Interview with G.Wayne Miller
G.Wayne Miller's book, Toy Wars, covers the "epic struggle between G.I.Joe, Barbie, and the companies that make them". I received an advance copy of the book and interviewed the author about his book.
Read my review of the book, then learn more information about the book (including the first chapter online) at http://www.gwaynemiller.com.
Can you briefly describe how the impetus for Toy Wars came about? It's not every day that a writer is allowed to sit in with a corporation like Hasbro on decision-making meetings and is given the freedom to write it as he sees it.
My original intent was to write about the birth of a toy. G.I. Joe, the all-American icon, fascinated me. I knew Hasbro chairman and CEO Alan Hassenfeld on a casual basis, and I approached him with the idea. He said yes -- and welcomed me into the company, in part, I think, because he knew my work (three books and several national award-winning stories) and respected it. Once inside Hasbro, however, I saw a much bigger drama involving Wall Street, Hollywood, and billions of dollars. I got to write all about Joe, with an access no other writer has ever had, but also some incredibly fascinating people, starting with Alan, who was a creative writing major in college who never intended to run the world's largest toy company.
You first started the book in 1992, back when the "Real American Hero" line - the line that revitalized G.I.Joe - was still doing well. Looking back now at when you first started sitting in on Hasbro meetings, what was the attitude towards the small G.I.Joe figures? Was there a feeling that this toy line had served them ten years and would still be a force in the marketplace, or a feeling that the line's days were numbered?
As you will read in great detail, things were approaching crisis. There was very much the feeling that the 3 3/4-inch figure was doomed. What to replace it with was the big issue.
1992 was also an interesting year in that it was the year Hasbro brought back the 12" G.I.Joe figures. Among G.I.Joe collectors, they're very polarized into the two camps - 12" and 3 3/4" collectors. What about Hasbro itself - did you get the sense that they treated the two Joes differently?
No question they treated them differently. The 12-inch figures were seen as having a limited appeal on the mass market, although people realized to the adult collector, they would be big. The 3 3/4-inch market was seen mostly as kids, not the older collectors. In 1992, that's where they thought the big money was. And it was -- in 1992!
You have a great quote about G.I.Joe collectors by Larry Bernstein - "Collectors are a pimple on the elephant's a**". Obviously, this statement was made in terms of money and marketshare that toy collectors make up compared to children. By the end of your stay at Hasbro, did this attitude hold up? Or did you notice any changes in the way they marketed G.I.Joe - especially the 12" figures?
By the end of my stay, after the Kenner organization had taken creative control of Joe (the demise of the old Joe gang is one of the subplots of the book), the 12-inch figures reigned supreme. All sorts of advertising and creative input was being thrown that way.
My favorite passage from the book - bar none - is this passage- "Like Joe of the mid-seventies, contemporary Joe was confused....Ninja Force Joe, Streetfighter II Joe, Mega-Marines Joe, Mega-Monsters Joe, Eco-Warriors... He'd become a sponge, soaking up whatever came floating down the stream of culture."
You were there at the meetings. Did you see these problems in 1994, or like the minds at Hasbro, was it only clear in hindsight? Could the Real American Hero line been saved with more saavy marketing - like more television shows, the proposed feature film, video game licensing?
I really think the Real American Hero's time had passed. So had heroism, in that great old-fashioned patriotic sense -- at least with kids. I did see these problems. I thought, however, that Kirk Bozigian's Sgt. Savage had potential, since it attempted to marry that old-fashioned feel with attitudes of today. If a feature film had been realized (with Schwarzenegger or Willis, say), I think the line would have exploded. As it was, it got very little support and died quickly. I still LOVE the Warhawk plane, however; it's my favorite Joe treasure!
What I found even more fascinating than the behind the scenes look at the Real American Hero - a line that I am a loyal follower of - was your behind the scenes look at the making of G.I.Joe Extreme. Clearly no one sets out to create a lemon, but in the eyes of children and collectors these were the worst G.I.Joes in its 30 year history. What promise did Hasbro see in these figures that the rest of the world didn't?
Hasbro was trying to do what Kirk Bozigian had tried with Savage: marry patriotism with today. And I must say, sitting in all the meetings, and being dazzled by the Kenner designers and marketers (those guys know how to dazzle!), I was sold. Where they went wrong, in hindisght, was trying too hard to be hip. MTV doesn't work on Joe, although, Lord knows, they tried.
You note yourself the unusual respect that focus groups get - they're depended on to make multi-million dollar decisions, yet they're not to be trusted. Does Hasbro still use them? I think that their explanation of why G.I.Joe Extreme failed is about as accurate as New Coke. Did you agree with some of the findings of the groups?
Focus groups are always risky, and yes, they're still used -- by everyone in the business, regardless of company. The trick is in interpretting results: Were I running a department, I would never make a final decision to go/not go only on a focus group. And I'd like to think I'd rely more on my gut, although that takes a certain degree of spine -- and can backfire.
Like a great story, Toy Wars answers many questions about where Hasbro has been and where it was, but also seems to point to more questions ahead for Hasbro. Where do you see Hasbro Toys in ten years? What will G.I.Joe be to the next generation of boys?
As you know, Hasbro just got the rights for the next three Star Wars movies. They paid a s**tload of money -- about half a billion dollars, by the best estimate -- and some say that's outrageous, but to paraphrase Alan, never underestimate the power of the force. I think it will pay off huge, and Hasbro will get even richer. I also see tremendous continued growth of their interactive division, which has produced some great computer games already, with many more in the pipeline.
As for Joe, I wonder if it will have any meaning for the next generation of boys. It may remain only a great collectible. Then again, Clinton is leaving the White House sooner or later, and we could as a culture take a stronger turn toward military. Joe could have a rebirth among kids. But frankly, I don't see it. Short of another war, or the advent of some unimaginably cool new weapon system and/or arm of the military, I wonder if Joe will every return to the glory days of the 1980s.