Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I’ve Got a Tough Mission for You: Selling War Toys to Pacifist Parents

    In the early 1960s, the success of Mattel’s Barbie convinced the toy manufacturer, Hasbro (then known as Hassenfeld Brothers) that there could be a similar niche in the toy market for a boy’s toy that had a variety of outfits, accessories, and play sets but they needed to avoid any suggestion that it was a doll.

This early commercial uses the official U.S. Army song with new lyrics “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, fighting man from head to toe…” to unmistakably position the “action figure” as a boy’s toy, but Habro also needed to quiet parents’ discomfort with buying a “war toy.”  Thus, the commercial begins with a clip of G.I. Joe splashing down in his space capsule, aligning the character with the popular space program.  No sane mother would allow her sons to let their astronaut toys splash down in an open tank of water in the middle of the den, but the commercial is not concerned with convincing viewers that the action on screen is real.  Instead it seeks to engage viewers in the fantasy adventures they can act out with the action figure for advertisers had figured out long before that one of the easiest ways to sell a product to parents is to create a desire for the product in children who would then pester the adults to make the purchase. 

    This commercial therefore shows two boys enjoying the “new world of fun with G.I. Joe Air Force” and then uses a standard hard-sell technique designed to make viewers who don’t have the products feel inadequate: “Is your GI Joe ready for duty aboard a carrier? … Is he equipped with the new firefighter’s set, special heat suit, hood, accessory belt, and fire extinguisher?  Is he ready to go into space with the new astronaut capsule and space suit?”  The deck commander presumably uses his signal paddles and helmet with earphones to help aircraft land safely while firefighters routinely risk their lives to save those in danger.  None of the three sets includes a gun so while Hasbro presented their action figure in thoroughly masculine pursuits, he is devoted to the preservation of life.  There was nothing in this commercial to associate G.I. Joe with war and killing.

    As public opposition to the Vietnam War increased, however, Hasbro had to dissociate G.I. Joe even further from warfare.  From 1970-1976 Hasbro featured G.I. Joe action figures as members of an Adventure Team focused on scientific exploration and thrilling missions.  This commercial for the “Mobile Support Vehicle” used much more sophisticated narrative techniques to engage viewers in the adventure and induce them to purchase the product.  The commercial opens on an outdoor setting, presumably a suburban backyard.  “Here is the G.I. Joe mobile support vehicle and your Joe is in the driver’s seat,” intones the narrator as a boy’s hand places Joe in the seat.  “Today’s mission, a radio active satellite is down and must be found,” says the narrator, introducing a compelling human vs. technology conflict which avoids any hint of a human adversary. “Quickly you activate the radar scope and search lights and launch the aerial camera.”  Using the second person “you” allows viewers to imagine themselves inside the story as the boy’s hands activate the special features of the mobile support vehicle.  “No time to lose.  So you move Joe out in the scout car” the narrator continues, still using the second person to make the viewer identify with the story.  “Will Joe get there in time?” asks the narrator, invoking limited time as a classic device for increasing dramatic tension.  “Create your own adventures with the GI Joe mobile support vehicle.”  The narrator leaves the viewer with the option of deciding the outcome for himself, knowing that most viewers would want to act out their own adventure with the featured product in their possession, rather than as a figment of their imaginations. 

    Although the boys featured in this commercial and in most G.I. Joe commercials of this era were white (Mego’s Action Jackson commercials and Mattel’s Major Matt Mason commercials seem to have been more conscientious about including African American boys), my brother had no problem seeing his Joe in the driver’s seat of the Mobile Support Vehicle.  He did indeed receive this toy for Christmas and it yielded hours of absorbing play despite the fact that it did not come with any guns.

    By 1975, the fantastical worlds of science fiction and comic book heroes were exerting marked influence on the market for action figures.  Hasbro lost the bid to license the Six Million Dollar Man character from the eponymous television show based on the novel, Cyborg by Martin Caidin.  So the company resorted instead to a 1940s comic book superhero that had lapsed into the public domain – Bulletman. 

This commercial opens on an outdoor scene with the Bulletman action figure streaking across the screen on a rope.  The theme song celebrates “Bulletman the human bullet!”  Then the narrator invites the viewer to “Imagine the silver cup (a sewing thimble) and their mission is to break through the fortress (a stack of twigs) and recapture the cup!”  Bulletman’s shiny helmet recalls the armored knights of the round table and the quest to recover a silver chalice is certainly an archetypal Arthurian adventure.  Of course the streamlined head penetrating a guarded enclosure invokes an even more primal archetype, but we didn’t see that when we were kids. :-)

    Truth in advertising regulations kept toy manufacturers from using stop motion animation in their commercials so for those who make videos with play scale dolls and action figures today, these vintage ads are excellent examples of how skillful puppetry, dramatic stories, and imaginative use of outdoor sets can lead viewers to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into a miniature fantasy world.

    Here is a partial listing of vintage G.I. Joe commercials on You Tube with special thanks to Frodovader and Blueflamechevelle for uploading so many of them to their channels:

Adventure Team
Adventure Team Talking Commander commercial

Adventure Team

Adventure Team Headquarters

Adventure Team Action Packs
This is an Australian commercial in black and white.  Kenbrite sold the action packs advertised in Australia.  

Training Tower

Sandstorm Survival, Secret Mission to Spy Island, Devil of the Deep:  3 of 50 adventures

Adventure Team Sets

Kung Fu Grip
GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip

Helicopter commercial

Mobile support vehicle

Archaeological Exploration
The secret of the mummy’s tomb

Search for the stolen idol

Mike Power:  Atomic Man

Super Joe (bad sound)
There is a black boy in this commercial.  He lifts Super Joe to demonstrate the helicopter.

 À Bientôt


  1. Quote: No sane mother would allow her sons to let their astronaut toys splash down in an open tank of water in the middle of the den, but the commercial is not concerned with convincing viewers that the action on screen is real.

    LOL. No she wouldn't.

  2. My G.I. Joes were part of the Adventure Teamm but since two of them (Old Joe and Ian) wore the green camo shirt and pants, I associated them with the Vietnam War. However, I never played war scenes with them; the War was part of their history BEFORE they came into my world. With me, they were civilians who had war experience, but mostly they were in relationships with my other DAF characters.

  3. BTW, thanks for the links to Joe commercials and related information.

  4. Hi Dana,

    Glad you enjoyed the post. Your experience confirms that many of us (boys and girls) who played with Adventure Team figures in the 70s did not imagine them in warlike pursuits. Still it must be the parents of our generation (who did not grow up with war toys) who made it profitable for Toys R Us to put war toys front and center after 9/11. I'm trying to understand how that happened.

  5. Thanks. I have never seen any of these commercials, but that first one is still pretty powerful. I found myself saying "ooh, I want that. No my guy doesn't have his spacesuit. I NEED that capsule." I am a huge Star Trek fan and I see these things working well for a Trekky like me. I have never acted out any war scenes and my guys have never shot guns in my presence. However, I do have an Iraqi Vet in my stories and I plan to delve into the psychological issues he is dealing with since returning home. Hence my need for a Psychiatrist. I imagine in his dreams there is lots of shooting.

  6. Hi Vanessa,

    The 1960s were a golden age of advertising. Even in black and white the "Mad Men" knew just how to push our buttons. I'm a fan of the original Star Trek too and would LOVE to have that space capsule. I even have a large garden tub where my astronauts could splash down without making a big mess.