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G.I. Joe

By Zoe Mitchell

1964 GI Joe action figure in five different uniforms. G.I. Joe is a registered trademark of Hasbro, Inc. Photos by Tsering Yangzom.

In the early 1960s, the term “doll” belonged to one toy, Barbie. Barbie dominated the market with her endless accessories and devoted fan base. She defined the word “doll” to mean feminine and pink, creating a gap in the market for boys who also wanted to play with dolls. Hasbro took advantage of this opportunity and created a toy that could be Barbie’s male counterpart. A new word was coined to better sell this miniature man and in 1963, the “action figure” was born.

In 1963, Stanley Weston, a licensing and marketing agent in New York City, created the idea to sell dolls to boys, specifically, military dolls. Weston met up with toy designer Larry Reiner to model this new toy to include 21 poseable joints — an innovative idea at the time. Weston pitched the toy to Hasbro’s creative director Don Levine.

Levine thought the toy had potential but didn’t think it a smart marketing play to call it a doll.  Instead, he coined the term “action figure” to appeal to boys.  Standing at almost 12 inches and designed to include multiple moveable parts, Hasbro invested millions of dollars in equipment to produce the toy. Nearly all of Hasbro’s revenue was needed to produce this toy. There was a huge risk of bankruptcy if this action figure didn’t succeed.

Levine wanted to create four action figures from different branches of the military — the army, navy, air force, and marines — to prevent competition from filling any gaps in the market. Hasbro needed one name to unify the line, so the term G.I. Joe, short for Government Issued Joe, was suggested.

The production of G.I. Joe became a secret mission. Convinced that if their ground-breaking idea was leaked they would lose their competitive market advantage, Hasbro referred to it only by its code name— Robot—and prohibited employees from discussing the toy with their spouses.

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In the summer of 1964, G.I. Joe was released to the public and became an immediate hit, with sales of over 16 million units by the end of the year. G.I. Joe’s military persona resonated with consumers in Cold War America, many of whom fought in World War II. The toy’s success encouraged Hasbro to expand the line and manufacture $25 million worth of product by creating extensive sets of accessories and the first African America G.I. Joe in 1965. But, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War increased, the popularity of war-related toys dropped.

At the 1966 annual Toy Fair in New York City, protesters pitched signs that read “Toy Fair or War Fare?” There were many military related toys on the market at this time — the three-foot bazooka by Louis Marx and Company and the Defender Dan machine gun by Deluxe Reading. Retail stores became uneasy about stocking war toys and Sears Roebuck decided to drop all military-related toys from its national catalog. By the end of 1966, G.I. Joe sales began to tumble. Toy manufacturers took advantage of this opportunity and began to create non-military action figures. Mattel, for example, released an astronaut action figure. Ideal Toys teamed up with Marvel and DC comics to release Captain Action, designed by G.I. Joe creator Stanley Weston. Hasbro rebranded G.I. Joe in 1970 as an adventurer, and sales slowly climbed. In 1977, Hasbro created an 8-inch G.I. Joe as the production cost of the almost 12-inch toy was getting too high. They renamed the toy “Super Joe” — dropping G.I. from the name. Hasbro failed to procure wholesale buyers and a year later withdrew the new “Super Joe” from its production line.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1982 that Joe made a comeback. The original Star Wars movies were in theaters, and their corresponding 3.75-inch action figures were thriving. Hasbro thought it an opportune time to relaunch Joe as its own 3.75-inch toy. The new G.I. Joe returned, accompanied by a comic book and TV series. Over the next four years, Hasbro earned almost $185 million dollars from the redesigned brand. Some consider it the biggest comeback in toy history.

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G.I. Joe, Time, Aug. 7, 2009
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G.I. Joe, John Michlig, 1998

Published July 27, 2018.

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