Old Friends

40 Years Ago, One Epic Fantasy Series Reinvented Kids Media — For Better or Worse

The way kids played with toys and watched cartoons changed drastically in the 80s.

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Young Eli Poliak, 12 with "Masters of the Universe" Toys. Many people want these sorts of "War Toys"...
Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

In September 1983, four decades ago, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe exploded onto television screens across the nation. The combination of fantasy and sci-fi elements packaged in the beefy vascular body of He-Man created a stir not only on Saturday mornings but also on store shelves. Many fight over who really created He-Man, but the blunt truth is – President Reagan had a hand in it, whether he knew it or not.

The by-products of He-Man’s rise and fall tie directly into 80s poilcy, and remain a steadfast part of children’s television today, for better or worse. Everyone knows about his fabulous secret powers, but many don’t know the bizarre side of He-Man’s origin story, transforming a million-dollar franchise into a monster that disrupted an entire industry.

The end of boys' toys?

Skeletor versus He-Man.

NBC Universal

When Kenner unveiled their first Star Wars figures in 1978, the toy industry changed forever. The success of this line worried Mattel, one of the biggest toymakers in the U.S. They dominated the girl's section with Barbie, but barely made a dent down the boy's aisles outside of Hot Wheels cars. How could someone like Kenner, who only dabbled in action figures, suddenly have the hottest line for boys in toy stores?

Mattel realized the money was in franchises, and they were falling behind against their competitors. Whether it was a big box-office blockbuster or a popular TV show didn’t matter, Mattel needed something to stand out. The new problem was, without a magic 8-Ball to predict what would be a hit, the company was left scratching its head like dried Play-Doh on a carpet. They wanted a piece of the boy toys market, and they needed it now.

The grip of gender-specific toys had been dwindling. Previously, toys were marketed based on social perception. Women were beauty-obsessed homebodies, and men built, worked, and fought, enjoying financial independence due to this hierarchal stature. Thanks to the second-wave Feminist movement of the 1970s, women left the home to be gainfully employed, while attempts were made to give men permission to listen to their feelings.

With declining sales, Mattel conceived a product in reaction to this, targeting the untapped potential of the boy's segment. Kids were a hot commodity for companies to target, eager to consume anything that made them feel like they were part of the excitement seen on TV. As their marketing dept. discovered, boys craved power and strength, and that’s what Mattel intended to deliver.

Battle Armor He-Man faces off against Beast Man in a commercial from 1984.

He-Man is Born

Mattel originally hoped to produce toys based on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blockbuster Conan the Barbarian from 1982. After execs saw the excessive blood and guts, they went back to the drawing board. Conan’s misfortune left the door open for Roger Sweet, a toy designer interested in the male physique. Capitalizing on the popularity of bodybuilders, musclebound WWF wrestlers, and other physically domineering males who became role models for the 80s generation, Roger unveiled a preliminary design that wowed the company.

Taking heavy inspiration from Frank Frazetta’s “Conan the Destroyer” painting, Roger bulked up a Mattel Big Jim figure with clay muscles and armed his uncouth creation with a Bronze Age helmet, axe, and furry loincloth. Illustrator Mark Taylor further fleshed out the concept to make it his own, eventually arriving with a more polished look, and a name for this scantily-clad warmonger that meant business – “He-Man.”

Joined by a bevy of other characters, including allies like Man-At-Arms and Teela, and foes like the evil Skeletor and the slightly moist Mer-Man, “The Lords of Power” were born. That’s right - somehow, the “He-Man” moniker wasn’t bold enough, and like Tim Allen in Home Improvement, it needed more power! Just before production began, Mattel president Glenn Hastings decided “The Lords of Power” sounded too religious, and changed it to “The Masters of the Universe,” attempting to cash in on Star Wars fans with a more intergalactic theme.

The Universe portion was the only element that harkened to anything from that popular toy line, as The Masters of the Universe were the antithesis of what toy stores stocked in 1982. These figures rippled with muscles, bulging buff chests, and never missed leg day! Compared to the skinny Jedis coming from Kenner, nothing on shelves looked as impressive as these figures.

All Mattel needed now was a way to catch the interest of young boys, and the way to do that would be to infiltrate their Saturday mornings.

Toys, Toons, and Reagaonomics

President Reagan in 1983.

David Hume Kennerly/3rd Party - Misc/Getty Images

When President Ronald Reagan stepped into office in 1981, his view on the economy was no secret. The country had been in a period of “Stagflation,” where prices increased while unemployment was high. Reagan’s campaign pushed for supply-side economics, policies focused on incentivizing growth directly through businesses. Better known as Trickle-down economics, the intent was for big businesses to grow faster due to fewer regulations, tax cuts, and lower costs, which in turn would create more jobs and ultimately increase spending.

President Carter’s administration set the stage for Reagan’s deregulation which greatly affected what kids watched on TV. Trial lawyer Charles Ferris, who had no prior experience in television, chaired the FCC under Carter with the stance that no administration should be directly involved in what a channel could air. The rules he eliminated allowed cable television to enjoy a boom period, and emphasized free market and competition. "We have changed the whole attitude...” Ferris said as he prepared to step down in 1981. “We have opted for a more competitive environment and this does present a potential economic threat to those who aren't going to be competitive. Those who feel threatened probably have something to feel threatened about.”

