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Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 11:12 UK

Harmless toy or recruiting sergeant?

Selection of new toys
The new figures carry accurate equipment

By Howard Johnson
BBC News

Many children relish military themed toys. But is a new range of Action Man-style figurines backed by the Ministry of Defence a harmless plaything or an inappropriate recruitment tool?

In 2006, an era ended for a fuzzy-headed, scar-faced, eagle-eyed object of childish affection.

Hasbro Toys ended production of Action Man in Britain after more than 30 years in which he had been the boy's toy of choice.

A selection of MoD-approved toys

Action Man purists blamed the manufacturer's political correctness for his demise as the doll's military accessories were replaced by in-line skates, water pistols and snowboards. To collectors at the website Action Man HQ, the toy had become "generic, contrived and unauthentic".

It is not surprising that the gap in the market has been spotted. That it has been spotted by the MoD is perhaps more surprising.

It has signed a deal with toy company Character Group to create a new range of military figures based on the Navy, Army and RAF. These will be sold under the "HM Armed Forces" brand, with weapons currently in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Royal Marines Commando wears desert camouflage, regulation boots and body armour, and carries a miniature SA80 assault rifle. The toys will be released alongside a range of military vehicles including quad bikes, hovercraft and Scorpion armoured vehicles.

PR exercise

The MoD says it hopes the figures will boost the profile of Britain's serving forces. Listening to this rationale, one can see the toys almost as part of a branding exercise.

Action Man figures with female dolls in the 1960s
The original, in happier times

"[It's] an ideal opportunity to raise public awareness of the armed forces and what the personnel do day-by-day," says Squadron leader Stuart Balfour.

"We feel by children playing with these toys, it promotes things like discipline, sense of belonging to a wider organisation and team work."

But some will regard the toys as a recruitment tool, one that is unacceptably targeted at children. The MoD vehemently denies this.

"Each of the armed services has its own recruiting organisation and public relations activities are separate from that," says Sqn Ldr Balfour.

"We know there is a fine line between recruiting and raising awareness of the armed forces, and we tread that line with care."

Money raised from the sale of the toys will be reinvested in other public relations exercises to showcase the armed forces.

A commando in a canoe
The new figures are inspired by the recently defunct Action Man

But with ever growing anxiety about gun crime, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of children playing with military action figures.

"The problem is they contribute to the idea that guns are normal in our society, and also that they are glamorous and desirable instead of being lethal machines that are designed to kill human beings," says Louise Rimmer, from the International Action Network on Small Arms.

"So if you encourage a child to experience guns in this way, you are storing up problems for later when the child is an adolescent, and may well encounter a real firearm. In which case the consequences can be devastating."

Screen break

But in an age of advanced game consoles, is there even a market for a military figure? A random and unscientific sample of two children shows a degree of sympathy for old-style play.

Scene showing diver toy
If I had nothing to do I would play with them
Samuel, aged nine

"You can have games like these on the Nintendo Wii," says nine-year-old Samuel, from north London.

"You'd play with these toys once, then put them aside and forget about them. I've got a really old one that used to be my dad's.

"It's like these, but they've got loads of clothes and you can change them. If I had nothing to do I would play with them."

His friend George agrees: "It depends what mood I'm in really. Right now, I'm probably in the mood for playing more with these. But in a while I'd probably want to go on my Xbox. They are realistic. Most of them look the same, but they have got good detail."

The release of the new toys coincides with a growing interest in the original Action Man. On auction websites, some of the rarer first edition figures fetch four-figure sums.

A mint condition Judo Action Man, in its box, can sell for up to £5,000 because of its limited run.

Bob Brechin, chief designer of the original Action Man between 1967 and 1988, says the prices are being driven up by nostalgia.

"The people collecting them used to have Action Men 30 or 40 years ago. They are trying to relive their childhood in a way. They've been collecting them, looking in lofts and in shops, looking for the ones they didn't get when they were a child."

Character Group admits drawing some inspiration from the original Action Man, but believes their range for the MoD goes further.

"We've taken [the brand] into role play and outdoor," says managing director John Diver. "We're making camouflage netting, night vision goggles and metal detectors to give an adventure for a child outdoors, as well as making the action figures to replicate the boys in the forces."

Below is a selection of your comments.

