"He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" hit the airwaves in the U.S. in September 1983 and only lasted about two years. But switch on the TV (or check your device) and you'll find the show's characters still gainfully employed—not in reruns, but in advertising. The MOTU crew appears in the latest "Great Answers" Geico ad from The Martin Agency, while in the U.K. He-Man and Skeletor engage in a little "Dirty Dancing" for price-comparison site Moneysupermarket.com. And not too long ago, Skeletor left Castle Grayskull to troll Honda's Twitter and Instagram feeds.
There's a good reason these ridiculous, and ridiculously muscled, kids' fantasy characters are so popular today: they remind us of a more innocent time.
Cartoon stars have a long tradition of moonlighting in advertising. In their heyday, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble pitched cigarettes on prime time. The Peanuts gang provided a lovable face for insurance giant MetLife. But the Masters of the Universe, along with other children's characters, have lately resurfaced as part of a nostalgia trend that continues to sweep pop culture. British viewers have seen Scooby-Doo trying to get a mortgage for Halifax Bank and the Muppets promoting bakery brand Warburtons. Meanwhile, popular U.S. shows like "Stranger Things," "The Goldbergs" and "This Is Us" hark back to earlier decades.
Kids to executives
"Nostalgia sells," says Christopher Byrne, a toy industry consultant and content director at toy information site Toys, Tots, Pets & More. Given today's age of fragmented media, "'He-Man and the Masters of the Universe' is probably one of the last real programs that impacted a generation as a whole," says Byrne. That means the characters have the power to capture the attention of a particular audience, namely the former 5-to-9-year-old kids who grew up watching.
There's also the fact that some of those little He-Man fans are now ad executives.
"He-Man and Skeletor are pretty high up in that pantheon of nostalgic boyhood characters," says The Martin Agency VP and Creative Director Neel Williams, who works on Geico. "Being given the chance to play in that world is a little bit of a dream come true."
For the Geico spot, the "Masters of the Universe" universe happened to be the ideal setup for what has long been the advertiser's strategy: surprising viewers with a completely incongruous line about saving money on car insurance. Just as the MOTU are about to vanquish Skeletor, he saves himself by mentioning the great deal he got with Geico.
The rug pull
"One of the reasons we went to that world is because it's so sacred—and to take these characters so many people love and grew up with and suddenly have this car insurance answer come out of nowhere gave us a pretty big rug-pull," says Justin Harris, associate creative director at The Martin Agency.
Mother London made a near-sacrilegious move in its campaign for Moneysupermarket.com, which has gone viral with spots depicting Skeletor dancing to "Fame," and more recently featured the villain and He-Man reenacting Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's sexy finale from "Dirty Dancing."
Signing Skeletor and He-Man for this particular job wasn't easy. Getting the rights to use familiar characters has become a much more rigorous process over the last decade, according to Hermeti Balarin, executive creative director at Mother London, which worked with licensing firm Born Licensing to secure the MOTU and "Dirty Dancing" rights from Mattel and Lionsgate, respectively. "It can all be quite nerve-wracking, waiting for that phone call to hear whether you're allowed to use that character in that way," says Balarin. Yet the pros outweigh the cons, she adds. "When others see that ad and say, 'How the hell did they get permission to do that?' you know you've made something good."
It's a tool in that "battle for attention," says RPA's Senior VP and Chief of Creative Development Jason Sperling, who tapped Skeletor, He-Man and other classic toys to star in a Honda holiday campaign, which posited that adults should be able to get as excited about their Christmas presents as they did when they were kids. Skeletor went on to take over Honda's Twitter and Instagram feeds as part of a charity component for the campaign.
In one, he tweets, "Twittersphere: It is I, Skeletor! Now that I have control of Honda's account, no one is safe! Muaha! #Skeletakeover."
"You get that cultural cachet of being in the know and understanding what people love," Sperling says. But you have to be careful in how you use fondly regarded characters. "If it's just borrowed interest, it feels less special," Sperling adds.
There might be a more serious reason for all the fun advertisers are having with old-school heroes.
"I don't know about you, but I personally would want to be back in 1980 as opposed to 2017," says Sperling. "I would give anything to be back there watching He-Man on my couch. The power is in the departure, the association of all the wonderful feelings you had. I wonder if there's an increase in that because it's an awful time to be in the world right now."