Monday, April 10, 2023

Kenner Star Wars and the Sunday Funnies

Ron writes:


 Do you remember Star Wars in the funny pages?

 No, I'm not talking about the comic strip created by Russ Manning (and later Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson); I'm talking about Kenner advertisements that were printed in the funny pages of the local newspaper.

I realize, not without a degree of melancholy, that some of you may not understand what I'm talking about.

Allow me to explain.

Back in the '70s and '80s, nearly every home received a newspaper on its doorstep each morning. That's how people stayed informed. You needed the newspaper to stay on top of the weather, sports, stocks, and all the other stuff that we now read on our phones, sometimes while driving.

In the America of that time, children were typically entrusted with the task of delivering this vital lifeline to the outside world. 

Seriously, there was a boy who got up before dawn every morning, put rolled-up newspapers into the basket mounted on his bike, and rode around town, deftly throwing the papers onto the doorstep of each home on his route. There was even a video game about it.

Two dollars

It sounds crazy, right? 

Kids on bikes throwing papers around. How exotic! How primitive!

It sounds like a practice out of the remotest part of the alien past, like the Antebellum South or the pre-COVID era. 

Anyway, the funny pages were a section of the newspaper devoted to comic strips and other lighthearted fare. As you can imagine, this section was prime advertising space for businesses whose customer base consisted of children. Because all children read the funny pages.

If the funny pages were prime advertising space for kid-focused businesses, the Sunday funny pages were doubly prime. 


Because they were printed in color, of course. They also tended to be larger, often comprising multiple two-page spreads.

As a toy company, Star Wars licensee Kenner advertised in the funny pages. Kenner made toys. Kids played with toys. It just made sense.

Kenner's dalliance with the funny pages began before the company's Star Wars toys were on the market, as the above advertisement demonstrates. Dating from 1977, it spotlights some of the greatest Kenner toys of the '70s, like Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow. [1]

I shudder (udder?) to think how kids today, accustomed to playing with iPads and VR headsets, would react to the notion of their 20th-century counterparts playing with a plastic cow that gives fake milk. 

If you were to explain Milky to them, they'd probably think you were pulling their leg. They probably have little firsthand knowledge of cows. If they drink milk at all, it's probably almond milk.

Thankfully, we have this ad to assure us that, yes, Milky was real. 

Milky, like the paperboy, is a thing that existed in the past.

1978: A Galaxy of Savings

Kenner continued to advertise in the funny pages long after Milky was dropped from their product line. 

The ad you see above ran in newspapers in the fall of 1978. Its publication may have postdated Milky, but it occurred smack in the middle of the Star Wars craze.

The ad was actually Star Wars themed: It featured a blue star field at its top, text intended to mimic the movie's famous opening crawl, and of course several toys based on the George Lucas property. But other Kenner toys were featured as well. The gist was that Kenner would provide cash back to the consumer, via a mail-in rebate, on a selection of Kenner toys.

But there was a catch: In order to participate in the promotion, the consumer had to buy specially marked boxes of Cheerios.

Why Cheerios? 

As this post from a few years back explains, in 1978 Kenner was owned by General Mills, the company behind Cheerios. That's why the earlier examples of your Star Wars action figures have "GMFGI" molded into their legs -- it stood for "General Mills Fun Group, Inc."

The promotion was pitched to Kenner's wholesale customers via the above-pictured brochure, one of the few Kenner brochures to feature a cover devoted exclusively to Star Wars.

The brochure, a catalog of promotions that Kenner had planned for the near future, claimed that the campaign would reach 125 million customers. Presumably, that number represents the number of people estimated to read the Sunday funny pages.

According to the Internet, roughly 222 million people lived in the United States in 1978. I guess 100 million didn't subscribe to a newspaper.

As you've no doubt noticed, the brochure featured a very accurate representation of the ad that ran in papers. The most notable difference was the absence in the distributed ad of the child who is playing with the Radio Controlled R2-D2

I have no idea why he was cut from the final product. 

