Imagine, you're in grade school, it's Christmas 1977, and you're obsessed with Star Wars. You wake up, sprint down the stairs, look under the tree--and find ... an empty box.

Yep, it happened. The company that won the toy licensing rights to Star Wars, Kenner Products, couldn't manufacture Star Wars toys in time for Christmas. At first this wasn't a big deal, because nobody expected Star Wars to be a very successful movie.

But when the film became a frenzy-inducing icon, Kenner was facing a potential disaster.

So, some marketing genius came up with the idea of selling a Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package: a nearly-empty box with a certificate entitling the bearer to have action figures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2D2, and Chewbacca shipped to them "between February 1st and June 1st" the following year.

Here's a  video of the original commercial for this thing:

 

"The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public's mind, ready for their 1978 release," wrote the folks at Gizmodo earlier this year. And as ridiculous as this was, it worked.

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Kenner came out with a total of 12 "action figures" (don't call them dolls!) in 1978, and ultimately sold 40 million of them that year--about $100 million worth. Ultimately, the toy line continued, producing 115 different characters plus vehicles and spaceships. Now, they're up to 2,400 different characters.

In total, Kenner (and Hasbro, which later acquired the company), had made an estimated $9 billion selling Star Wars toys as of the 30th anniversary in 2007.

As writer Germain Lussier points out, 1977 "wasn't a time when we could simply rewatch the movies on VHS or something. If you wanted to relive the movie, the easiest way was to buy the toys and do it yourself. That made Star Wars toys everything to fans at the beginning. Their full-time connection to the movies. The way you kept the love alive in your heart."

Other impacts of the toys--and Kenner's successful effort to keep them alive:

  • Director George Lucas, who had held onto the merchandising rights for Star Wars, made billions.
  • Another big toy company, Mego Corporation, which had passed on the licensing deal earlier in 1977, wound up bankrupt by 1983.
  • The toy industry itself changed forever. For one thing, any potential blockbuster movie will now have licensing deals lined up and toys on the shelves by its premiere date.
  • The toys themselves stoked interest and created new Star Wars fans, even out of kids who hadn't yet seen the movies.

"My friend's kids now, they haven't seen the movies but they are somehow so aware of everything that happens. And that's how I was introduced to them, through the merchandising, toys, and Stormtrooper helmets," actor Adam Driver, who plays Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, told Gizmodo.