Thursday, 10 September 2009

Toys and the Commercial Battlefield in a Time of War

Simon Cross
explores the meaning of the new Ministry of Defence-approved Action Man.

Every former schoolboy of a certain age played with or coveted ‘action men’ figures. For the uninitiated out there, what are they? Well, basically, they are play figures based on the British armed forces and thus sanctioned for playing with by boys. I spent many a long hour throwing my action man around as I imagined single-handedly pulverising the Nazis (I was born in 1964 so World War 2 games were my thing). I haven’t thought about action men for a long time; until recently that is.

Why? Well, earlier this year, the first ever Ministry of Defence-approved toys went on sale. You guessed it: action men are back! These dolls-for-boys are an updated version of ‘action men’ figures based on the modern British armed forces. They now trade on their verisimilitude to the uniform and equipment of the real-life infantryman, commando and pilot (‘action women’ don’t get a look in here I’m afraid; presumably the makers view them as unappealing to their target audience of young and not so young boys).

Launched on VE (Victory in Europe) day (of course) the new action men are trying to capture (military metaphors could be rife here, but I’ll resist) the commercial environment left empty by the demise of the original action men figures in 2006 when the toy makers Hambro discontinued the product. Why are they being brought back now though?

I suggest that there is a new media-promoted mindfulness about ‘our brave boys’ fighting and dying in far flung places like Iraq and Afghanistan in relation to which Character Group, the makers of the new action men, want to exploit for their own commercial purposes. But why are they being licensed by the Ministry of Defence? What is in it for the MOD? How might we think about these toys more broadly?

Firstly, the MOD has clearly stated their optimism that the new toy will help promote the military (see The Guardian 7 May 2009, financial section, p. 28). I would want to add here that promoting the military is part of a wider strategy to garner public support for the role of the military in a time of war.

Secondly, the battle for Afghanistan and Iraq is a battle for the hearts and minds of the British public (we are beginning to see this more clearly now with every media image of dead repatriated soldiers) and I want to suggest that a small plastic figurine with officially licensed insignia forms part of an ideological struggle to legitimise war in the popular imagination at the same time as many people question its legal legitimacy.

Thirdly, war sells. From film to figurines, war is a good commercial opportunity and Character Group clearly see the potential for shifting hundreds of thousands of these figures on the back of heightened attempts to support the activites of the troops in the field. Later this year, the toy makers will be launching their villain against which the new action men can kill and kill again. It will be interesting to see who are what the villain looks like and of course the toy makers hope it will make them a killing. I want to suggest that in a time of global recession and banking crisis perhaps the villain can look like an international mercenary such as hedge fund managers and the like.

Promoting the military in a time of war is a tricky thing but looks to me like the new action men will be doing ‘their bit’. To view the new MOD action men follow this link.
(Photo credit: Pikaluk. Permissions)

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