G.I. Joe: The Story of Toys, Cartoons, & Trade Embargoes

The toy that gave us a masterclass in marketing

Jamie Logie

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Hasbro

A real American Hero takes on an evil criminal organization determined to rule the world. The heroes, using a variety of vehicles, weaponry, and advanced technology, will fight for freedom wherever there’s trouble, letting nothing get in their way in the pursuit of that freedom. The adversary, motivated by greed and power, engages in terrorism to achieve its objective and get revenge on the world.

The battleground? Our toy boxes, after-school cartoons, and retail shelves.

On today’s journey, we travel back to witness the creation of the toy that set the standard for how to market and promote an entire franchise. This is the story of… GI JOE.

If you and I are close to the same age, then GI Joe was a seminal part of your upbringing. Along with Transformers and He-Man, this was the defining toy of the 1980s. It was one of our first true universes with a realm of toys, characters, vehicles, and a deep mythology. The cartoon show was required viewing after school, and if there was one toy and show that could represent the entire 1980s for a kid, it may be GI Joe.

Whereas other toys may have had a few successful years, GI JOE has been a best-selling toy for multiple decades. It’s spawned cartoons, comic books, cartoon and live-action movies, and every kids product you could possibly imagine.

The Origins of GI JOE

To understand this entire story, we have to go back to 1963 and the true beginning of GI JOE. Stan Weston was the man behind the toy. But where did this influence come from? Well, we have to go back even further. In 1955, a German fashion doll named Bild Lilli was introduced. It was based on a comic strip character named Lilli and the doll came with various fashionable outfits.

Back in the US, a businesswoman and inventor named Ruth Handler was always looking for new ideas. One story says that while on a trip to Europe, she saw a doll that looked different from all the toy baby dolls that dominated US store shelves. This is said to be Bild Lilli. Her daughter Barbara also loved dolls.

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Jamie Logie

Some health, a little marketing, and a lot of 1980s content