All I want for Christmas is a GI Joe

I don’t know what I am getting for Christmas, this year, but it is probably not a G.I. Joe action figure.

I don’t know what I am getting for Christmas, this year, but it is probably not a G.I. Joe action figure.

Which is a shame, really, because the original G.I. Joe action figures were very cool things, in their day, and an object lesson in how you develop, patent, trademark and market a hot new product to a properly targeted audience.

In a toy world now replete with poseable figures for just about every new action movie or tv show, it is easy to forget what a marketing revolution GI Joe represented in 1964.

I remember, though, because I was part of that revolution.

An unrepentant little ten-year-old militarist, with a neighbourhood-legendary collection of plastic soldiers, I came across an advertisement for GI Joe in one of my innumerable war-themed comic books (Fightin’ Army, perhaps, or, Fightin’ Marines, or, more probably, my favorite, Sgt. Rock), and knew immediately I had to have one.

An 11.5 inch-high plastic soldier you could put into all the poses of your plastic man collection (throwing a grenade, shooting from a kneeling position, shooting from a standing position), and into all kinds of different battle gear (camouflage or khaki combat fatigues, dress uniforms, rain ponchos)—what was not to love about that?

My elder brothers, of course, scoffed at my enthusiasm, as is the wont of elder brothers.

What kind of self-respecting boy would want to play with a doll, they asked.

To which I responded vehemently, adopting the terminology offered by the Hasboro game company (which owned the rights to the toy): “He’s not a doll, he’s a movable fighting man!”

The truth of the matter, of course, was that GI Joe, objectively considered, really was a doll; but the people at Hasboro were clever enough to create him with enough differences that they could market him—and all his various uniforms and weaponry, just like Barbie doll outfits—to an untapped market of young boys.

Their key innovation was the poseablility of the toy—its 21 (or, according to some, really only 19) moveable parts—that allowed you to pose it into all kinds of combat and parade-ground stances.

Had he been just a Ken-doll in uniform, he would have been too patently a doll, and therefore too embarrassing to play with.

But GI Joe was a doll with deniability.

Knowing they had a hot idea, the Hasboro people did not waste a lot of time getting their product on the market.

They filed for a patent in June of 1964, but did not wait for the patent to be awarded before going into production.

I can still remember the trademark and “patent pending” stamps (placed, a little ignominiously, on Joe’s right buttock) on the GI Joe I got for my birthday in July of 1964.

It was not until 1966 that the patent was awarded (US patent number 3,267,702—you can look it up at uspto.gov), by which time North America and much of the rest of the world was swarming with GI Joes and GI Joe knock-offs.

The knock-offs, though, did not really do much to hurt Hasboro’s market share.

The manufacture of the GI Joe toy was complex and costly enough to present a barrier to entry for most competition.

The design called for some quite precise plastic casting, and the use of some quite high-quality and expensive plastics.

Furthermore, Hasboro exploited two cosmetic design features to establish their trademark rights over the look of the toy.

You cannot, after all, patent or trademark a simulation of the human body. But you can trademark certain physical traits of that simulation.

The first of these traits was the scar on Joe’s right cheek.

Not only did that mark make GI Joe look rugged and combat-hardened, it; it meant his facial features could be trademarked.

The second feature (which they got around to including in their trademark claims only later) was actually a flaw in the original manufacture: The thumbnail on Joe’s right hand was on the underside of his thumb.

So, Hasboro’s GI Joe was a careless shaver and a bit of a genetic freak, but always recognizably the real deal.

The other clever thing Hasboro did to make sure it was “firstest with the mostest” to the market with this toy was to license production rights to other companies in other countries around the world.

In Britain, Palitoy Ltd used almost identical molds and patterns to produce figures and equipment packs under the name of “Action Man.”

There were also manufacturers in Canada, France, Japan, Germany, Brazil and Argentina, just to name a few.

For five years or so—1964 to 1969—the toy was a marketing phenomenon.

What finally put a stop GI Joe’s career were two key historical events: The Vietnam War, which made military toys unpopular with a lot of parents; and the oil crisis of the early 1970’s, which made the production of large, high-quality plastic figures uneconomical.

GI Joe eventually dwindled to a smaller, less complicated action figure—in effect, a knock-off of the famous Star Wars figures of the mid-70’s.

As an innovative product and a clever marketing strategy, though, it remains exemplary.

Also, GI Joe was just really cool, and a lot of fun.

I could use  another one for Christmas, one day.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.

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