Saturday, February 04, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: The G.I. Joe Comic Commercials

Apologies again for not getting this posted yesterday. Assuming life and technology cooperate, Nostalgia Theater will be back to its regular Friday slot next week. For this week's installment, we close out an unplanned trilogy of posts on the various animated escapades of G.I. Joe by circling all the way back to the beginnings of the brand's "Real American Hero" iteration -- appropriate, considering that this year marks an amazing thirty years since the line was inaugurated.

It seems difficult to imagine now, but when Hasbro first brought Joe back from obsolescence, it was no surefire hit. On the contrary, in fact. Until then, the popular conception of G.I. Joe was a 12-inch action figure with rooted hair, a kung fu grip, and various military-themed accessories and outfits to make him the man of action for any occasion -- Barbie for boys, if you will. This version of Joe debuted in 1960 and ran until 1976 (morphing from a generic "army man" into a broader "adventure hero" in the process), but while changing tastes eventually put Joe into cold storage, a complete paradigm shift for boys' toys the following year would end up opening the door for his return.

The cause of this paradigm shift? Believe it or not: George Lucas.

At the filmmaker's insistence, the Star Wars toy collection from Kenner (later a subsidiary of Hasbro) was centered around smaller-scaled action figures in order to allow for an assortment of vehicles that would be sized manageably and not drive parents into the poorhouse. As a result, a standard size of 3 3/4 in. was settled on for the figures, with vehicles scaled accordingly. With the size change came the realization that it was an affordable option for parents to buy entire assortments as opposed to picking and choosing which figures they'd purchase. We already know how successful this decision ended up being for Kenner.

And that, circuitously, brings us back to G.I. Joe. In 1982, Hasbro made the decision to bring the character back from hibernation. Instead of a single "guy named Joe," the line would be focused on an entire team of adventurers, and instead of a single 12-inch figure, they'd follow Star Wars' lead and center on an assortment of 3 3/4 inch toys. This is where Marvel Comics came in. The comic publisher had already achieved success with multiple licensed properties (their Star Wars comic was one of the most successful books of all time, and they'd also found longevity with toy-based comics Micronauts and Rom -- both of which far outlasted the products they were based on).

The mission put to Marvel by Hasbro was to take the figures that had already been designed, and to give them identities and a purpose (which comic writer Larry Hama did, shaping the modern Joe mythology nearly singlehandedly, from characters to concepts). As it turns out, however, Hasbro's plans for Marvel went deeper then merely having the comic giant publish a G.I. Joe monthly for them. Rather, they would piggyback off the Marvel book to inaugurate a method of brand promotion that was fairly revolutionary at the time, and remains so revolutionary that it's rarely been done since.

Strict FCC regulations made it difficult for toymakers to put out animated commercials in service of their products, the belief being that such enticements would prove irresistible for little kids -- can't say I necessarily disagree with that. The solution Hasbro arrived at to help them end-run the FCC was simple. "We won't make animated commercials about the toys, we'll make animated commercials about the comics -- and if that commercial just so happens to feature all the toys in the line, whaddya do, right?" Thus, in a unique bit of licensing synergy, Marvel got their first ever fully-animated TV commercial, and they did it on Hasbro's dime:

That first commercial, which aired in early summer of '82, helped cement the central narrative of the revived Joe, and it helped make Marvel's G.I. Joe #1 one of the biggest sellers of that decade. I'm willing to bet those twenty-four spots, each a thirty-second mini-movie tying in with specific issues and airing every few months, are a big reason why the comic found the lifespan that it did, continuing well into the '90s, and why it retains so many fond memories for so many '80s kids. They sure did the trick on me. It was also these commercials that led pretty much directly to the syndicated G.I. Joe TV show (as well as a host of other toy-based 'toons).

In that sense, the comic book commercials were almost too successful. The Joe animated series, essentially a half-hour toy commercial itself, along with loosened FCC restrictions in the Reagan era allowing for toy commercials to air in traditional kidvid hours, made the comic commercials somewhat redundant, and by late 1988, feeling no doubt that they'd already met their goal of bringing the new G.I. Joe fully into the mainstream, the comic commercials were discontinued, closing out with issue 80, cover dated November 1988 (the comic book would continue for another six years, running until #155 in 1994).

Today, the G.I. Joe comic spots offer a window into the social and political circumstances of the time in which they emerged. Hasbro tried the same trick a few years later to hype their Air Raiders and Visionaires toylines' Marvel adaptations, but neither took, proving that this was a true "lighting in a bottle" situation. Although Shout! Factory released the entirety of the original Joe cartoon show a few years back, I really wish these twenty-four commercials would have made it onto that set. The nice thing about living in the YouTube age however, is that they're available to watch in compilations like this. Maybe a little grainier than we'd like, but still allowing us to relive the time when the "Legend of G.I. Joe" began:

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