Possibly he got bored of playing with that crummy toy and ran right out of the printed space and into some utopia where Kenner's RC toys actually worked without malfunctioning after five minutes.

Intriguingly, a second Kenner brochure detailed this promotion. This brochure is quite rare; I've personally seen only three or four examples.

Though the general pitch is the same (there's that 125 million number again), the graphics were drawn rather than photographic, and the design of the represented ad was quite different. Based on the seemingly preliminary design of the ad, my assumption is that this brochure predates the one featuring the Stormtrooper on its cover.

You'll note that the ad as it was printed in papers was expansive -- it occupied all of the space on a fully unfolded piece of large-size newsprint.

The Kenner brochure promised full-page ads, and the public got them. 

But what about papers with smaller formats? Or just advertising space insufficient for a full-size ad?

Those publications were serviced by this half-page advertisement. 

Though its theming was still heavily reliant on Star Wars, it pictured only one Star Wars toy -- the imposing Death Star Space Station.

As far as I know, these 1978 rebate advertisements were the only Kenner ads featuring Star Wars to appear in the Sunday funny pages during the 1970s.

But, as we'll see, our story doesn't end there.

1980: A Cash-In on Empire

Come 1980,  the world was gearing up for The Empire Strikes Back, and Kenner returned to the funnies, this time with a half-page ad promoting not a general rebate program that merely included Star Wars, but a promotion that was explicitly devoted to Star Wars. 

The focus was a sweepstakes whose top prize included a trip to a screening of the eagerly awaited sequel alongside R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Second prize was a set of ESB toys (more on that below).

Third prize was the Kenner-branded patch you see above. Today it's sought after by patch and toy collectors alike. [3] 

As you've no doubt noticed, the ad also promoted Kenner's then current mail-away offer centered on the Bossk action figure

Bossk, remember, had been advertised as the "secret action figure" on action-figure blister cards. This ad was part of his big reveal. Which undoubtedly left some kids confused, because what was a Sleestak doing in Star Wars?

Though I don't have an exact date for this advertisement, the entry deadline for the sweepstake (April 1, 1980) leads me to believe it ran in papers in March. Empire debuted in May. [Note: Collector Pete Vilmur has determined the publication date was March 2.]

If the graphics utilized on the ad seem familiar, it may be because they were also used on a flyer that was inserted into Star Wars toy boxes during the latter days of 1979. The above example was pulled out of an X-Wing Fighter box.

As is made clear by the text encouraging kids to look for the ad in the spring of the following year, the flyer predated the ad. 

Also note that, though the flyer refers to The Empire Strikes Back, it doesn't utilize the logo, possibly because it hadn't been designed at that point.

If you're as nitpicky as I am, you noticed an inconsistency when comparing the ad to the flyer.

Though the flyer of 1979 gleefully promotes a chance to win "every Star War [sic] toy ever made . . . and ever to be made!" the ad of 1980 revises this to "a complete collection of Kenner's 1980 Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back toys." 

Every product made in perpetuity vs. products made in 1980. Quite a difference! 

I'm guessing Kenner's legal team took a look at this and determined (rightly, I think) that the earlier promise constituted a liability. Better to be more precise about the exact terms of the offer. It's never a good idea to promise something that is by nature indefinite.

The reverse of the flyer promoted Kenner's planned 1980 line, which at that time included a range of new large-size action figures

As experienced collectors know, all but IG-88 were cancelled. 

Also utilizing the art from the flyer was this shelf-talker, a store display that Kenner provided to retailers with the intent of promoting the sweepstakes. Its debut was concurrent with the publication of the newspaper ad, roughly spring of 1980. 

When attached to the facing of a store shelf, the display permitted shoppers to enter the sweepstakes by detaching one of the included entry forms, completing it, and then mailing it to the specified address.

We saw that in 1978 Kenner appealed to readers of the Sunday funny pages with the lure of cash-back rebates on a variety of toys.

Rebates were a big part of Kenner's efforts to engage with the toy-buying public. As the above advertisement demonstrates, rebate programs continued into the Empire Strikes Back era.

