With this week’s Throwback Thursday landing on Christmas Day, it only seemed reasonable to revisit a topic that not only defines the holiday, but the affections of every self-respecting fan boy and girl: Toys. While toy companies pull all kinds of marketing gimmicks around the holidays these days, today’s installment explores the ploy that started it all: Kenner’s 1977 “Early Bird Certificate Package’ for Star Wars action figures.
Strangely, there was once a time when action figures were the least of a blockbuster film’s concerns. Back in the days when “merchandise” was still a vague concept George Lucas’ mind, the marketing muscle behind Star Wars: A New Hope struggled to license his far, far away galaxy to any potential toy makers. Remember, these were the days when only Lucas seemed have faith in his Star Wars concept.
When Star Wars eventually found a licensing partner in Kenner toys, but even Kenner was reluctant to burn a bunch of money for a film that, at the time, looked like it was going to tank. If hindsight is 20/20, then Kenner proved that foresight is legally blind. As everyone knows, Star Wars did gangbusters at the box office, sparking a pop culture phenomenon that no one was prepared for. This reality ran especially true for Kenner, who not only didn’t have a line of toys for the film’s theatrical release, but also for the upcoming Christmas season. Toy production was a timely process, and there was no way that Kenner could get figures on store shelves in time for the shopping season.
But out of the ashes of ignorance rose a marketing ploy so devilishly brilliant, it could have joined the Dark Side. If Kenner couldn’t get its toys out in time for Christmas, they were damned sure they could get the next best thing: A promise. What ensued was the “Early Bird Certificate” program, and one of the most delayed forms of gratification that child could receive on Christmas morning.
The ploy broke down like this: While the manufacturer churned out Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2D2, and Chewbaca action figures, Kenner would sell certificates for said figures, which were the first "wave" of a larger line. The idea was that parents would give children these certificates, who would then mail them into Kenner. When the toys were ready, Kenner would mail them out to the certificate holders. And just to make the wait even more excruciating, Kenner packaged the certificates with empty display stands with spots for the entire line, stickers, and a fan club membership card. All of these features came packed in an envelope that, if still sealed, could fetch the disciplined collector thousands of dollars in today's collector's market.
But come on, these are eight year-old. To them, the was probably no better than receiving a remote control car without the batteries. Actually, it was probably worse. At least kids would still have an RC car to look at. You can bet the Millennium Falcon that they opened those envelopes, which is why they're such a rarity today.
At the expense of a child's Christmas morning, the plot seemed to work well enough. Kenner and Star Wars made a buck, and the recipients did get their Star Wars toys…eventually. It also birthed the popular 3 3/4" inch line of Star Wars figures that would endure for years, and include the entire Star Wars universe. But, as you—or your recipient—unwraps an actual, tangible toy this Christmas, remember just how good you have it these days.