“The Legend of G.I. Joe…New from Marvel Comics!”: The Toy as Comic Book on Television
by Derek Johnson — University of Wisconsin, Madison
May 08, 2008 – 03:01
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.
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