“The Legend of G.I. Joe…New from Marvel Comics!”: The Toy as Comic Book on Television

Curator's Note

Although toy maker Hasbro had advertised G.I. Joe on television since the inception of the product line in the 1960s, commercials like these in 1982 were the first to give life to the toy through animation. Here we see some of the first real steps to narrativize the existing toy line by creating differentiable characters (“Destro’s got a plan, he’s an evil man…”), and significantly, generating dramatic conflict through the creation of an antagonist, the global terrorist organization COBRA. But perhaps most remarkably, these advertisements do not showcase a single G.I. Joe toy, instead calling attention to a series of monthly comic books published by Marvel Comics. The horizontal shape of this marketing campaign derived equally from the institutional structures of broadcasting at this time and willingness of companies outside of television to form strategic creative partnerships to sidestep those structures. Yet in using a broadcast medium to advertise a toy as a comic book character, these commercials present an historically crucial moment in media convergence, blurring lines between storytelling and marketing, and calling into question the very nature of G.I. Joe as a cultural product. Was he toy, cartoon, or comic? Or something bigger than all three? Although Reagan’s FCC would soon gut such regulations, toy companies were restricted in their use of animated commercials in 1982. The fantasy worlds of animation, it was believed, could too easily misrepresent the features of toys and mislead impressionable children. Nevertheless, recognizing the success with which products like cereal had been marketed to children via animation, Hasbro doggedly pursued a means to circumvent this restriction in marketing its G.I. Joe toys. The solution: if you can’t advertise toys with animation, why not advertise something else instead? So Hasbro approached Marvel Comics, granting them license to publish G.I. Joe comics, and kicking in an estimated $5 million to pay for animated commercials for those comics (a perfect task for the animation facilities of Marvel Productions). The idea of commercials for comic books was just as unorthodox in 1982 as it is today; indeed, the brilliance of Hasbro’s plan lay in the fact that as a result of its unlikelihood, there were virtually no regulations in place for the advertisement of comic books! Hasbro wagered that so long as the G.I. Joe property could capture broadcast exposure through its comic book stories, the toys would be silently but implicitly promoted. There’s good reason to be ambivalent about this development. The Hasbro-Marvel partnership intentionally sought to evade regulations designed to protect children, subordinating those concerns to the logics of marketing. At the same time, however, their strategy ushered in a new moment where toy objects, already full of meaning, additionally take on specifically narrative structures and cultural patterns. For better of worse, this moment in 1982 is one in which G.I. Joe fundamentally stops being what it was, and starts being something different, carrying with it a whole new set of cultural concerns that cut across toys, television, and comics.


This is a fascinating piece, Derek. The first clip in particular, seems to transition rather surprisingly into an ad for the comic - I was thinking that it could just as easily serve as a promotion for the animated series, but I'm guessing that these ads predate the 1980s cartoon. Did these ads replace any attempts by Hasbro to conform to FCC regulations with live action ads that showcased toy size and mobility? Or did Hasbro continue to run more direct advertisements for the toy line alongside these almost-cartoons? I'm curious as to how much Hasbro was invested in this comic-ad strategy as part of the evolution of the character/brand versus as a regulatory loophole.

Great piece, Derek! Being the comic book fan that I am, I just went back and browsed through Marvel's G.I. Joe #1, expecting to see lots of ads for G.I. Joe merchandise. There were none (in fact there are no overt ads at all in the comic). What I found instead were several splash page "profiles" of G.I. Joe weapons (the MOBAT tank and the Heavy Artillary Laser) and characters (Scarlett, Breaker, Flash, Stalker). These items, which I'm fairly certain were available for purchase at a store near you, are cleverly coded as "top secret case files" that readers gained access to through the comic, bonus materials if you like. There is also a write in offer to join the G.I. Joe Mobile Strike Force Team, which, in exchange for $5, gave you a membership kit containing G.I. Joe dog tags, a military web belt, a wall poster, an iron-on emblem, and an annual letter with special offers, all courtesy of Hasbro. All of this seems to suggest a marketing strategy built around inculcating investment in the G.I. Joe storyworld as a precursor to buying an endless supply of merchandise.

I wonder if "America's Army", the game designed to boost recruitment to the US military, and (according to Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture) aiming to become a cross-platform franchise, is at all comparable.

