Friday, January 13, 2023

Managing Sentiment: The Introductory Letter to the Early Bird Certificate Package

Ron writes:

 A while back I published a blog post about consumer and retailer reactions to Kenner's 1977 Early Bird Certificate Package. It was pretty well received. I even dropped by a couple of podcasts to talk about it -- Star Wars: Prototypes and Production and The Vintage Rebellion. 

On one of those podcasts (I apologize for not being able to remember which at the moment), I was asked how principal Star Wars toy licensee Kenner prepped the public for the product. 

After all, it's clear from newspaper articles like the one pictured above, from the Beckley Raleigh Register of November 16, 1977, that Kenner planned to counter any controversy the Certificate might cause with a marketing script intended to quell retailer and consumer discontent. 

Here's the Kenner spokesperson quoted in this particular news item:

We were able to quickly produce the authentic 'Star Wars' puzzles, a 'Star Wars Escape' from Death Star board game and 'Star Wars' Dip Dots paint set and a 'Star Wars' Planets Poster set [sic]. But it takes almost a full year to make the authentic toy characters and spaceship [sic], and we'd rather do it right and do it late.

We did a lot of thinking before we made the decision to send out a certificate package. But we felt that because of the success of the movie, the child would want the authentic figures. We also decided that if a child receives the certificate package as one of his toys, he will be satisfied, and getting the actual gift later on could extend the feeling of the holiday season.

Based on this and similar articles, the hypothesized marketing script entailed the following talking points:

  1. Due to the nature of toy production, Kenner was unable to get action figures to market for the holiday season of 1977.
  2. The Star Wars figures offered by Kenner, when available, will be the only authentic Star Wars figures on the market, and everyone knows that children are sticklers for authenticity. 
  3. By giving your child a certificatory promise on Christmas morning, you won't disappoint him; you'll actually extend the feeling of the holidays, because he can expect to receive an additional gift in the spring.
  4. By purchasing the Early Bird Certificate Package, your child will get Star Wars figures first, before the dirty poor children in the neighborhood, who will have to buy them at the store, like peasants. 

If you read articles from the period related to the Early Bird Certificate Package, you'll see these four points repeated over and over again by various Kenner spokespeople. Clearly, there was some media management going on at Kenner.

But it was a few weeks before I remembered that I'd seen an actual document concerning the management of sentiment related to the Early Bird Certificate Package. It was in the collection of a friend of mine; upon discovering it I'd snapped some photos of it for personal reference.

Thankfully, he is okay with my sharing it. So I'm going to present it here for what I think is the first time. It's the actual three-page document sent to retailers to prep them for the Early Bird Certificate Package. 

Going forward I'll refer to it as the "introductory letter."

By examining the introductory letter we'll get a sense of how the above talking points were communicated to Kenner's immediate customers, toy retailers. 

And -- who knows -- maybe we'll make a few fun discoveries in the process.

*   *   * 

Of course, at the time the introductory letter was created no one knew what the Early Bird Certificate Package was. It wasn't yet the legendary toy industry coup it was later characterized as. It was just a novel and likely to be controversial thing that Kenner hoped would tide over the public until they could get proper toys on store shelves.

This makes the introductory letter fascinating from a historical perspective. It's a relic from a period before the stabilization of the Early Bird legend. 

Because advertising is an important driver of retail sales, Kenner's plans for advertising the Early Bird Certificate Package are mentioned right at the document's top. Specifically, the company promised retailers the product would be promoted on television and via a newspaper ad, the latter to be run nationally on December 11, 1977.

Above you see the cartridge used to screen the Early Bird commercial for prospective buyers at Kenner's New York showroom. It was obtained from a man who ran the showroom for a number of years. As the label indicates, it also contains a commercial for the Escape From Death Star board game.

And here's the newspaper advertisement -- the one that ran on December 11. Note that it mentions a revised delivery schedule. More on that in a bit.

Other ads for the product ran in papers, of course, but the December 11 ad was the only one directly sponsored, designed, and funded by Kenner. The others, including the one seen above, were placed by local retailers.

