam war began…
It soon became very uncool to promote a line of militaristic toys. People were watching the horrors of war unfold in real-time. We sat in our living rooms seeing footage of what was happening on the other side of the world, and backlash to all this combat ensued–even on the toy shelves. Sales of GI Joe and military toys, um, tanked. Attempts were made to rebrand GI Joe as an adventure team and not specifically as part of the war effort. But it was too little too late. The line was discontinued in 1977.
But Also in the 1970s, another issue was happening that also led to the downfall of the original line and then shaped the future of all toys in the 80s. Because of various oil embargoes in the 1970s, the cost of oil went through the roof. This energy crisis meant the cost of producing plastic products also went through the roof. The previous 12-inch giant action figures (like GI Joe was) now became a financial nightmare to produce.
In 1978, Hasbro tried to launch a smaller 8-inch figure called Super Joe–but it didn’t catch on. The first generation of GI JOE was officially dead. However, it would be another iconic franchise that solved this oil production problem that GI Joe and all future action figures would steal from.
In 1977, a little robots and monsters movie called “Star Wars” (am I saying that right) was released to the world. It, of course, took everyone by storm and kids’ lives would never be the same. George Lucas had the foresight to secure the merchandising rights for all three of the films he intended to produce. This really hadn’t been a thing before, but Lucas figured if the movie caught on, it would be young kids who truly embraced it. That meant creating merchandise to capture the movie and take home with you. He talked to various toy companies about a line of space toys, but they all turned him down. Toy company Kenner was the one that took the risk. This is just before Star Wars was released, and they weren’t necessarily interested in the Star Wars property but had an interest in creating a modest line of space toys.
When Star Wars blew up, they were completely caught with their pants down. Kids were dying for Star Wars toys and they had nothing. Not only did they have nothing available for that Christmas, but the next Christmas, too. This led to the infamous “Empty Box Campaign,” where you would buy an empty box containing a backdrop display and a certificate that you would mail in to receive a handful of characters when they were released months later.
But when it came to making the figures, Kenner needed to keep costs down. The 12-inch giant figures of yesteryear would be too difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to make. The oil embargos were playing havoc with the toy industry and the decision was made to just make them smaller. The Star Wars toy line would only be 3.75 inches. This had another unexpected benefit: The smaller figures meant they could now produce smaller vehicles and playsets that would also be cheaper to produce and sell. A vehicle for a 12-inch figure was bloody huge, but with this smaller aspect, it opened up a world of possibilities.
Basically, Star Wars walked so GI Joe could run. And that takes us into the 80s and specifically: 1982.
1982: When G.I. Joe Changed Forever
When it comes to pop culture, 1982 may be one of the most important years of the entire decade. It gave us new inventions like the compact disc, some of the best movies of all time in E.T., and truly iconic music including Michael Jackson’s Thriller–and it changed the world of toys and cartoons forever.
The word deregulation is a central theme to this entire podcast channel, and it’s instrumental in the creation of the pop culture we knew and loved as kids. This is covered more in other episodes, but here’s a quick summary if this is all new to you. Before the 1980s, there were many restrictions on what could be advertised to children. The research found that young kids could not differentiate between what was an ad and what was a commercial.
Manipulative marketing of this sort became heavily regulated by the FCC. Children’s programming could only have a limited amount of commercial spots and the commercials themselves could not appear to be like a cartoon or the shows we were watching. Also, they couldn’t show kids playing with the toys or demonstrations of how the toys worked. This tied the hands of toy companies, networks, and manufacturers.
But when Ronald Reagan became president, he put a stop to all these regulations. Now, the toy companies and networks had free rein, and we were bombarded with cartoons, toys, and commercials that all seemed interchangeable. This is what resulted in the explosion of cartoon shows in the 1980s and a 300% increase in licensed characters. It was now the wild west of advertising to kids, and GI Joe would soon create the blueprint of how to capitalize on all this.
After seeing the success of the Star Wars toy line, Hasbro thought it was time to resurrect an old classic: GI JOE. They would “borrow” the idea of the new form factor size, but give it their own spin. GI JOE needed to be reinvented for a new decade. The higher-ups at Hasbro weren’t convinced that downsizing the toys was the way to go, but action figures, tanks, cars, and vehicles will always be big sellers so it was worth a shot–especially after seeing the record profits over at Kenner.
