50 Years of G.I. Joe! So What’s Next?

2014 is the 50th anniversary of G.I. Joe! To celebrate, I’ll recap the evolution of the brand over the last 50 years, and then I’ll give my thoughts on what I’d like to see happen next. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

The world’s first “action figure” debuted in 1964, with the 12” G.I. Joe. It was extremely articulate and the packaging dubbed him “America’s moveable fighting man”.

This 12” figure was a marvel of technology and American ingenuity. Have a look!

After 5 years of realistic military themed toys the brand shifted to become more focused on “Adventures”.

Officially dubbed Adventure Team in 1970, these products sold well into the mid 70s. But by 1976 the figure had become prohibitively expensive to produce and was not faring well against competitors like the Mego Superheroes (yep, the ones with the silly looking gloves).

In 1977, Hasbro reinvented G.I. Joe with a more futuristic vision – Super Joe! These eight inch tall figures had robotic companions (The Shield and Luminous) and they fought against the evil Gor and army of Terrons. You can read more about this forgotten chapter of Joe history here.

The Super Joe line never really took off in terms of sales. Super Joe limped into year two with all efforts pegged on the success of Terron the Beast from Beyond. This futuristic Dinosaur could only be stopped by a weaponized beam of light. Unfortunately, the toy had major manufacturing problems and the Super Joe line was cancelled during summer of 1978.

Kenner began shipping 3.75” Star Wars toys in 1978, and they proved to be hugely successful. The G.I. Joe brand sat dormant for a few years, but Hasbro certainly took note of the success of these smaller scale figures.

In 1982, G.I. Joe was reinvented on a much smaller scale. Star Wars figures had proven that smaller, less expensive figures would sell in big numbers. These figures were individually much more affordable than their 12” and 8” predecessors, and kids could afford to collect them all. Hasbro made several improvements on previous small scale figures and introduced the most articulate 3.75” figure the world had ever seen. The A Real American Hero run introduced hundreds of new characters and vehicles over a 12 year span (1982-1994). You can see them all at 3DJoes.com. Cobra (a ruthless terrorist organization) was born. There were cartoons, comics, and countless other types of G.I. Joe branded merchandise (from color forms to shampoo, to sleeping bags). The brand was everywhere. At its peak, Hasbro released a 7.5 foot aircraft carrier. In the late 80s and early 90s, G.I. Joe faced competition from Thunder-cats, Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Exo-Squad and countless others. Finally, in 1994, they celebrated the 30th anniversary of G.I.Joe with a nice 3.75” set of 1964 tribute figures, and one last year of the ARAH figures.

In 1995 Hasbro tried a couple different things, Sgt. Savage and G.I.Joe extreme. Neither lasted long.

In 1997 Hasbro decided to re-introduce the once popular ARAH style figures. For five years or so they released mostly repaints of 1982-1994 figures.

In 2002, spurred on by decent sales, Hasbro decided to go all in on newly sculpted Joes. This began the “new sculpt” era of wacky proportions, broad shoulders, tiny waists and itty bitty heads. Some Joe fans loved these figures, I did not. These were good years for Hasbro though, as the Spy Troops and Valor Vs Venom 3D animated films brought in new fans and old alike.

From 2005-2007 Hasbro switched it up and created 8” Joes under the Sigma Six banner. A new cartoon and comic were launched to support the anime inspired line.

In 2007, Hasbro went back to the ARAH well, creating a 25th Anniversary line of 3.75” figures with updated articulation and more sophisticated sculpting. The old o-ring style construction was finally gone for good, replaced with a swivel joint torso. Wrists and ankle joints became standard, and knees became double jointed. This re-launch proved so successful that they are still making these figures today, although they are seemingly on their last breath now. With virtually no new toys on the 2014 horizon (with the exception of convention figures and the club membership figures), we are left to wonder… what’s next for our beloved brand?

I’ve heard many fans ask if Joe is dying. My answer is a resounding NO, he’s not dying. As you can see from the brief history above, G.I. Joe has been updated and reinvented again and again to regain cultural relevance, find new fans, and survive.

The G.I. Joe brand is strong. In 2012, after eight weeks of voting and more than 24,000 votes, G.I. Joe was voted the toy of the century by The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis!

This is not a dying brand. It is well known and loved around the world. The last two live action movies have grossed more than $677,000,000 internationally.

For whatever reason, the toys just aren’t selling. In 2013, Wal Mart and Target cleared G.I. Joes off of their shelves. They are barely stocked at Toys R Us. We could blame it on the modern day toy cycle, where new movie properties are cycled through the toy isles every couple months. We could blame it on video games and iOS devices. But, every industry has its challenges. Adapt or die, right? Looking at the history above, the answer seems clear to me: Hasbro needs to make G.I. Joe a real priority, and put some creative energy into once again reinventing the brand. Maybe this open letter will inspire them, or maybe they won’t take G.I. Joe seriously again until Disney drops the hammer on the Star Wars toy license. Then they’ll have to scramble to replace that revenue. Who knows? I hope the resurgence comes sooner than later.

Whenever Hasbro is ready to revitalize G.I. Joe, I think they’ll need a cohesive, multi-channel approach including:

  • a new cartoon (on a larger network than HUB)
  • new figures with all new sculpts (not just repaints and mash-ups)
  • beautiful card art (not poorly designed packaging with movie photos)
  • well written file cards (kids still want to know who each figure is – story lines and personalities bring their figures to life)
  • interactivity, be it a video game or app (there has to be something to extend the experience beyond the physical toy, it should extend the story of the file card + packaging into some kind of interactive and social experience)

Admittedly, all of this takes money. But, it takes money to make money, right? Unfortunately, I don’t think Hasbro is willing to invest in a fully fleshed out, well coordinated G.I. Joe marketing push right now. Look at what they’ve done for the past few years instead: one season of the Renegades cartoon shown only on the HUB, two successful live action movies, a mix of toys tying into both the cartoon and the films, some comics with two different continuities (neither of which are in sync with the cartoon or movies), an iOS game with nice art but no ties to the movies, cartoons, or comics continuity… you get my point. It’s haphazard and sends a confusing message about what G.I. Joe as a brand really is.

Why not coordinate all of these efforts toward telling one clear, resounding story?

I remember seeing Wild Bill on the cartoon, going to Waldenbooks and seeing the comic cover on the spinner racks with Wild Bill piloting the Dragonfly, and then going to K-Mart (or was it walmart?) to find the same toy on the shelves… now that was a well planed, cohesive marketing strategy (thanks in large part to the diabolical mind of Kirk Bozigian and company).

Just today, Hasbro announced that it intends to unveil its 50th anniversary plans during this year’s American International Toy Fair in New York, spanning  February 16th-19th. In mere hours there has been a plethora of news coverage, from Fox News to the Huffington Post, further proving that the public is still interested in this American icon.

So, what’s next?! Will they announce a brand-wide resurgence with coordinated efforts across all mediums? If Hasbro can come up with a fresh take on G.I. Joe, and they can coordinate all of their efforts across mediums (comics, movies, cartoons, toys) to sync them up – then they might just bring this brand back to life!

Right now G.I. Joe is on adult-collector life support, and he is only 50 years old. He is too young to die.

*Images courtesy of Vintage3DJoes.com (http://www.vintage3djoes.com) and 3DJoes.com (http://www.3djoes.com)

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