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The Marketing Magic Behind Every Great Action Figure Commercial

What’s the secret sauce? An excitable kid named Brent going absolutely nuts over ‘Star Wars,’ ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Transformers’ toys

No one had a playtime quite like the kids in action figure commercials. Not only did they get to play with the newest toys and playsets, they also had the coolest environments to act things out. The kids in G.I. Joe commercials, for example, always had vast desertscapes to play with things like the Tomahawk Helicopter, allowing for the most epic of rescue missions. Short of getting to have an actual adventure alongside the likes of Duke and Shipwreck, those action figure commercials seemed to be just about the coolest G.I. Joe experience anyone could have.

This is especially true when compared to the actual playtimes kids got to have. “I would be playing in my living room, so I couldn’t fly a helicopter around like that without bumping into a lamp,” recalls U.K.-based toy collector Dave Shorter. For Jonathan Alexandratos, editor of the book Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages, they recall being envious of the smoke machines being used to make Power Rangers toy commercials all the more dramatic. 

As for myself, a die-hard collector of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, I remember lamenting the complete absence of a cityscape for my urban-dwelling heroes. While commercials featured entire city blocks for them to battle on, I was forced to pretend the kitchen table was the Channel 6 building where ravishing reporter April O’Neil did her nightly broadcast.

“Those adverts were also the only place you could see the entire line of toys,” Shorter recalls. “As a kid, you could never have that much of a toy line. Maybe you and your mates would get together and you’d have four Transformers between you, but when I was playing by myself, I would have two Ninja Turtles, a Transformer, some G.I. Joes, plus a few random dinosaurs. It was just a hodgepodge of whatever I had, whereas the commercials had everything from one property. In my naivete, I remember thinking that — between that and the dioramas — ‘those commercials must be what playtime is like in America.’” 

But, of course, it wasn’t, and those commercials were obviously just carefully crafted messages created to sell more toys. To get an idea of how those messages were put together so perfectly, I reached out to commercial director Leo Zahn of Picture Palace, who shot commercials for toy lines like Ghostbusters, Godzilla, Independence Day and War Planets. “These things were storyboarded down to the half-second — even the quarter-second,” he explains. Not only that, he says, but when he was directing those commercials, he’d have eight or nine people from the toy company and the advertising agency looking over his shoulder, all of whom had to approve of every shot. 

Zahn also had to obey a great number of regulations imposed on toy commercials. “For one thing, no shot could be shorter than a second,” Zahn says. “You also couldn’t show the toy doing something it couldn’t do. So, if it was a flying toy, you had to show a hand holding it. There were some tricks you could pull off though to get around these rules: You could make a shot last .75 seconds instead of one second, and to make a product look bigger, you could use wide-angle lenses or cast tiny, tiny children to play with them in the commercial.”

One notable cheat was that, whenever you’d see just a child’s hand holding a toy, it more than likely wasn’t a child at all. “You never wanted to use children hand models because they didn’t have the patience for a 12-hour shoot day, and you couldn’t have them on set for that long either,” Zahn explains. “Those were always adult hand models. There was one woman who got very famous and very rich from doing those commercials. She was in her 30s, and she had these tiny children’s hands. She was working nonstop on toy commercials.”

As for those elaborate landscapes that the kids got to play in, Zahn says they were always shot in a studio, usually in L.A. or Vancouver. “Originally, the sets had to resemble a kid’s room, but over time, those regulations fell away and I was allowed to make more and more elaborate sets.”

The look of those environments was all about reinforcing the messages of the commercial, which Zahn explains was, “all about destruction.” Having done commercials for both boys’ and girls’ toys, Zahn says, “Girls’ toys were all about nurturing, and the boys’ toys were always fighting each other. It was usually the same formula, too. You’d have the star of the commercial — the ‘hero’ — and then you’d have his friend.” 

It wasn’t pure aggression, however, as Zahn explains, “There was also an aspirational aspect to boys’ commercials. Because of this, you’d cast children who were a bit older than your target audience. So, if your target is five-year-olds, you’d cast nine- or ten-year-olds because the younger kids look up to them.”

To find just the right kids, Zahn recalls that it took quite a bit of casting. Generally, 200 to 300 kids would audition, then he’d personally interview 20 to 30 “selects” to find the two he needed for a commercial. Not only did they have to meet his approval, but they also had to get the okay from everyone at the toy company and advertising agency, so it could be an extensive process.

Once the kids were cast, Zahn says that one of the highlights from those jobs was when they first arrived on set and got to see the toys they’d be playing with. “Many times, there was some real, genuine excitement over the toys and the kids would run over and immediately start playing with them, which was always fun to see.”

Unfortunately, when it came time to actually shoot the commercial, things were far more structured. “We’d do 10 to 15 takes of every shot, and a kid would have to deliver his line in a second-and-a-quarter, I kid you not. My script supervisor would be there with a stopwatch timing it exactly.” In addition to getting the right shot, Zahn says his job was all about patience. “When you’re working with kids, you can’t yell at them, you have to have limitless patience, and that’s sort of what I became known for — that’s how you get a good performance.” The biggest problem, he explains, was for kids to maintain their enthusiasm for the product after already going through a dozen takes.

So, despite the fact that the kids in the commercial seem to be having the adventure of a lifetime, in reality, they were probably on their 15th take of shouting “Go Joe!” at the camera as 10 people critiqued their performance. And — while a part of me feels bad for those children — the envious kid in me that yearned for those amazing play environments can’t help but feel just the slightest bit of schadenfreude at their expense. After all, it’s kind of nice to finally know that my own childhood playtimes in the living room really were as good as it could get.