The second portion of the first page of the introductory letter is devoted to a detailed rundown of the product's contents. 

Though it's pretty much what you'd expect, there are a few interesting tidbits.

For one thing, the display stand is described as being made of "colorful clipboard." I'm pretty sure that should be "chipboard." Though some fairly cool Star Wars-branded office supplies have been released over the years, the Early Bird display stand was certainly not one of them.

Additionally, Princess Leia's distinctive coiffure is referred to as a "double sphere hairdo" rather than the much catchier (and, frankly, weirder) "star puffs" that Kenner would adopt later on.

The booklet packaged with the large-size Leia figure referred to the hairdo as "star puffs."

I don't think I've encountered the "double sphere" phrase elsewhere. It's possible, though, that it was standard Kenner language before the stroke of marketing genius that resulted in "star puffs." [1]

But perhaps the most interesting bit concerns the "Star Wars Club Membership Card." It's claimed to have the power of "making the child an honorary member of the STAR WARS fan club." 

The "honorary" part is amusing. 

By late '77 there was an official Star Wars Fan Club (I believe the first Fan Club newsletter hit in February of '78), and this card had nothing to do with it. 

In reality, Kenner's card was a ruse: it granted access to nothing but bragging rights. [2]

In fact, it may have been to avoid confusion with the official Fan Club that Kenner changed the title of the card from "CLUB CARD" to "SPACE CLUB CARD." If you look at early marketing images of the product, you'll see the original title. 

Prototype (left) and production versions of the Club Card.

Whatever the Space Club was, not even the most lawyerly of kids could successfully argue that it was equivalent to the official Star Wars Fan Club. [3]

Also note the line at the bottom of this section: It makes it clear that Kenner put a hard expiration date on retail sales of the Early Bird Certificate Package. Though I'm not sure how this was enforced, or if it was enforced at all, they mandated that retailers refrain from selling the product after December 31, 1977.

The penultimate paragraph mentions that, as also noted in the December 11 ad, delivery of the figures was expected by February 15, 1978. This was a significant improvement on the schedule originally advertised, which had figures being delivered as late as June. Naturally, only customers who redeemed their certificates in a timely fashion received their figures in February.

Okay, onto the second page of the introductory letter.

It begins with a roll call of the characters depicted on the Early Bird Certificate Package. If you were a retailer who didn't know a Jawa from a Jabroni, the names of these characters constituted valuable information.

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a kick out of imagining a salesperson informing a curious holiday shopper that the third character from left is the, uh, [adjusts glasses and looks closely at introductory letter] Death Squad Commander. 

Really stokes the flames of the yuletide spirit, doesn't it?

The second part of the page is more interesting: it lists a number of items to be sent to retailers in advance of the Early Bird Certificate Package.

It's said that Charles Darwin, following the logic of his theory of evolution by natural selection, theorized the existence of a moth with an incredibly long proboscis. He based this claim on the existence of orchids with incredibly long nectar reservoirs. For the nectar to be reached, and the plant pollinated, a moth with a proboscis commensurate with the flower's nectar reservoir must exist. 

He was right: Morgan's sphinx moth was discovered a few years later.

Well, I'm obviously not Chuck Darwin, or even Chuck Woolery, but I don't think it's crazy to assume the existence of a promotional packet related to the Early Bird Certificate Package, i.e., a preparatory packet that was sent to retailers who ordered the product. 

This document strongly suggests such a packet. It even uses the word "packet," thereby rendering our prediction somewhat perfunctory. The fact that to date no example has surfaced doesn't mean it isn't out there. Or at least wasn't out there at one time. 

What was contained in this hypothetical packet? 

Thankfully, the introductory letter tells us. It contained:

  • A letter of introduction.
  • A copy of the ad scheduled to run in newspapers on December 11, 1977.
  • A photograph showing the contents of the Early Bird Certificate Package.
  • An advertising "slick" depicting the Certificate Package, for use in individualized advertising.
  • A Star Wars button.
  • A rationalization of the Certificate and selling points.

