Hi-tech Action Man blasts back at Power Rangers

Thirty years on, the gung-ho toy for boys is heading for the top of the Christmas tree, writes Graham Ball
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HE'S lean. He's lantern-jawed. And he's back. Action Man, the original macho doll - first on sale in 1965 - is taking on the combined might of the Power Rangers in the traditional fight for Christmas toy sales.

Power Rangers, the karate-kicking monster-fighters loathed by parents but loved by the pre-teens, swept all aside last Christmas and were named "Toy of the Year 1994". But now the veteran model soldier, who last held the celebrated title in 1966, looks set to make a comeback and could even topple the TV super-heroes from their pole position.

Action Man's manufacturer, Hasbro, has renewed his perennial appeal with young boys by kitting him out with weapons and accessories fit for the 1990s. He comes fully equipped with an infra-red gun and a backpack complete with sounds of an explosion; a wrist-mounted missile-firing smart-gun blaster; and SAS-style abseiling kit.

The fact that one toy with a violent image could be succeeded by another as the best-selling children's Christmas present will not be welcome news to Tony Banks, the Labour MP who last week put down a Commons early day motion critical of violent toys.

"I'm sick and tired of seeing Christmas - which is supposed to be a time of peace, love and joy, by the way - exploited by toy companies who use violence to sell their goods," said the MP for Newham North West. "I want an independent inquiry to discover whether there is a causal connection between male children's exposure to violence during their formative years and violence in adult males. I'd like to see the advertising of violent toys banned."

Catherine Howell, curatorial assistant at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, disagrees. She said: "I would not say Power Rangers was a violent programme, more action-packed. Too much is read into the question of violence. Children are able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. I don't believe there's any harm involved in playing with Action Man or Power Rangers - after all, they're just the latest in a long line of toys that go back to lead soldiers."

News of Action Man's success came in the form of leaked retail reports from the front line - the shopping malls and high streets of Britain - which indicate a 56 per cent drop in sales of Power Rangers in October while Action Man grew stronger.

John Salisbury, a toy industry analyst, said: "Action Man is selling very well in the run-up to Christmas and is a strong contender to reach the number one spot. Power Rangers may well be top-sellers over the year as a whole, but their failure to hold on to the top Christmas sales position will probably indicate that the craze is now passing - in the toy market at least. The kids are probably just bored."

Action Man's achievement is even more remarkable considering the enormous worldwide merchandising operation which has sprung up in the wake of Power Rangers' television success. "In Britain, 90 companies use Power Rangers to endorse 350 product lines," said Jackie Ferguson of the Power Ranger parent company, Saban.

"The level of marketing is far higher than it ever was with Ninja Turtles or Star Wars, for example. They set the standards 10 or more years ago," said Mr Salisbury.

Today you can buy Power Rangers tinned pasta, books - 500,000 have been sold already - comics, school backpacks, cakes, pin badges and a multitude of outfits. In all cases manufacturers report sales exceeding their expectations, and in the case of wristwatches bearing the Power Rangers' distinctive logo, sales have already soared way above the pounds 5m mark.

More than half of Britain's pounds 1.5bn retail sales of toys comes at the Christmas season, and between 8 and 10 per cent of that vast total is represented by male action toys.

However, parents worried by violent toys may be placated by considering what else is on offer this Christmas. The toys in prime contention for the top spot include Pogs, the game based on milk-bottle tops, and Baywatch Barbie, the doll customised for the eponymous TV series.