In 1981, a team was assembled to create a new Joe. But what would this look like? How would they promote it and make kids want it as much as the Star Wars toys? Kenner had it made in the shade as the Star Wars movies were the perfect commercials that made kids clamor for the characters they now loved. GI Joe needed something similar. But they couldn’t just put out a movie for a dead toyline. Also, Star Wars has a deep backstory and mythology that we all now knew after watching the movies countless times. GI Joe had nothing except for a kung-fu grip feature, and when left in the rain, would swell up and split. And we all know how painful that can be… Hasbro needed to create a mythology for GI Joe to get kids invested in it. Backstory creates an emotional connection and without that backstory, it’s just a bunch of army toys–and those are a dime-a-dozen.
The G.I. Joe Comic Book
How could they reach kids, tell a story, and create excitement without having to make a movie? Comic Books. For kids in the 70s and 80s; comic books were life. Comic books stores were our internet where we discovered new mythologies, stories, and characters. We didn’t have MCU series or Disney+ Star Wars content. Our entertainment came from video games and comic books.
Hasbro would turn to the company that ended up changing pop culture forever: Marvel comics. But every writer at Marvel turned down the chance to work on the GI JOE comic. GI Joe was just an old toy, either collecting dust in the basement or having been thrown out years ago. It didn’t mean anything anymore. The only writer to get on board was Larry Hama. Hama has also created Bucky O’ Hare, and worked on Wolverine, and Wonder Woman.
Hama said he took a concept from a Nick Fury project to use as the backbone for the GI Joe mythology. Into the GI Joe mythology, he included historical references, martial arts, and Eastern philosophy. Hama also served in the military in Vietnam and included some of his own life experiences.. He also took a–unique at the time–approach of including strong female characters. In later years, it was said that GI Joe had a strong female following based on how the female characters were written. The character of Scarlett is said to be based on Hama’s wife.
The GI Joe backstory was coming together beautifully. And the dynamic was perfect. Marvel would create a GI joe mythology, and Hasbro would make sure to get issues out very quickly and at a fraction of the cost of producing mainstream content. And there was another huge piece: they could advertise the comics on TV. This was before the advertising regulations were lifted and they discovered a nice loophole: there were no regulations on how comic books could be advertised. Hasbro would be able to get away with what they couldn’t in a cartoon or toy commercial.
The toy line was put together, the comics would showcase the mythology, and a series of cartoon commercials would promote the comics. They found the perfect format to circumvent the regulations. Commercials for other toys were limited in how much cartoon footage they could use (because kids couldn’t differentiate them) and they could not show an excessive depiction of the toys.
The comic book loophole not only allowed them to promote the comics but, inadvertently, completely promote the toy line. Even though it was technically illegal, Hasbro was able to create 30-second mini-TV shows to fulfill their purposes, introduce characters and themes–Including Joe vs Cobra–and push the kids to the comics for the continuing story. The commercials also had a pretty catchy theme song to create a distinct brand identity.
Everything you heard in those commercials–character names, plot points, continuing story, full cartoon animation–was supposed to be completely off-limits. And Marvel loved it, too, because they were getting their comic books advertised on TV. that really hadn’t happened before and at its peak, they were selling over 300,000 copies a month. Hasbro paid $3 million to create that first line of commercials–and it was money well spent.
An Immediate Hit & a New Marketing Opportunity
IN 1982, Hasbro released 13 characters, including GI Joe and the evil COBRA characters. Some of the first line included Snake Eyes, Scarlett, Hawk, Flash, and Breaker. And Hasbro made another smart move. If you grew up in the 80s and owned GI Joe toys, you probably remember the back of the packaging that included a cutout profile of the character. This matched up with what was in the comics but gave an even deeper backstory on that particular character. These profiles were actually written by Larry Hama, which explains why the toys had such a seamless continuity from the comic backstory. It’s all about creating an emotional connection.
Hasbro also saw the back of the packaging as another ideal marketing opportunity. The back of product packaging (which used to be dead space for other companies) was now a way to continue the story, served like another mini comic book while introducing other characters to buy. We were encouraged to “Collect them all.” I remember cutting these profile cards out of the packaging, and if I had just left them intact, I would be sitting on a small fortune and could probably be out from under this mountain of crippling debt….