Having encountered this very interesting information, I feel like we need to delve into it. I'd never heard of a promotional packet related to the Early Bird Certificate package, and I suspect you hadn't either. We'd be remiss if we just wafted right over it. 

I know, I know -- we were supposed to be examining the talking points related to the marketing of the Early Bird promotion. We're quite a few words into this blog post and we still haven't done that; we haven't even gotten to the third page of the introductory letter. 

I can sense your impatience.  

Look, if a wise man didn't say it, one probably should have: The end is not so important; it's the getting there that matters. [4] The traveler who neglects interesting side paths is closer to an errand boy than an explorer. 

Let's agree to be explorers.

The letter of introduction is, pretty clearly, the three-page document that is the focus of this post. Yes, the introductory letter references the introductory letter. I know that's some wildly recursive Christopher Nolan-style sh*t, but I don't see any way around that conclusion. This letter is clearly the introductory letter.

The copy of the ad I've never seen. Obviously, it featured an image of the vertically oriented ad pictured above. But the composition is a mystery. Since it wasn't intended for reproduction, it's possible it wasn't printed on the glossy paper commonly used for ad slicks but was rather just a regular old photocopy.

The photo of the contents of the Early Bird Certificate Package is, I believe, the photo you see above. It's a glossy black-and-white photo of a prototype representation of the product. [5]

These photos are rare, but at least a few examples are out there.

Equally rare is this item. 

It's the advertising "slick" depicting the Certificate Package, for use in individualized advertising. It, too, is a glossy black-and-white photograph, but it contains all the elements a retail outlet needed to mock up its own local advertisement -- photos, product details, logos, etc. These could be clipped, combined in a variety of ways, and reproduced for print. [6]

Don't believe me that it was used for ads? 

Well,  I found an ad that uses the entire upper portion of the image. It ran in Pennsylvania newspaper The Derrick on November 17, 1977. 

Though Kenner provided text for easy copying or even direct pasting, in this instance their efforts failed to prevent "Artou Detoo" and "Like Skywalker." 

Hey, you can give a horse a dictionary but you can't make him win a spelling bee.

The Star Wars button mentioned on the list of items sent to retailers is surely Kenner's iconic "May the Force Be With You" button, an item that has long been popular among collectors. 

Though this button has always been referred to as the "Toy Fair button," that's something of a misnomer, as the button was certainly in circulation prior to Toy Fair 1978. Notably, it was among the items depicted in the conceptual art representing Kenner's department store promotional kits. And, as the introductory letter informs us, it was also sent to retailers in the fall of '77 to help promote the Early Bird Certificate package. 

Of course, that doesn't mean it wasn't also used at Toy Fair; I think it likely was.

Speaking of the button, here's a black-and-white design prototype that's pretty clearly related to it. It was created by an outside vendor that handled a lot of Kenner's promotional designs. I think you can see that it differs somewhat from the button that was eventually produced, the most notable difference being the lack of the Kenner logo.

The last thing on the second page of the introductory letter is a reminder that the retailer was encouraged to open one Early Bird Certificate Package for use as a store sample. I suspect that few actually used the opened product in that capacity because, honestly, there wasn't much in there that wasn't a little disappointing. But it was nice that Kenner offered to credit retailers for the opened merchandise.

I guess this meant that Kenner was on the hook for a free set of figures, as I'm sure retailers who opened a sample either redeemed the certificates themselves or gave them to their family members so that they could redeem them. Or maybe Kenner's reimbursement process required them to relinquish the certificates? That's very possible. I think that's actually more likely.

Here you might be wondering why I never discussed the last item included on the list of materials included in the Early Bird promotional packet, the rationalization of the Certificate and selling points

That's because it wasn't a separate item; it was included on the third page of the introductory letter. 