By the way, if you're wondering how Toy City designed this ad, see the post located here

The program that Toy City promoted was pitched to retailers via a brochure with a green cover. That's the cover you see above.

Note the hang-tag graphic, also evident in the Toy City advertisement. The hang-tag was the signature motif of this promotion.

Those hang-tags appear again in the advertisement pictured inside the brochure. 

Another full-pager, this ad ran in papers on November 23, 1980, i.e. right at the start of the 1980 holiday season. Like its 1978 predecessor, it promoted a rebate program, in this case dubbed the "Cash In With Kenner" program.

I can hear you asking, "But, wait . . . that doesn't look anything like the Toy City advertisement shown above. What are you trying to pull here?"

Yes, the two ads differ considerably. 

Though the Toy City ad utilized Kenner-supplied graphics and information related to the rebate program, it was retailer specific. Toy City (with Kenner's help) designed and funded that ad. 

By contrast, the ad pictured in the Kenner brochure, and the ads that are the focus of this post, were ads that were designed and funded solely by Kenner. The former was a local advertisement, the latter the result of a nationwide advertising campaign by one of the biggest toy companies in the country. That's the difference.

Unfortunately, I've never seen a copy of the full-page ad pictured in the brochure. [2]

But I do have the half-page version. Thankfully, it retains both of the Star Wars toys depicted in the full-page ad: the Millennium Falcon and Rebel Armored Snowspeeder.

1981: Rerelease and More Rebates

The Empire years saw several liaisons between Kenner and the Sunday funnies: No fewer than four national ads featuring Kenner Star Wars toys appeared in the funny pages during the 1980-1982 period.

Kenner's 1981 entry is probably my favorite in the series, in large part because it featured nothing but Star Wars toys.

The line-up depicting the then new 41-back wave of figures was particularly attractive.

Like other ads we've discussed, this one focused on a program through which customers could obtain cash rebates on purchases of select items.

But there was a new element: By attending a screening of Star Wars, soon to be in rerelease around the country, and saving the corresponding ticket stub, a customer could obtain a bonus rebate of $1. 

This was a canny maneuver on Kenner's part: By encouraging families to see Star Wars, they were encouraging engagement with the franchise, and (probably) additional toy sales. Because what child of the '80s could resist buying Star Wars toys after he'd just seen Star Wars in the theater? 

Remember: at the time this promotion was active, Return of the Jedi was still two full years in the future. Kenner needed something to keep kids tuned in.

I believe the advertisement ran in papers on April 5, 1981. According to IMDb, Star Wars was rereleased five days later, on April 10.

To promote the program Kenner issued a colorful countertop display. On its bottom it featured three spaces to which pads of peel-off coupons were to be affixed.

Judging by the text printed in those spaces, the display was intended for use in movie theaters. 

The display is quite rare; I can't remember seeing more than 10 examples during the time I've been collecting.

Here's an image of the coupon. It's pretty much what you'd expect.

Later in 1981, Kenner refreshed its "Cash In" program. The cover of the brochure that promoted the program to retailers, pictured above, featured a bank note and a coin carrying images of Darth Vader.

As you'd expect, the brochure's interior contained an image of the advertisement that would promote the program to the public. It was to run, you guessed it, in the Sunday funny pages. 

As in 1980, it was a half-page ad. It ran in papers on November 22.

The actual ad, which featured Christmas theming and focused on a variety of toy lines, hewed closely to its representation in the brochure. The major difference was the former's replacement of the Glamor Gals Fancy Firebird with the Showplace from the same line. 

If you compare the two images closely, you'll find some other slight changes, including one concerning the placement of the Kenner logo and another relating to the positioning of the Millennium Falcon's cockpit cover.

The holiday season of 1982 marked the effective end of the Empire era. 1983 would see the release of Return of the Jedi, and a new, though still somewhat familiar, advertising approach from Kenner.