"They contribute to the idea that guns are normal in our society, and also that they are glamorous and desirable". Come off it - following that to its logical conclusion everyone who owned an Action Man should have turned into a gun-toting mass murderer when they turned 13. If anything this puts guns into their proper context: a tool of the military.
Mark Dennis, Woking, UK

Excellent! My son is a soldier and his six-year-old sister is making tanks out of toilet rolls at the moment. She is fascinated about all the amazing equipment he uses and his lifestyle. She will be absolutely delighted to have a real one. She has no interest in a future career as a soldier herself and does not view guns as glamorous and nor do we. It's great for our family she can relate through play to an important part of her life in a natural and curious way.
Soldiers Mum, Sussex

Interesting to note that gun crime has increased with the decrease in toy guns or figures like Action Man in toy shops. This leads me to two possible conclusions: they either reduced gun crime, or it is completely unrelated to the toys that children have and influenced by other factors.
Al MacDonald, Oxford, UK

This Orwellian farce is absolutely grotesque. The morality or otherwise of toy soldiers isn't the issue, it's the fact that the actual *Ministry of Defence* is trivialising and glamorising the horrors of war by entering into a licensing deal with a toy company. Imagine if, for example, you belonged to the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, probably wearing one of the uniforms sold with these figures. Could you bear to see that soldier's brief life reduced to a plastic toy? Where are the missing limbs, the wheelchairs and the psychological problems that are the legacy of war? Action Man was in fact the UK licensed version of the American GI Joe. Does anyone at the MoD recall what happened when GI Joe came up against the US public's perception of Vietnam?
Zax, Amersham, UK

I've been looking for ages for this sort of toy for my son. In no way will this affect him when he is a teenager, it will teach him that guns are part of the military and not something that you would see on a daily basis on our streets.
Alex Callan, London, UK

I was a tom-boy as a child and had Action Man instead of Barbie/Cindy. I loved him and it has not done me any harm. I hate guns and all form of violence. Today's children are really missing out on something good - a chance to use their imaginations and create their own scenarios.
Jo Shilan, Colchester, England

Back in WWI/II men went to war to serve and protect, and possibly die for, their country. Dangerous conditions, injury, turmoil and death were part of the remit. This reality of war hasn't changed today, but because we're no longer protecting our own country and families, it's harder for the MoD to convince people to be willing to put their lives on the line. So what does the MoD do to attract new recruits instead? In the recruitment advert it's dressed up as an everyday job with smiles and laughter and the benefits of a great career, so that people will perceive employment in the forces to be like any other and therefore want to join.
Matt, Highlands

The key point that so far has been overlooked is "do they have moving eyes?". Who wants to play with a toy with fixed eyes?
Tom, Ascot

I loved my Action Man toys back in the 70s and had a huge positive effect and acted as a role model for me as a younger child. I even attended the Royal Tournament at Earls Court with my mum and dad, again something the MoD should bring back.
Adam Foreman, Sidcup, Kent, UK

Harmless fun. We always had action men as kids and it hasn't done us any harm. And why shouldn't the MOD take advantage? If the money can go back into the MOD and help defend and protect, then surely it's better than going into some corporation's pocket.
Emma, Ely

I wouldn't let my son play with toy guns and soldiers. Now he has joined the army - go figure.
JB, Walsall

I pity the kids who haven't grown up with toys like this. My brother and I were absolutely crazy about ACTION FORCE (miniature versions of Action Man). The characters were endless, with all sorts of accessories, vehicles and weaponry. We used to make up stories like films and it made us explore our surroundings with them, endlessly improvising. We were in control of our playing and I think it made us far more creative than sitting for hours in front of a computer game ever could.
John, Aberystwyth

Playing with military based toys does not lead to an increase in gun crime. I'm sure the illegal drug trade and inner city gang culture has way more to do with it.
Kevin, Bristol, UK

Young men need assertive, physically elite role models, and if they don't find one at home then they should be able to find them in toys and television. I am 23 and will probably buy a few of these to add to my stockpile of violent cartoons for my future sons - so they can grow up with strong, positive role models around them, and not fluffy, trans-sexual Teletubbies.
Alex, Cambridge, UK

I learned to handle guns when I was teenager, and I was taught to respect them. They're just tools, not fashion accessories or penis substitutes. I'd suggest you direct your ire towards the stylised and unrealistic gun violence that typifies most American films. That's far more of an influence than a 30cm plastic doll with a tiny toy gun. So much so, in fact, that I'd rather prevent my children watching Hollywood rubbish than stop them learning respect for firearms.
Mike Smith, Leeds

I wonder if there will be an "action woman" doll to reflect the role of women in our armed forces - with or without the "Barbie" proportions.
Shona Bryson, Bournemouth, UK

In the interests of accuracy surely the figures should come without appropriate equipment such as body armour, armoured vehicles etc?
Lewis Cleverley, Calne

If the figures are to be representative of the armed forces, will there be medics, caterers, stores and paymaster people? With the numbers of women in the frontline, will there be Action Women?
Donovan Harvey, Manchester, UK

"Will there be medics, caterers, stores and paymaster people?" Boys want to play Cowboys and Indians or war games, not caterers and shelf stackers. Representative - when does it stop? When you have a figure for every height, creed, religious and sexual belief of everybody in the armed forces? Get over it, it's a toy.
Turley D, London

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