And so the third page of the introductory letter both completes our list of packet materials and answers our original question. Because it gives us Kenner's official marketing line concerning the Early Bird Certificate Package. And as you'll no doubt learn by scanning it, it touches on all of the talking points we identified in the 1977 newspaper articles.
  • It explains why the product exists and why Kenner could not get plastic toys to market for the holidays.
  • It leans hard on the concept of authenticity, "authentic" appearing in no fewer than four places, three of them with underlines.
  • It mentions the goofy rationale of a delayed holiday offering, the Certificate Package being described twice as a two-in-one gift.
  • It shamelessly leverages peer pressure: "Your child can be one of the first in his neighborhood to own authentic Star Wars figures."
Of course, it's not surprising that Kenner's Early Bird promotional packet dovetails so neatly with the information provided to the press by the company's spokespeople. You'd expect that sort of coordination from a company with a marketing department.

Still, it's satisfying to find these talking points reflected so clearly in a period document. It provides context for the articles discussed in my previous post and makes our picture of the period that much more faithful.

*   *   *

Well, that about sums up our review of the introductory letter to the Early Bird Certificate Package. I hope you found it worthwhile.

But I do have one more thing

Because I enjoy Kenner promotional things, like catalogs and advertisements, I thought it'd be fun to put together a digital recreation of the promotional packet, including all the items that we now know it contained. 

Should the packet ever surface, how closely will it resemble this estimation? [7] 

Look, Darwin predicted a moth with a long nose. He didn't predict what its wings would look like. If it looks a little different, are you really going to hold it against me? 


[1] If you look at the reverse of the envelope for the Early Bird Certificate Package, you'll see that it features text referring to Leia's hairdo as "star puffs." So "double sphere" must have been abandoned pretty quickly following the composition of the introductory letter. Regardless, I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover the "double sphere" verbiage in other documents dating from very early in Kenner's involvement with Star Wars. 

[2] Having just listened to my discussion with Richard Hutchinson on The Vintage Rebellion, I regret that I didn't mention this when he brought up the club card. I wasn't thinking it through at the time and it didn't occur to me that Kenner's club card was almost certainly not equivalent to membership in the Star Wars Fan Club.

[3] Other elements in the package also changed by the time it went into production. Prototypes of the sticker show it with two R2-D2 elements rather than one, and the design of the red tear-off card was modified considerably.

[4] In fact, Emerson said it.

[5] If you're wondering why Chewbacca is glowing like Mr. Burns in the "I bring you peas" episode of The Simpsons, it's because the outline of the figure was enhanced via airbrushing to cause it to stand out against the dark background. You also may have noticed that the Chewbacca figure appears to have very thin limbs. There are a few indications that the limbs of Chewbacca were reworked in the sculpting phase, and this is one of them. I think this photo is evidence that Chewbacca was still being reworked by Kenner as of late 1977.

[6] It's possible this photo was not included in the Early Bird promotional packet, but was merely used to generate a graphic printed on thin glossy paper (i.e., a "slick") that was included. 

[7] One thing that troubles me is the button: Was an envelope adequate to contain it without damage? Maybe the outer package was a shallow box? 

Thanks to Eddie for consenting to share the introductory letter, and to Chris Georgoulias for supplying a photo of the still showing the contents of the Early Bird Certificate Package.

Update 1/14/23

After I published the above, my friend Mike Press alerted me to an Early Bird advertising slick. He'd shown it to me before, but I'd forgotten about it. 

The slick is part of a portfolio of similar slicks that corresponds to Kenner's Fall 1977 catalog, the first Star Wars catalog that Kenner provided to retailers.

Like the second photograph featured in my blog post, the slick was used for advertising, as the above photo illustrates. The ad in question is from the Madison Wisconsin State Journal of December 8, 1977.

Like all of the discussed elements aside from the introductory letter and the Kenner-derived ad of December 11, 1977, it retains the (later modified) June 1 fulfillment date.

Was this the slick included with the Early Bird packet?

One feature that argues in its favor is its composition -- it's an actual slick, i.e., it's printed on thin glossy paper. As I mentioned in note [6] above, the "slick" I referenced in the article is actually a glossy photographic still. 

