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G.I. Joe the best toy? Those are fighting words

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Updated: October 21, 2012 2:40PM

It was a brilliant advertising/marketing stroke that could have been hatched in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce circa late 1963.

Roger: “Hasbro is launching a new doll, but this one is aimed at boys. Half the market for dolls is going untapped. They’re calling it G.I. Joe.”

Peggy: “One of the slogans we’re pitching is, ‘G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, fighting man from head to toe. This is not your sister’s doll.’ ”

Don (exasperated, stubbing out cigarette): “Forget about the slogan. The first thing you have to remember is to never say it’s a doll. Ever. You say it’s a doll and it’s dead on arrival.

“It’s not a doll. It’s an action figure.”


Of course it didn’t go down that way because “Mad Men” is, you know, fictional, but when Hasbro coined the term “action figure” for the G.I. Joe in 1964, it set the stage for a generation of American boys to feel comfortable playing with a guy counterpart to Mattel’s Barbie (born in 1959) without having to worry about Dad coming home from work, getting out of the Chrysler and saying to Mom, “When is supper going to be ready, and why is Junior playing with dolls in the backyard?”

(It took a year or two for the term “action figure” to take hold. When Johnny Hero debuted in 1965, advertising materials of the time largely referred to it as a “boy’s doll.” This might be why you don’t hear too many 50-year-old men saying, “Man I loved my Johnny Hero boy’s doll when I was a kid.”)

Doll or action figure, G.I. Joe, aka America’s Movable Fighting Man, was enormously popular in the 1960s and 1970s and continues to inspire comic books, TV shows and a number of movies, including the exceedingly mediocre “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” from 2009, starring Channing Tatum as “Duke” and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as “Please Don’t Include This in My Lifetime Achievement Reel in 2040.”

Number 34 is more like it

Still, it has to be considered something of an upset that G.I. Joe has been named the best-loved children’s toy of the 20th century, according to a recent survey organized by the highly regarded Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

More than 24,000 adults and children cast votes, and this was the Top 10:

1. G.I. Joe

2. Transformers

3. LEGOs

4. Barbie

5. View-Master

6. Bicycle

7. Cabbage Patch Kids

8. Crayons

9. Play-Doh

10. Monopoly

Wait a minute. If “bicycle” is eligible, why not a baseball glove, a football, a skateboard, ice skates? I’d rank all of the aforementioned childhood treasures far ahead of G.I. Joe. The moment when you got your first real baseball glove, the day when you took that 10-speed Schwinn out for a ride, the first time you realized you could skate all the way around the rink without falling, compared to playing pretend Army with a doll, I mean, action figure? Please!

Even in the world of “pure” toys and not sports equipment, I’d put Hot Wheels, Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, Vac-U-Form, Sure Shot Hockey and Electric Football, to name just a few, far ahead of G.I. Joe. There’s only so much you can do with a bendable Army guy before you run out of sound effects and “Argh! I’m dead” scenarios. But Hot Wheels on that orange track, electric race cars, Jarts, for crying out loud — that could go on for hours.

“Toys are a powerful tool for exploration and imagination as we grow up,” says the release from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. “They foster many shared memories across generations.”

Indeed. But as I searched my memory banks in search of sepia-toned visions of summer afternoons spent playing with my G.I. Joe, I realized I had never even asked for one for Christmas or my birthday. Even at 6 or 7, who wanted to play with an action figure when there was a game of “Running Bases” breaking out on our dead-end street on a July evening, or the village had just filled the rink on a January morning and anyone that showed up might get in a game of pick-up hockey?

That’s my Toy Story.

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