In 1964 designers at Hasbro Toys came up with a line of military dolls. Executives loved it, but the marketing department felt that boys would never buy anything called a “doll,” a term associated with girls’ toys. So they coined the term “action figure” to describe any human-like posable doll that was marketed to boys. And that toy line—G.I. Joe—was the first successful “action figure.” Here are some more action figure facts.
The Name Game
“Action figure” is more than a marketing term—it’s also been used as a legal distinction. In 2003 manufacturer Toy Biz, which made Marvel, TNA Wrestling, and Lord of the Rings action figures, argued before the U.S. Court of International Trade that its products were toys, and not dolls. Why? Because companies have to pay higher tariffs on importing dolls produced in other countries—toys are subject to half the rate. Toy Biz lawyers argued that dolls are representations of humans, whereas action figures depicted “nonhuman creatures” (like superheroes) or characters (like wrestlers) Toy Biz won the case.
The Birth of (He-)Man
Mattel passed on the opportunity to produce toys based on the Star Wars films. Big mistake: The movie went on to generate more than $1 billion in action figure sales well into the 1980s. Mattel wouldn’t make a toy line based on the 1982 hit movie Conan the Barbarian, either, because it was R-rated. Instead, it created a new line of toys, combining the space fantasy of Star Wars and the beefcake and sorcery of Conan, and called it He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Toys and comic books sold well, but they didn’t take off until a TV cartoon series aired in 1983—specifically designed to boost sales of the toys (a children’s-programming practice later made illegal by the FCC). It was the bestselling toy line of the 1980s.
Movies to Toys
Other toy companies didn’t seem to mind an R rating. R-rated movies with kids’ action figure lines include Rambo, Toxic Crusaders, Terminator 2, RoboCop, and Aliens.
Toys to Movies
A group of businessman and artists formed a company called Toy Vault in 1998 to fill what it thought was an overlooked market: toys based on children’s literature. They bought the action figure rights for Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings, and although no Alice in Wonderland figures were ever produced, the Lord of the Rings figures (Gandalf and Balrog) sold so well that executives at New Line Cinema decided that there was a market for big-budget Lord of the Rings movies.
Most-Hyped Figure That Ever Existed
In late 1985, Mattel held a contest in which kids could send in their ideas for a new He-Man action figure. The best entry would be mass-produced and sold by the company. The winner: 12-year-old Nathan Bitner from Naperville, Illinois. His idea: Fearless Photog, a good-guy monster whose head is a video camera that drains the evil out of bad guys. Bitner won a $100,000 college scholarship, but the action figure was never produced. (Mattel did send him a picture of a prototype, though.)