However, newspaper archives make it clear that both items were used for advertising. What's more, Mike's slick is part of a different packet -- the one tied to the 1977 catalog. That doesn't mean, of course, that it wasn't also used for the Early Bird packet.

We won't know until an intact Early Bird packet actually surfaces. That's part of what makes collecting exciting!

For the sake of thoroughness, here's a second digital recreation showing the packet with Mike's slick rather than the photograph.

Big thanks to Mike for sharing this very cool item.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Store Wars: The 1990 Return of Star Wars to the Bread Aisle (Sort Of)

Jonathan writes:

 Most collectors are familiar with the Star Wars bread promotion of 1977 which included Wonder Bread and at least one other regional bakery brand. If you are looking for information about that promotion, check out the blog post that I wrote on the topic several years ago.

The CBC Breads Store Wars Incentive Program was a sequel, of sorts, to the 1977 bread promotion. By 1990, the Continental Baking Company (CBC), the corporate owner of Wonder Bread and other brands, had transferred ownership from ITT, its corporate owner in 1977, to Ralston Purina.   

Unlike the 1977 promotion that appealed directly to consumers with trading cards as a pack-in premium, Store Wars was an internal sales program with a sweepstakes designed to motivate bakery sales employees to boost their performance during the first half of 1990. This employee brochure describes the incentive program.

While there was no official tie-in, the promotional materials make liberal use of Star Wars imagery and themes. The cover of the brochure features the Store Wars logo, which is obviously inspired by the pyramidal Star Wars logo. Is the astronaut wielding a lightsaber, or is that an SST Lazer Sword?

Don’t overlook the dated “Maximize the 90’s” logo.

The brochure unfolds to reveal the details of the incentive program.

The headline promises that “The Sales Force is With You.” The program description is a jumbled mess of references to Star Wars, Star Trek, The Black Hole, and even The Right Stuff. Good luck reading this stuff without rolling your eyes. The highlight of this page, and of the entire brochure, is a really nice Berkey-inspired image of an X-Wing Fighter with the Death Star in the background.

I wonder if this was an intentional nod to the 1977 promotion. There is nothing in the text of the brochure to suggest that the use of Star Wars imagery was more than just a coincidental echo of the earlier promotion.

The headline for the reverse side of the unfolded brochure is “Destroy the Evil Empire.” I suppose the evil empire consisted of Thomas’s English Muffins, Pepperidge Farm Raisin Bread, and other nefarious baked goods competing for shelf space in the 1990 bread aisle.

The sweepstakes featured “high-tech prizes” including TVs, VCRs, portable CD players, and even an NES system. But the Grand prize for the promotion was a 7-day trip to Hawaii for “you and your First Mate,” with multiple trips allotted to each of three Sales Divisions (aka Star Fleets). The competition rules clarify that the trip wouldn’t even count against the employee’s vacation days!

I purchased this brochure in November of 2012. In the decade since, I’ve had a regular search for the other items described in the brochure, including a Progress Chart, Ceiling Mobile, Theme Poster, and Newsletter. I would be happy to add any of these items to my collection. But, given the somewhat generic nature of the search terms involved coupled with the internal nature of the sweepstakes, my searches have always come up empty.

Until recently, when I found this awesome Hawaii ‘90 T-shirt.

The graphics on the T-shirt features the CBC Store Wars logo about to be engulfed in The Great Wave.

I don’t know what the purpose of this shirt was. There is no mention of it in the brochure. My guess is that the shirts were used as part of whatever sales meeting / pep talk kicked off the Store Wars program. It’s also possible that the shirts were awarded to the winners as a part of the Grand Prize. Maybe, somewhere out there, a group photo of all the winners sporting these shirts exists, just waiting to make its way into my collection.

It would be interesting to know how successful the incentive program was in boosting sales of baked goods to consumers preoccupied with trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer. My guess is that the trip to Hawaii was a pretty solid motivator for the salespeople. The knockoff Star Wars imagery? Probably not so much.