If you’re looking to strike up a conversation with a boy over the age of 5 these days, you’d better be thoroughly versed in the nuances of the magic kingdom of Eternia, whose denizens are known throughout toyland as Masters of the Universe. The hero of Eternia is He-Man, a hulking 5½-inch blond with muscles bulging grotesquely beneath his armor plate (which bounces back at a touch after being dented by a sword). From his abode of Goodness, the Castle Grayskull (about $28, depending on the store), He-Man ($5-$8) and his cohorts battle their nemesis, Skeletor. A purple-hooded skull-head with remarkable sky-blue pectorals and deltoids and special battle armor like his foe’s, Skeletor hangs out at his palace of Evil, Snake Mountain (about $44), which boasts a hidden microphone that transforms a child’s piping voice into a deep and scary “voice of evil.”
You’d have to be in some other galaxy today to miss these hulks, who now rule the world of play. Mattel expects to sell 55 million of them this year alone—far outdistancing the upstart Cabbage Patch Kids (produced by Coleco), which sold a mere two million last year. As for those classic Mattel idols Barbie and Ken, it’s taken more than two decades to sell about 200 million of them—a wimpy performance compared with that of He-Man and his scantily clad female partner, the goddess-warrior Teela. Their appeal is bolstered by the daily syndicated TV show Masters of the Universe, a top-rated series watched by millions of tots in 32 countries—and by some 190 Masters-related products: lunch boxes, watches, pajamas and even an electric toothbrush from which He-Man’s voice booms forth with a plug for dental hygiene.
Since the first He-Man rolled off Mattel’s assembly line in 1982, some 24 characters have joined the polychloride pantheon, among them Fisto, Ram-Man, Man-E-Faces (all good) and Clawful, Tri-Klops and Evil-Lyn (bad). All have bursting biceps, some skill—a spring-loaded fist, a periscope neck—and vivid colors, of which flesh is the most prevalent. And after five straight quarterly losses, Mattel has posted a 51 percent gain in sales attributed mainly to Masters of the Universe. Last year the collection grossed a whopping $736 million for its creators.
The perfect fairy-tale beginning would have been if the designer of these muscular money-makers had been a modern-day Geppetto toiling in his Mattel workshop. Alas for fable tradition, they came about as a result of extensive market research conducted by Mattel because of their competitor Kenner’s successful Star Wars dolls. Mattel ran 17 different studies on everything from boys’ play habits to their hair-color preference. “We went back to the basics of value, durability and imagination, rather than leaning so heavily on fads and technology,” says Paul Cleveland, a Mattel vice-president. The findings showed that boys like figures that represent strength and power and prefer a fantasy environment. If they acquired one doll, Mattel further found, they were likely to become collectors of the set.
Based on these results, Mattel gambled 15 percent of its production on the muscle-bound stable and a whole line of gadgetry, which now includes Dragon Walker, a “beast/vehicle,” Stridor, an armored war-horse, and a Roton “assault vehicle.” Within five months the factory in Taiwan couldn’t turn out enough creatures to match the demand. Now Mattel executives are pondering the weightier implications of their creations. Vice president Joe Morrison has gone back to reread such classic studies as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. “I think we plugged into a basic human archetype,” he says modestly. Dr. Richard Stamp, a professor of archaeology at Oakland University, offers a more prosaic conclusion. “Most cultures have mythical figures that are superhuman or have supernatural powers. The only thing new is that technology has finally created doll figures that have sparked little boys’ imaginations.” And, happily for Mattel, magically lightened their parents’ pockets.