Classic Toys: G.I. Joe
“America’s Moving Fighting Man”
G.I. Joe was originally conceived by a licensing agent at Hasbro as a marketing tie-in to a television show about the U.S. Marine Corps called “The Lieutenant”. Hasbro liked the idea of a military doll for boys, but didn’t like the idea of connecting it to the program. Hasbro designers decided to model their doll on a WWII G.I., or member of the United States Armed Forces.
G.I. Joe premiered in 1964 at the American International Toy Fair in New York. According to the story told by the Smithsonian Institution, Hasbro president, Merrill Hassenfeld warned sales reps at the fair not to be overheard referring to G.I. Joe as a “doll”. This was not a “doll” along the lines of Barbie’s companion, Ken. Although it was a doll, the Hasbro team had worked to design G.I. Joe as the most rugged action figure ever made. The original G.I. Joe had dog tags around his neck, a scar on his cheek and came equipped with M-1 rifles, machine guns and bayonets in addition to being a fully articulated action-figure. The public loved G.I. Joe as both a U.S. soldier and as a hero. This 12-inch doll made up almost two-thirds of Hasbro’s total sales for the first two years it was available.
G.I. Joe was joined by an African American companion in 1965 and a female nurse in 1967. Called G.I. Nurse Action Girl, this doll was not very popular and was discontinued after her first year, making her a very collectible item. G.I. Joe was now uniformed and outfitted as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces fighting in Vietnam, rather than as a pilot or infantryman from WWII. A talking G.I. Joe was introduced in 1967. As the Vietnam War progressed, sales of the G.I. Joe doll and other military toys began to slump amid anti-war protesting. In 1969 production was halted as public opinion turned against Hasbro, who had been getting Joe’s heads from Hong Kong and uniforms from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. People objected to their American hero being clothed in uniforms made in foreign countries. After the Vietnam War, Hasbro wanted to change G.I. Joe’s image as a military-themed action figure. In 1970 G.I. Joe was updated and released as an adventurer driving an ATV as opposed to soldier with a Jeep. Now he fought giant spiders and space aliens. A G.I. Joe with “Kung-Fu Grip” was released in 1974.
Since a major component of plastic is petroleum, the oil embargo of 1976 resulted in major changes to the G.I. Joe figure. To keep the price of the doll in an affordable range, Hasbro reasoned, he was made much smaller. In 1977 Hasbro released a new line of figures, measuring 8.5 inches tall, called the “Super Joe Adventure Team”. They were produced to the end of 1978.
In 1982 G.I. Joe got smaller yet, when Hasbro re-launched the G.I. Joe brand with figures measuring a mere 3.75 inches high. They were part of a group of special ops characters called “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero”. The line was intended as a revival of the original 1964 brand. These characters were featured in a series of animated adventures and in Marvel comic books, as well as in a toy line that was produced to 1994.
Also in 1994, the newly acquired Kenner division of Hasbro took control of the line and promptly cancelled it. In 1995 the American Hero line was replaced with a new one called “Sgt. Savage and His Screaming Eagles”. (My guess is Kenner didn’t realize that mothers are the ones buying these toys for their kids and would have found a name like that a real turnoff.) Due to poor sales, the line was cancelled within the first year.
The Real American Hero line returned again in 2000. And in 2001, a line of figures commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor was released. A whole new 3 3/4-inch line of G.I. Joe figures and vehicles was introduced in 2002. Hasbro celebrated G.I. Joe’s 40th anniversary with the release of a line of reproduction dolls and accessories styled after the 1964 line. A “25th Anniversary” collection featuring 100mm versions of the “Real American Hero” line was released in 2007.
Hasbro has experienced incredible success with the G.I. Joe line, keeping him modern and in demand. Over $2 billion worth of G.I. Joe dolls and his related products have been sold since he was first introduced. There is a new movie to be released this August featuring the latest G.I. Joe line, called “The Rise of the Cobra”. Hasbro has created a toy that has proven to be timeless and a classic that will be around for many more years, for sure.