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How G.I. Joe's Flint joined the battle for America's childhood

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Toward the end of last year Netflix lost the rights to stream the original G.I. Joe cartoons from the 1980s. I hadn't even been aware they were on the service, but I was determined to reacquaint myself with the series before it was pulled down.

One lunch break. That's all it took before I was on eBay pricing out a vintage Night Raven jet like a relapsed addict.

It only took a few episodes before I was on eBay, shopping for toys

I had to step away from the television without finishing the original, five-episode miniseries that kicked G.I. Joe: The Real American Hero off. I had to physically remove myself from my living room, so strong were the memories of playing with those toys.

night_raven

That's because the original G.I. Joe cartoons had been the opening salvo in a war for the hearts and minds of American children. That singular program was representative of a fundamental shift in how toys were sold, and it would change how companies marketed to children forever.

That's just one of the stories that make up a new book by Bill Ratner, titled Parenting In The Digital Age. It's hard out there, for kids and parents alike. Ratner should know. He is, after all, the voice of Flint, one of the first members of G.I. Joe.

He's also a parent.

It's a trap

"I went to class for six years to learn voiceover," Ratner told me over Skype. "It was like going to medical school, only without the blood and alcohol.

"Early on, I went for an audition for Hasbro for G.I. Joe. And I remembered G.I. Joe as a comic book character before he was a doll. He was just this vicious, muscled guy who killed Koreans and had incredible weaponry, and great big jowls, and huge pectoral muscles and was a really angry, humorless character."

As Ratner describes it, Hasbro was jealous of the success of the Star Wars toys from the early 1980s. They hatched a plan to shrink G.I. Joe down to three-and-a-half inches, making him cheaper to produce. They then launched the G.I. Joe cartoons solely as a way to sell the toys. It was a very calculated effort.

G.I. Joe proved tightly integrated marketing campaigns could work on children

"After a 5 episode mini-series which was syndicated — the networks didn’t want it, so Hasbro and Sunbow productions went from station to station throughout the states securing markets, who in turn bought this 5 episode mini-series — and it was so successful and the rollout of the toys was so profitable that they went on to make about 50 episodes in the first season."

G.I. Joe was the case study that proved this kind of tightly integrated marketing campaign could work. Next came Transformers, then He-Man and MASK and dozens more like them. The '80s and '90s were filled to bursting with new properties designed to sell toys. And, Ratner says, it was all thanks to President Ronald Reagan.

reagan

Just a few years before G.I. Joe launched, Reagan — himself a former television star — worked out a deal whereby the FCC deregulated many of its advertising rules.

Suddenly, children were fair game and companies like Hasbro took every opportunity to exploit the changes in the law.

Previously toys had been marketed towards parents. During the early years of the Reagan administration Ratner says that the amount of advertising aimed at children tripled. The best artists, designers, illustrators and voiceover artists from across the creative industry were brought to bear on that one market segment.

Kids like me didn't stand a chance

Kids like me didn't stand a chance.

It's just one of several stories Ratner tells in his new book, a collection of personal anecdotes from his lifetime doing voiceover work for everyone from Hyundai to the Smithsonian Institute, complemented by parenting strategies.

These strategies are necessary, Ratner says, because ever since the 1980s American corporations have successfully eroded the most valuable resource children have at their disposal — time.

That's why, for many years, Ratner carefully controlled how his daughters consumed television programming in his own home. He went so far as to install a hidden kill switch in the basement, feigning ignorance every time the television went out.

"Somebody confronted me at one of the ABC affiliates where I used to work," Ratner said. "They said, 'Wait a minute, aren’t you the guy that doesn’t allow your kids to watch TV? ... We pay you to tell people to watch television!'"

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Things have only become harder for parents with the explosion of tablets and smartphones. It's also made things harder for toy manufacturers.

"I was just at G.I. Joe Con, which Hasbro still partially sponsors," Ratner said. "I met up with the brilliant G.I. Joe animator and cartoon writer, former comic book writer Larry Hama. ... I said, 'I’m assuming that Mass Effect and all the big games, all the big game companies — Electronic Arts — are raking in billions from ancillary sales of toys.' And he said, 'No, quite the contrary. The difference between a child in the 80s watching a television program and wanting to play with the action figures is that that child had access to the characters for half an hour a week, and later a half hour a day during syndication of the show. But today they have 24/7 access. It’s on their iPhones, their iPads, their computer. Wherever. And so they don’t need the toys.'"

The second half of Ratner's book is filled with interviews he conducted with parents struggling with issues related to modern media consumption in the home, and strategies to help combat it. From tablets to YouTube and social media to video game consoles, today's American youth doesn't have the same kind of lifestyle they did 50 years ago. The solution, Ratner says, is to carve out time for children to unplug, to develop the kind of social skills they need to become good citizens, and to preserve their freedom to be creative.

Don't hate the player

In addition to work for Hasbro, Ratner has also done voiceover work on the Mass Effect and the Grand Theft Auto series. As such, he's under no delusion that his work has been, in a way, part of the perceived problem.

"There’s the metaphor of 'the good Nazi,'" Ratner said. "I don’t think the Nazis did much good, frankly. I  think their methods of dealing with their society and the way they made warfare was awful. I don’t think there was anything good about them. However, I look at American capitalism ... and I don’t think it’s a particularly and uniquely bad thing. I think it’s sort of morally and ethically somewhat neutral. And I do fall prey to the exact same sentiment that goes on in the sales departments of corporations and companies all across the western world, which is, 'Yeah man! Dude! Go for it! Yo Joe! Kill! Sublimate! Victory!' And everybody who has ever been in sales knows exactly what I’m talking about.

"It’s necessary to motivate sales people to feel that way. And I feel that way about getting work in voiceover."

It's up to parents, Ratner said, to be an advocate for their child. It's a red herring, in a way, to focus on censoring the content that they consume, and instead much more important to help them better spend their precious time.

It's up to parents to be an advocate for their child

"I know certainly there’s a ratings system in place for gaming," Ratner said. "It’s every parent's right to say, 'I don’t want my kid, at age eight, blowing away prostitutes in a back alley and celebrating by cleaning his weapon with his friends.' That’s a taste issue. That’s a personal issue. I don’t have much comment about that. I think the bigger issue is time.

"If a kid comes from a family where the sort of moral and ethical fiber is weak enough that seeing a semi-nude figure on a screen is going to destroy their conscious mind, well maybe that’s an issue where the parents should figure out how to get it together and be a greater influence on their children than the game is. I think these games are an incredible exhibition of technical wizardry on the part of US gamemakers, frankly. And the animation is amazing. It’s great entertainment."

His book, filled with encouragement and options for parents, is available on Amazon as a physical product, an eBook or as an audio book narrated by none other than Ratner himself.

Correction: A correction has been made to provide clarity to Bill Ratner's quotes regarding sales ethics.