1983: A Sweepstakes for Jedi

As we saw, in 1980 Kenner sponsored a sweepstakes through which kids could win a trip to see an early screening of The Empire Strikes Back

In 1983, with the release of Return of the Jedi imminent, Kenner returned to the well: They promoted a sweepstakes in which the grand prize was a trip to see a preview of the hotly anticipated third entry in the series.

The advertisement for the promotion ran, as you probably foresaw, in the Sunday funnies. Though I don't have the exact date, based on the entry deadline (April 1), it probably went to print sometime in March.

Similarities to the 1980 sweepstakes were multiple: Echoing the earlier promotion, second prize consisted of a complete set of ROTJ toys released in 1983. And second prize was a specially designed patch. 

Today that patch is substantially harder to come by than its ESB counterpart. I'm still looking for an example if anyone is holding!

To help get out the word concerning the promotion, Kenner distributed this striking poster. Curiously, it's the only poster issued by Kenner as a store display in support of the Star Wars line. Or at least it's the only one I can think of at the moment. There was also this one, but I think that was more of a Coke poster with a Kenner tie-in.

Remember, at the time this poster was issued, the public had yet to see Return of the Jedi. The poster featured Nien Nunb and Admiral Ackbar because Kenner had already sponsored action-figure mail-away promotions centered on those two characters. The other new characters remained somewhat mysterious.

You may have noticed the text printed at the bottom of the poster. 

It alerted shoppers to the existence of the sweepstakes entry form, copies of which were located in the Star Wars section of the store's toy department. 

Naturally, those forms were attached to a Return of the Jedi shelf-talker

Unfortunately, the graphics on this one were a little disappointing. They couldn't put an X-Wing or something on there?


As far as I know, the ROTJ sweepstakes ad of spring of 1983 marked the last time that Kenner advertised Star Wars in the Sunday funnies. 

Maybe someone at Kenner determined that readership of the funny pages was on the decline. Or maybe a medium capable of greater graphical subtlety was desired.

When, in the waning days of 1983, Kenner returned to Sunday newspapers, their ad didn't appear in the funny pages; it appeared in the full-color "magazine" supplement.

Remember the magazine supplement? My local paper had Parade. I would toss it aside in my rush to get to the funny pages. [4]

The magazine supplement was, of course, primarily aimed at adults, which is probably why this rebate advertisement focused on the bill associated with holiday gift-giving, a concern far from the minds of most children.

It also helps to explain the rather mercenary lure of $1,000 in cold hard cash.

According to this Kenner brochure, the ad ran on November 13, 1983.

One of the fun things about the Kenner Star Wars line (and one of the fun things about collecting it) is that it spanned two distinct eras in American culture. This is probably evident even to those who didn't live through those eras, but are instead looking back on them by sifting through their detritus.

When the line debuted in 1977, the world looked and felt a certain way. And by the time it ended, it didn't. 

If you're hoping to collect these items, good luck. Some of them are quite scarce. Fortunately, the actual print ads that ran in the Sunday funny pages are obtainable and (usually) not terribly expensive. 

If you really want to get crazy, you can try to hunt down this 1978 funnies advertisement from Nestle.

Though it didn't originate with Kenner, it did feature Kenner Star Wars toys -- the large-size figures and X-Wing Fighter, to be specific. 

Happy collecting!


[1] Lyrics of the song featured in the Milky TV commercial:

It’s fun to milk her

Gonna do it right now

She drinks the water when we pump her tail

She’s raisin’ her head

It’s milkin’ time now

Her pre-tend milk is a-fillin’ the pail

Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow!

[2] Friend of the blog Ross Cuddie has a Kenner promotional kit that includes a slick of the full-page advertisement. A slick is a glossy full-size representation of an ad, typically used for reproduction and demonstration. Based on the existence of this slick, I think it's likely the full-page ad was printed in papers. I've just never seen an example.

[3] Interestingly, the patch was pretty similar to a patch offered as a prize in a contest advertised on the packages of Dixie Cups.

[4] Surprisingly, Parade ceased publication only recently: November of 2022.

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