That is, I wonder Destro, who's got a plan and is an evil man, the terrifying enemy of G I Joe, is just a fantastical (super)villain rather than having any kind of political connotations, and whether G I Joe represents any form of propaganda for the actual US Army, or whether, again, he's just a vaguely do-gooding generic hero.

Thanks for the great comments—sorry my replies are a bit delayed (I’ve been out of town). Caryn: Yes, these ads do predate the cartoon that would follow in 1985, but in that way you can think of them almost as mini-pilots (the cartoon would also be produced by Marvel using the same animation styles and designs). They did not either entirely replace Hasbro’s toy advertisements, which continued to use live-action shots of children bringing life to the toys through their own actions of play. So what you’re getting is an entire system of ads that can work together, where kids are seeing ads for multiple GI Joe products (both comics and toys). So it is a regulatory loophole, but arguably one with the potential to pay off more in terms of building the brand than if there were no rules restricting animated toy commercial to begin with. Avi: I can’t believe you have GI Joe #1! Considering Ray’s discussion of packaging, I’m confident you’ve taken steps to keep that well preserved. What I find fascinating about things like the MOBAT profiles and such are that at the same time as they act as shameless promotions for Hasbro’s newest products (undoubtedly timed to coincide with the availability of the item on store shelves—the comic writers, for example, have been very open about the fact that Hasbro would request new figures and vehicles to be spotlighted at such times), they are what most deepen the story world, providing more detail than even the cartoon or comics could. But I wouldn’t say that it’s always as a precursor to buying the merchandise, as these narrative details would continue to get piled on after you made the purchase. Again, tying this back to the discussion of packaging, each card a GI Joe figure was packaged on had a cut-out “filecard” character profile that listed each character’s name, hometown, education, combat specialties, personality quirks, and even pay grades! It’s from the packaging of the toys, more so than the cartoons or comics that I personally remember the most about these characters; that Lady Jaye, for example, was born in Martha’s Vineyard, or that Flint was a Rhodes Scholar. (I’ve got pics of these filecards if anyone’s interested). Finally, Will: you raise an excellent point about the relationship of GI Joe to its social and political context. And while I’m not sure I’d characterize it as direct propaganda for the US military to the extent that America’s Army is, Hasbro executives have historically tried to reshape the franchise in respond to the social anxieties they perceive as most resonate (and thus most marketable) at any one particular time. Rather than directly promoting the US army, I’d compare Joe to other media products like Rambo circulating at the exact same time and reworking militaristic themes around individualistic heroes. But I think the best example of the political malleability of GI Joe comes later in the 1990s, when the line hits harder times. Hasbro reshapes the line around two trends—growing social concern about the environment, and the success of mutant heroes like X-Men and TMNT. Because Hasbro see a market for it in the 90s, they literally mutate the soldiers so they can fight for liberal environmental causes. So Joe's kind of a mercenary in that way. Sorry for such a long post!

I'm not sure I have much to say in response to Will's question about America's Army, though it's an interesting one. Nothing I've read about America's Army makes any direct links back to G.I. Joe but it could not have been far from their thinking when they decided to try to use popular culture to increase recruitment and expand dialog between servicemen and civilians. In a recent issue of Convergence, which I co-edited with Mark Deuze, Hector Postigo has an interesting discussion of a recent attempt to build a game mod based on the G.I. Joe franchise of this era, building in the weapons and scenarios from the earlier cartoons and comics. It would be interesting to read that essay, which describes the struggles that developed over these mods which Hasbro eventually shut down, in relation to this discussion. Another example of the cultural problems caused when kids remain trapped in "fantasyland" for too long, I suppose! But also a tribute to what may have started as a marketing ploy but which became a central mythology for a particular generation.

Dear Derek Wow! Talking GI Joe (Action Force in the UK for a while) is a dream come true! Following on from comments made about the file cards and personalised merchandise. Hasbro had an offer to create your own Joe character based on your own identity, skills, history etc. You could make up the codename etc. and they would send you the figure (the helmet hiding facial features made sure that it was generic to all kids who sent away for it) with a special file card printed out with your details, skills, rank you wanted to give to the character. Talk about becoming part of the narrative! Of course, the file cards were an interesting thing: Lady Jaye was from Ireland in the UK version and Flint went to Eton. When Action Force became GI Joe in the UK, shortly after the movie, the file cards became the same in both countries - national differences were instead represented through new figures being coded as "other" by their names and military outfits: There was a Big Ben (SAS soldier) and Big Bear (Russian soldier) to name just two.

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