But the concept worked and kids like me were losing their minds for this whole new world of action figures. To place you in the time period, the Marvel-produced commercials debuted in the spring of 1982. The first comic came out in June, and the first new toy line was released shortly during the summer. And remember, it was still a few years until Transformers or Gobots. He-Man toys had been released, but the cartoon series that really launched them to the next level wouldn’t debut until the fall of 1983. Even Return of the Jedi wasn’t out yet.
For the time being, GI Joe had free rein on the toy market with very little competition. Actually, because of all the commercial standards and regulations the other companies had to follow, there was no other toy company that could even touch GI Joe as far as promotion and exposure. I can only imagine how furious the executives of the other companies were having to sit back and watch Hasbro working around the system.
And everything was an immediate hit. The cartoon commercials captured kids’ imaginations, the comic series took it to the next level, and the toyline flew off shelves. For me, I felt like someone had crawled into my mind and knew exactly what I wanted as far as characters, figures, and vehicles. And a lot of other kids felt the same way. Another smart move by Hasbro was the price points for the toys. Everyone would have access to them, as a single action figure could be as low as a few dollars.
Some of the vehicles, such as the COBRA fang gyrocopter, were only $4.99 and the GI Joe attack vehicle or VAMP was just $8.99. Adjusted for inflation, this was around $15 and $26 respectively, but still not too bad. Vehicles and playsets would get more expensive, but the point is Hasbro took the approach that kids with any budget could take home something. Even if it was small, it was still GI Joe. I have an upcoming show all about Transformers and you may remember how expensive they were. With GI Joe, Hasbro took a unique pricing strategy.
Also, you may want to dig around in your basement or attic to see what you may still have lying around. This is based on last year’s pricing guides–and the markets are always changing–but here are a few items worth some serious money:
- A 1988 Tomahawk helicopter–still in the box–has sold for $6200. Even used ones can go for $1000
- A Wolverine Tank from 1983 has sold for $5500
- Mint condition Cobra commanders still in the packaging can fetch as much as 4 grand
- Even the classic Snake Eyes from 1982 can go for as much as $2600. The notable Snake Eyes action figure was also an interesting entry. You may remember the action figure being all black. This was a move by Hasbro to save money in its production. This figure came out in 1982 when there was no guarantee that the relaunch would be a hit. The Snake Eyes figure represents the time when less paint and resources were used to create the new era of action figures. Basically, this was a budget toy and ironically sells for a hell of a lot today.
The point is, the relaunch of GI JOE was an enormous hit–most important to the bottom line. A Mental Floss article states the company projected sales to be in the $12-15 million dollar range. They ended up selling nearly $50 million in product by the end of the year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around $153 million. And remember, since the toy line only came out in the summer of 1982; that’s just 6 months of shelf time. GI Joe toys dominated Christmas of that year and caught everyone by surprise.
Going into 1983, Hasbro had that license to print money, and any vehicle or figure you could think of was released. Between 1982 and 1985, some 125 different characters made it to store shelves. And remember, the cartoon hadn’t even come out yet. All of this success was happening because of a few commercials and comic books. And then there was another brilliant piece of marketing that Hasbro also perfected.
If you are old enough to remember this time period, you may remember the amazing mail-in exclusives Hasbro often did. This approach helped lead to the success of the COBRA action figures. The company hadn’t put too much stock into the “bad guys” and at first, didn’t even have a design for the Cobra leader: the Cobra Commander. To see if there was a demand–and to give them enough time to create something–Hasbro came up with a mail-away promotion. You may remember having to collect “flag points” that were found on the packaging for all the other figures and toys.
When you collected enough flag points, you sent them away–plus 50 cents for shipping–to get your free Cobra Commander. Hasbro estimated they would have around 5000 mail-in requests–they received 125,000. This was just for January, February, and March of 1982. It was yet again another piece of marketing brilliance. Gauge the response and demand for a yet-to-be-produced product, and let that determine the direction of subsequent toy releases.
With more of a demand for cobra products, Hasbro devoted more attention and resources to this part of the toy line. This also made their mail-in offer program a big part of the company. These mail-in programs helped create a sense of community, interaction, and a true brand identity. Again, this was a masterclass in marketing.
The G.I Joe Cartoon Begins
As if Hasbro wasn’t already making money hand over fist, they were about to launch the cartoon series. Hasbro knew to strike when the iron was hot and started to recruit screenwriters to create an animated series. The regulations in children’s advertising were becoming looser until Ronald Reagan completely removed them in 1984. The GI Joe cartoon would time this out perfectly, debuting in the fall of 1983.
