This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Imagine you’re a little kid waking up on Christmas morning 1977. For the past few months you’ve lived and breathed Star Wars; you’d lined up to watch the film in theaters back in the spring, and since then, it’s all you and your friends have been able to talk about. There’s been talk of a company called Kenner bringing out a line of action figures to tie in with the year’s big hit movie. Surely, there’d be a whole bunch of them waiting under the Christmas tree for you. Wouldn’t there?
But as you tear open gift after gift, you realize that the Star Wars toys aren’t here. You open up the final package, and you’re presented with what is essentially an empty box: a cardboard envelope, really, which contains little more than a few more bits of cardboard and a handful of stickers. This was the Early Bird Certificate Package – a collection of printed materials designed as a message of reassurance to whoever was holding it.
“Your Star Wars figures aren’t ready yet,” it seemed to say, probably in the voice of Alec Guinness. “But patience – they’ll be in the mail soon…”
If kids up and down America were nonplussed by their empty boxes on Christmas morning, we can only guess at the panic unfolding at the toy company Kenner in the run-up to the festive season. In 1976, Kenner had managed to land the exclusive rights to produce Star Wars merchandise when a much larger company, the Mego Corporation, had passed on Lucasfilm’s attempt to make a deal. But Kenner, like just about everyone else, had failed to anticipate just what a phenomenon Star Warswould become on its release on the 25th May 1977.
As the summer of Star Wars unfolded, it became clear that the film’s rapidly-growing army of fans would need something more than a board game or a few jigsaw puzzles to sate their appetite; yet as Christmas 1977 approached, this was more or less all Kenner had managed to produce.
“We’ve got the Escape from Death Star board game,” Kenner’s John Beck rather weakly told The Telegraph, “a Star Wars poster set, a Star Wars Dip-Dot Design Book, and four Star Wars jigsaw puzzles out…”
The problem, Beck explained, was that action figures take a long time to produce. They have to be designed and sculpted. Those sculpts have to be turned into steel molds. The toys then have to be cast, painted, and safety tested. Then they have to be packaged up and shipped off to toy stores.
“…it usually takes a year of production time for toy figures like this,” Beck said; “and even though we hired extra people and cut the production time to seven months, we still couldn’t make it by Christmas.”
Faced with the prospect of losing millions of dollars in sales over its most lucrative period, Kenner came up with an ingenious plan: if you can’t deliver the action figures themselves, why not at least sell the promise of them? And thus one of the boldest marketing gimmicks in the history of toy making came into being.
Advertised on television and in newspapers, the package retailed for around $10-15 and contained a Star Wars Space Club membership card, a cardboard display stand depicting 12 Star Wars characters, and a rather apologetic set of stickers. Most importantly of all, there was the certificate itself: a postcard which, when filled in and sent off, promised to send back a set of four Star Wars figures before the spring of 1978.
It was the kind of move that could have caused a public relations disaster among angry parents and kids alike; Kenner was, after all, selling their customers a nicely-printed IOU. Instead, the clamor for Star Wars merchandise was such that the Early Bird package was a huge success.
“…We did some market research to see if people would settle for certificates with the promise that the toys would be delivered by February 15th,” Beck said of the scheme. “The research told us it would work and so what we call our Star Wars Early Bird Certificate package is really selling.”
In fact, the packages were selling so fast that Kenner once again found itself taken by surprise. A newspaper story published on the Dec. 18, 1977 reports that the packages had sold out all over New York and Chicago. To make matters worse, the certificates were only on sale for a limited time (the package clearly states that it is “not to be sold after December 31st, 1977” – and further, some toy shops refused to even stock them.
“We sell toys,” one New York store owner snootily told the paper, “not promises.”
There was also something else Kenner hadn’t envisaged: the first growth of what would soon become a huge market for Star Wars collectibles among adults.
“Even though we envisioned the certificates as being placed under the tree and not opened until December 25th,” Beck said, “we’ve gotten a lot of them sent back to us already. Adults seem interested in having the figurines for themselves too. We’ve had a 26-year-old engineering student calling us and asking how soon they’ll be ready.”
For Star Wars fans of all ages, those few months must have seemed an age to wait for the first consignment of figures. According to a news report published in early 1978, the number of certificate holders waiting for their figures numbered “several hundred thousand.” And in mid-January of that year, Kenner finally began shipping the toys they were owed: 3.75-inch figurines of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Artoo Detoo.
The toys came in a plastic tray housed inside a slim, rectangular plastic box. One small plastic bag contained tiny white pegs, which could be used to secure the figures to the display stand Kenner had sent out before Christmas. Canny to the last, the company enclosed a leaflet advertising a further offer: fill out a form and send $2, and Kenner would send a “Collector’s Action Stand” designed to house the eight other figures released that spring.
By the end of 1978, Kenner had managed to shift an estimated 40 million Star Wars toys. Kenner’s scheme had worked. As newspapers began reporting of delighted American kids finally receiving their action figures through the post in March 78 (“He was so excited, he just about jumped out of his skin,” one mother said of her Star Wars-obsessed son), an evidently relieved John Beck pledged that Kenner would never attempt to pull off the same trick again.
“We treated it as a unique merchandising idea,” Beck told The Evening Independent. “Chances are, it will never be done again.”
And Beck was right – to a point. Kenner had been wound up by its parent company Hasbro by the turn of the millennium, but nostalgia for the Early Bird days saw the certificate package reprinted and re-issued in 2005. Released to coincide with the release of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, the reproduction package was sold exclusively in Walmart stores. As before, mailing the enclosed certificate would prompt Hasbro to dispatch a set of four figures between May and December 2005 – albeit very different sculpts from the Luke, Leia, Artoo and Chewie figurines sent out in the 1970s.
Hit crossover game Star Wars Angry Birds even got in on the act. In 2012, a set of four Early Bird toys was released, its box art explicitly modeled on the package Kenner put out back in the winter of 1977.
Affection for Kenner’s Early Bird scheme is such that it remains a cherished item among collectors. Both the original package and the action figures can sell for hundreds of pounds on eBay, with the Early Bird version of Luke Skywalker – with his unique “double-telescoping” Lightsaber – being one of the most avidly collected figures in Kenner’s line of vintage action figures.
Kenner’s Early Bird package may have been a mere empty box, a stop-gap until its production line could get into gear, but it still remains a sought-after item nearly 40 years later.
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