The Greatest Marketing In History

I am not a scholar of advertising, nor am I an expert on history, but I am a lifelong student of pop culture, and this is what I’ve learned: the real key to long-term success for a product is to hook consumers when they’re young.

Here’s the checklist for making something boys will love:

  1. 1.  Interactivity – can it drive an imagination through play?
  2. 2.  Collectibility – are their dozens of cool characters, maybe some animal sidekicks and clear variants?
  3. 3.  Narrative – is there a story tying all the pieces together?
  4. 4.  Kick-assery – do things blow up?

The best way to hit all these points? Action Figures.


The Slickster 60’s

The term “Action Figure” was coined by Hasbro in 1964 to market GI Joe dolls to boys (who didn’t want to be seen playing with dolls, even though that’s what they were doing). Before the late 1970’s, action figures were generally 11.5 inches tall, and featured changeable uniforms and accessories.

The Transitional 70’s

During the 70’s, an oil supply crisis raised the cost of producing the large, plastic figures, and a smaller 3 3/4 inch tall figure was introduced with the Microman series. These toys were standalone playthings and original concepts, but they paved the way for what would come next.

When I was a young lad in 1977, the cross-market, full-tilt, marketing proliferation began… In a galaxy far, far away…

Before Star Wars there were some tie-in toys based on popular TV shows and movies, but nothing like what was coming. If fact, 20th Century Fox thought so little of the marketing rights to Star Wars, they signed them all off to George Lucas (who, as you may know, went on to become a Gajillionaire).

The marketing maelstrom that is Star Wars continues to this day – notebooks, bedsheets, drinking cups, underwear… You name it. However, what really stuck were Kenner’s line of collectible action figures and toys. Before DVD and even home video releases, having a collection of action figures and an imagination was the only way to reenact and revisit a favorite scene from Star Wars. These toys became a touchstone for a generation of collectors and nostalgia seekers, as well as a blueprint for cross-promotional advertising for decades to come.

The Super Rad 80’s

This is where the rubber really met the road for toy marketing, and a kid-based, consumer-driven economy really began to materialize. With the continuing plague of Star Wars merchandise, other toy companies saw a party going on, and they decided to invite themselves and all their friends…

It wasn’t enough anymore to just make toys anymore; an accompanying marketing bundle needed to compliment and extend original properties. Star Wars created an imaginative world, and invited you into it with play. Now the strategy was acting in reverse; toy companies had toys to sell, and needed new ways to create a world in which these toys lived. This created a basis for children to not only buy toys and reenact adventures, but also to create their own stories – this was an imagination invasion.

This era gave us an updated GI Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Silverhawks, Transformers, Super Powers Collection, and more – all with accompanying TV series, and often accompanying comic books. GI Joe and the Transformers were the kings of this time period. Today, both franchises still command large toy and merchandising lines, as well as big-budget Hollywood productions (I won’t speak to the quality of the latter).

So, during my formative years, I was able to watch the GI Joe cartoon five afternoons a week, read the comic book every month (the first comic I ever really read and collected), as well as buy the latest assortment of figures, vehicles, and accessories. This three-pronged marketing blitz was so effective that I will still occasionally pick up GI Joe figures, just for nostalgia’s sake. I still have the itch saying “I have to collect these!” in the back of my head. You see where I’m going here, right?

The Whatever 90’s

The 1990’s continued the trend set in the previous decade, giving us such things as Street Sharks, Captain Planet, Gargoyles, X-Men; just about any half-rate show on TV had some second-rate action figure to go with it, leading to market saturation and low-quality, unremarkable merchandise. The only real staying power came in the form of the wildly popular Pokemon, and heroes in a half shell – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The turtles came by way of comics, into cartoons, and finally action figures. TMNT and has had several different variations of the toy line, and several movie versions, including the new Michael Bay jam that is landing this summer (where the turtles have noses for some reason).

The most notable addition to the TOY MARKETING BLITZ AGENDA from the 90’s, was the proliferation of yet another media stream for cross-promotion: video games. Home consoles were on the rise, and a crap Sega port was yet another stream for income and customer awareness.


The Now

This all brings us to present day, and the perfect singularity of marketing strategy yet instituted by humankind: SKYLANDERS.

For those who don’t know, Skylanders is a video game… And Skylanders is a collectible line of action figures… And you can play with your collection of action figures IN THE GAME. The active narrative and immersive interactivity of the game sets the stage (you literally have to buy a stage called a “Portal”), the collectibility of a wide range of figures with ever-evolving lineups (including rare variations) keeps kids coming back for more. It’s all tied together with unique characters, repeat playability, and things blowing up.

From “The Mix Creative” blog:
“What followed was what I perceived to be the most calculated marketing genius since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Here’s the low-down:

It’s a video game. Available for all of the major gaming systems (Wii, Playstation, Xbox), it uses the tried-and-true game formula of first-person adventure that children to adults are familiar with.

The game has special gear. In order to get started with the game, you need to purchase the required accessories, namely a starter pack that has several plastic action figures and a special platform on which to place them. The platform informs the game system which character has been selected by the player.

There are collectible characters. The characters, available in additional single packs for $7.99, have different powers and skills associated with them. Essentially, they’re 3D equivalents of collectible Pokemon or Yugioh cards—which my son started collecting when he was about 5 years old. To advance in the game, players will need to collect additional characters from those purchased in the initial starter pack.“

Skylanders tics all the boxes. It hits all the targets. It’s a perfect, gooey, delicious marketing candy that my six-year-old eats up…. And the six-year-old in me can totally appreciate. Sometimes I’m just as excited for him to buy a new figure and test it out it in the game.

So, in summary: hit consumers from all angles, and get to them early. Determine the factors that contribute to marketing success, then combine them into a plan that best hits your target demographic. Right?

From “The Mix Creative” blog:
“So what are the marketing take-home messages in this example? Activision smartly researched and evaluated their audience’s interests and buying habits and created a new experience that combines several proven marketing strategies. And, I suspect that they are also creating a demand for some of their characters in the spirit of the Beanie Babies franchise from the 1990s by releasing characters in limited quantities. How can you capitalize on this idea?

– Know your audience’s interests and buying habits well
– Create a package or product that combines multiple successful products or services into one
– Allow audiences to customize their package or product with additional add-on features
– Create demand for additional features by releasing them slowly and in limited quantities“

Or at least make it super awesome with robot ninja panther warrior pirates… And have some explosions.

Written By: Michael Nelson, Interactive Director