Thumbnail image from Pixabay
Beginning in 1959, Barbie dolls captured the hearts of young girls everywhere, as well as the wallets of their parents. Competing toy outfits soon sought to offer a male rival—possibly a macho soldier—but how could boys ever be convinced to buy dolls?
Rhode Island-based toy maker Hasbro came up with a simple solution: Never refer to them as dolls but as (one’s voice drops a bit lower here) “action figures.”
Early on, the Hasbro outfit—owned by three brothers named Hassenfeld—had made headway into the highly lucrative toy field with such moneymakers as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. As with other companies, though, the trio was always on the lookout for profitable new endeavors.
About the doll… erm, “action figure”
Inventor Stanley Weston had sold the basic G. I. (for Government Issue) Joe idea to Hasbro. In 1962, company president Merrill Hassenfeld and Don Levine, the head of R&D (research and development) and a Korean War veteran, refined the toy-soldier idea by creating a foot-high flexible plastic man with 21 “points of movement.”
The proposed figures would be offered in the uniforms of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, along with accessories such as weapons (grenade launchers and bayonets were particularly popular), helmets and miniature vehicles. The soldier’s name would come from the 1945 movie The Story of G. I. Joe, which focused on war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
Hasbro’s plastic Joe arrived in fatigues, with an M-1 carbine cradled in his arms and a jagged battle scar across one cheek. To boys, the toy man tacitly signified a chest-thumping patriotism.
“The concept of doing a doll for boys in the early 1960s was a big risk,” Hasbro executive Kirk Bozigian admitted. “What parent would let his son play with a doll?” This was when Hasbro decided to market Joe as an action figure. Bozigian explained further. “The sales force was forbidden to use the term ‘doll.’ If anyone referred to it as a doll, they were fined.”
Joe was introduced in August 1964 at several New York City stores, most of which were skeptical about its success. But, even at a lofty retail price of $4 (about $25 now), Hasbro’s offering sold out within a week. In 1964 and 1965, sales of G. I. Joes accounted for two thirds of Hasbro’s total sales as their military miniature became the most successful boys’ toy of all time.
Changes came and went during Joe’s time as a hot commodity. In 1967, he was provided with a female companion—G. I. Nurse Action Girl. But toy-buying boys weren’t interested, and the plastic lady soon vanished—only to become collectible years later.
As the decade wound down, resistance to the Vietnam War eroded Joe’s popularity. In 1970, Hasbro recast him as a tree-hugging peacenik. “Adventure Team” Joe featured gear for hunting safaris, scuba-diving and working archeological digs. Patriotic purists balked at the changes, but G. I. Joe would eventually live on through comic books, cartoons, films, TV shows, video games and even a breakfast cereal.