All I Want for Christmas is Militarized Police

Hess police truck and cruiser.

Toys and their advertising can be politically fascinating. Case in point is this year’s commercial for the Hess Toy Truck and Police Cruiser with its peppy jingle sung by a children’s choir to the tune of “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

Hess got out of the retail gasoline business in 2014, and you no longer see Hess filling stations on US roads. Today, Hess focuses on oil exploration and production, but to the general public, Hess is better known for the toy trucks it rolls out each year.

Beginning in 1964, the Hess Corporation has released a new toy vehicle each Christmas (“A tradition each year, the Hess Truck’s here”). Most are oil trucks, but the Hess green-and-white logo has also appeared on fire engines, ambulances, RVs, dump trucks, bulldozers, motorcycles, hot rods, ships, and aircraft. The toys are popular with collectors and hobbyists who host Facebook groups and post videos on YouTube.

In October, oil giant Chevron Corporation announced that it was acquiring Hess for $53 billion. Hess has assured the public that its toys will continue to be produced following the merger.

For 2023, Hess is offering a Police Truck and Cruiser. The two sell for $42.99 plus tax (batteries included). The cruiser fits inside the truck’s cargo hold. Both feature sirens and LED flashing lights in four colors. The cruiser has a searchlight, a retractable battering ram, and runs when the vehicle is pulled back and released. It can even pop wheelies. Even though I call the Hess ad propaganda, I have to admit that the truck and cruiser look like fun.

The Semiotics of Toys

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) features an essay on “Toys” which explores the social significance of toys. Barthes writes: “All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world….” He adds: “French toys [although Barthes could as easily be writing about American toys] always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized.” Barthes is saying that toys socialize children into the institutions of adult life in modern bourgeois societies: “the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument cases, operating theatres for dolls), School, [etc.].”

Toys teach children to accept adult institutions:

“The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen….”

And police. A toy police car is nothing unusual, but the Hess “police cruiser” is no ordinary police car. The Hess Toy Truck website frankly describes the cruiser as an “armored-response vehicle”; while the left-leaning automobile website Jalopnik describes the cruiser as a “military armored personnel carrier.” The bulky Hess cruiser (see here) with its sharp angles and oversized tires looks more like a military vehicle than a cop car. It looks nothing like the conventional police car which was Hess’ 1993 offering. It resembles a Humvee, which began as a military vehicle.

The Hess police cruiser reflects the militarization of local police departments. By 2020, the Department of Defense’s Federal Excess Property program (1033 program) had disbursed $7 billion in surplus military equipment, including armored vehicles, guns, and body armor, to 8,000 municipal law enforcement agencies. The trend is described in Radley Balko’s outstanding Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013, rev. ed 2021).

The 2023 Hess commercial exemplifies the trend creeping into popular culture. The ad normalizes the growing militarization of the police which began as a response to the war on drugs. The Hess commercial conveys the message: Don’t worry that your local cops are riding around in what amounts to army tanks! It’s fun!

But not for marginalized communities. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately the targets of militarized policing. Balko observes that during the protests following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd that “the police in Ferguson [Missouri] seemed more militarized than the military” (“Rise of the Warrior Cop, 10 Years On,” The Watch, July 14, 2023). Yet the two grinning police officers in the 2023 Hess Truck commercial are both White.

Police shouldn’t be depicted as warm and fuzzy. Neither should oil companies. Yet those are the deceptive lessons the 2023 Hess television commercial teaches kids.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at