Under Reagan’s appointed FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, deregulations went deeper into effect on children’s programming. He believed “commercial broadcasters alone should decide what they shall broadcast, because they have the Constitutional right of free speech.” This stance likely came as a reaction to the battle in previous years from advocacy groups who wanted children’s television to have more boundaries and regulations, with the idea of outright banning advertising in kids' shows a hot topic of debate for many years. Instead, the decision would come down to a network's preference, typically swayed by dollar signs.

The path to deregulation had been years in the making, but now in the 80s, it was full speed ahead! This newfound freedom allowed companies to advertise to children with obtrusive methods which today are considered everyday affairs. Liberated from rules put in place to prevent shows from purely being marketed around products, animated series could now be created from scratch purely with the intent to move merchandise. Who better to take advantage of this than the most powerful man in the universe?

By The Power of Grayskull…

With He-Man toys ready to enter stores, retailers were concerned about brand awareness. This new figure looked amazing, but how would kids know the story about him?

At the behest of major purchasers, Mattel promised two one-hour specials to teach kids all about The Masters of the Universe, and called on Lou Schiemer’s animation company, Filmation, to make this a reality. Filmation was an established company, with hits like Flash Gordon, Fat Albert, shows from the Archie franchise, and even an animated (now canonical) version of Star Trek. Filmation had not only a track record, but the studio recently completed Blackstar, a show with eerily similar concepts to He-Man.

On September 5, 1983, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe aired for the first time, debuting with “Diamond Ray of Disappearance.” From the opening credits, kids were hooked! When Prince Adam lifted his sword above his head and proclaimed “I have the POWER,” Saturday mornings were never again the same. Mattel’s marketing research found that children felt powerless, whether it was due to school, parents, or home life, and took control back into their lives through play. But the truth is, kids always held the power, whether they knew it or not.

A trip to the grocery store with kids shows how much power these little ones have on shopping, but with He-Man, things suddenly escalated. Marketing people named it “Pester Power,” the ability children had to nag their parents to satisfy their insatiable lust for something they saw on television. Young children lack the ability to differentiate advertising from reality, creating connections and relationships with fictional characters on TV. This was the exact demographic MOTU toys were marketed for, and one of the reasons so many regulations existed in television to protect kids from this content. He-Man demanded power and control, and children who watched the cartoon wanted to feel the same way. Designer Mark Taylor recalled seeing a child throw a tantrum on the floor of a store, demanding one of every MOTU figure, and chances are – that kid wasn’t alone.

A classic magazine ad for Masters of the Universe toys.


Big Success – Big Money

Within days of He-Man’s debut, G.I. Joe hit the airwaves, followed a year later by Transformers and My Little Pony, with more cartoon/ toy combinations joining their ranks every year. These 30-minute commercials did little to hide their deeper motives, and neither did the advertisements that ran during them. Cereal and snack foods aggressively used animated mascots to sell their food directly to kids, while smiling faces on TV played with the latest toy from another animated series. It was a cycle that kept the viewer invested, whether it was their attention span or their parents wallets.

He-Man figures flew off shelves, earning Mattel $38 million in their first year, a number which rapidly increased for several years. Each week, children watched stories they could re-enact with their toys, with an expanding roster of characters, vehicles, and playsets that grew with every episode. The entire world of Eternia was at their fingertips, whether it was pun-tacular characters like Stinkor, Clawful, or Fisto, enormous playsets like Castle Grayskull, or vehicles like The Wind Raider airship, and my favorite, The Land Shark (no, not the SNL skit). Before the deregulation of children’s television, none of this would have been possible.

Not only was He-Man an overnight success on TV and in toy stores, but the series created a licensing boom, giving every child the chance to sleep on He-Man bedsheets, eat cereal out of a He-Man bowl, or do their homework with the official He-Man pen. Even with this gamut of merch, it was the never-ending onslaught of toys that kept the franchise thriving until, one day, it simply stopped.

NBC Universal

He-Man No More

By 1986, Mattel earned over $400 million thanks solely to He-Man, but a year later, the margins sank. Without warning, He-Man toys plummeted to a paltry $7 million. Internally at Mattel, some sexists believed the spin-off series, She-Ra, demasculinized He-Man by sharing the power with girls. There was also a growing cavalcade of new characters, but nearly nothing with the core characters. Buzz-off and Whiplash were plentiful, but finding a Skeletor or He-Man was a problem for new fans. This oversaturation of new products combined with a scarcity of the main cast made it easier for children to shift their attention to other shows.

Even with a live-action movie, He-Man couldn’t rebound and ended in 1987. Over the decades, He-Man has lived on in many incarnations, most recently in a kid-friendly series and an adult-oriented show returning to the roots of the original - both with toy lines.

When people talk about entertainment, they often remark how shows in the past weren’t political. He-Man was always a sign of the times, a reaction to progressive leanings wrapped in conservative fiscal policy, that ultimately raised a generation to accept consumerism as part of the viewing experience. Today, those same kids who were targeted by toy company cartoons in the 80s drive the nostalgic adult market (this writer included!), readily buying the toys they didn’t have while growing up. This doesn’t mean He-Man was bad, nor should this take away our great memories of it. But, whether we knew it or not, back in 1983, a lot of us were living through history.

The original He-Man cartoon is available for free on an official YouTube channel.

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