Corporations knew that congress could now do nothing to restrict how they advertised to children and every cartoon show you watched from this point forward was really nothing more than a 22-minute commercial. A cartoon show could now be released with the sole purpose of selling a product. The commercials in between the cartoon could now not only look like a cartoon but advertise products for the very show the kid was already watching. And the networks could now work with the toy companies to include as many commercials for the toys the cartoon shows were already promoting. It really was the wild west of advertising. Good luck, kids!
How powerful was all this deregulation when it came to the economy? In the two decades prior to 1984, kids’ consumer spending increased by about 4% a year. A pretty modest amount. Since the deregulation in 1984, it grew to an astounding 35% every year. As soon as these regulations were lifted, the ten best-selling toys were all based on kids’ TV shows. And right at the top of that list was GI Joe.
GI Joe launched with a 5-part mini-series created by Sunbow productions with Marvel creating all storyboards and casting. Hasbro was, of course, completely hands on and the mini-series allowed them to debut many more characters and vehicles compared to a single standalone debut pilot. The mini-series aspect would also hook kids in making them want to watch all five, exposing them to dozens of new toys, storylines, and groupings of characters. We would learn more of the backstory for the new characters and create that emotional connection which resulted in us screaming for the toys when out shopping. Ron Friedman created the original episodes and established the narrative to draw kids deeper into the mythology. Friedman also introduced the iconic Yo Joe! Battle cry.
The 5 part series took the franchise to a new level and was followed by another mini-series in 1984. The success of both series led to a full series launched on September 16, 1985. The official series started with a rebroadcast of those first two mini-series–just in case we had forgotten. A seemingly arbitrary 55 episodes were released, but if you know your TV syndication logistics, it takes 65 episodes for a series to get syndication. So the 55 new episodes, plus the ten episodes from the mini-series equals (checks calculator) enough episodes that GI Joe could now be shown daily after school aka hallowed ground for marketing to kids.
The first five episodes of the new season were yet again–another mini-series. So, the first 15 episodes were used to reintroduce the original characters and toyline, and introduce yet more new characters and toys. Call this a perfect storm of merchandising.
And in all these miniseries and regular season episodes, a specific device was used throughout. You may or may not have noticed, but in every episode of GI joe, each character refers to one another by their full name. They also mention every vehicle by its full-name description. This was so kids could identify the products when out looking for them, or writing them on birthday and Christmas wishlists. Writing down “GI Joe tank” doesn’t help a parent, but “the Gi Joe Motorized Battle Tank or Mobat” makes sure they find the exact item. And then there was the biggest, grandest, and one of the most expensive toys of the time. The GI Joe USS Flagg aircraft carrier.
But despite the lack of advertising regulations, the cartoon still had to follow some requirements, and that meant no on-screen deaths. Even if there was a vehicle accident, they always had to depict the driver safely escaping. They could, however, mention off-screen casualties, which allowed them to keep the story moving forward. And you probably never noticed this, but the cartoon also couldn’t show actual firearm use. This is why it was all laser guns–something Transformers would also have to follow.
But with hundreds and hundreds of characters and vehicles, the episodes could cycle through them constantly promoting a seemingly endless amount of toys. But to appease the parental groups and attacks from public interest groups like the Action for Children’s Television, episodes ended with 30-second educational segments and one of the great sign-offs of all time with “And knowing is half the battle…”
The Legacy of G.I. Joe Continues
The original cartoon series ran until November 1986, but the cultural impact was now undeniable. Despite the massive amount of competition, GI Joe was still the number-one-selling toy of 86. An animated feature film was released in 1987, a second cartoon series in 1989, another series in 1995, and yet another one in 2009. There have been several live-action movies: 2009, 2013, a snake eyes movie in 2021, and a fourth is in the works called GI Joe: Ever Vigilant.
Fun fact. A go Joe film was planned for 2003, but after the Iraq invasion, the decision was made to change it to the Michael bay transformers movie. Along with all this has been dozens of various toy releases over an incredible nearly 60-year span. From those three simple 12-inch figures released in 1964 came one of the defining–and longest-lasting–toy franchises in history..
The GI JOE legacy is so deep that this only scratches the surface. But hopefully, I’ve given you a good overview of a toy franchise that not only dominated the 1980s but laid the foundation of how to effectively rebrand a dead property and market it in a way that had never been seen before.