Monday, June 26, 2023

When Stakes Were Super: The MPC Sweepstakes Promotion of 1979

Ron writes:

 I've never won a sweepstakes, have you? 

Come to think of it, I tend not to enter sweepstakes, possibly because I assume the chances of winning a prize are so low that it's not worth the bother. I also don't like feeling as though I've been roped into some company's backdoor marketing strategy.

Am I being a stick in the mud about this? Probably. But those feelings undergird my lack of interest in sweepstakes-style giveaways, and that's just the way it is.

But the lure of getting something for nothing can be tantalizing, to children in particular. And that feeling is valuable to a company. Even if a sweepstakes enterer wins nothing, he's spent weeks (perhaps months) engaged with a product. And if he wins, even better -- he may become a fan for life.

That's surely what spurred dozens of companies to run Star Wars-themed sweepstakes during the years the Original Trilogy was in theaters. Kenner did a few. Dixie Cups did one. I'm sure you can think of others.

The subject of this article is a sweepstakes sponsored by MPC in 1979.

Close followers of this blog will recall that MPC was the company responsible for the familiar line of plastic model kits representing Star Wars vehicles and spaceships. The company did a whole slew of them, right through 1983 and Return of the Jedi.

By the end of 1979, MPC's Star Wars line consisted of 10 products, including the large representation of the Millennium Falcon pictured above. I think we can assume the line was a roaring success.

But by late '79 things must have felt a little stale. Star Wars had been out for more than two years, and The Empire Strikes Back was still more than half a year away. Sure, Star Wars had been rereleased to theaters, but still. Star Wars was old news.

If you're MPC, how do you keep consumers focused on your brand as you head into the all-important holiday season?

That's where the MPC sweepstakes comes in.

Actually, as you can prove to yourself by examining the print advertisement pictured above, MPC didn't call it a sweepstakes; they called it a Superstakes, which may be the best Star Wars use of "super" outside of the George Lucas Super Live Adventure.

I don't know which of the ad's images is my favorite: Luke driving an old-timey pickup truck, Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson completing an entry form, or R2-D2 straight pimpin' like a muthereffin robo Tony Montana. 


But the part of the ad that concerns us most is the bottom. It lists the available prizes and supplies the entry requirements.

Unsurprisingly, most of the prizes were MPC products. Specifically, the company's Star Wars model kits.

While third prize was the Millennium Falcon kit pictured earlier in this blog post, fourth prize consisted of MPC's kit representing the bust of Darth Vader.

Perhaps the strangest product released by MPC in association with their Star Wars license, it was designed to move, light up, and even make a breathing noise reminiscent of Vader himself.

Fifth prize was some other, presumably less expensive, MPC model kit. The ad doesn't specify which.

Weirdly, the image illustrating this level of prize once again shows the Vader bust. Either it was available as the fifth prize as well as the fourth, or the person who designed the ad made a mistake.

First prize was a pile of cash. 

That's right, $5,000 in cold hard jack was promised to the lucky winner. 

Provided, that is, he could pry it away from R2-D2. My man R2 looks pretty intent on keeping that cash.

But by far the nuttiest prize was the second one: a wee old-fashioned pick-up truck that ran on real gasoline. 

But that wasn't all! 

Perhaps because this prize had virtually nothing to do with Star Wars, MPC promised to fill its payload with brand new Star Wars model kits.

As if that wasn't the most redneck thing ever.

Produced by an outfit called Hagstrom's Sales, the pick-up was part of a whole line of gas-powered miniature automobiles. That's the cover of a Hagstrom's catalog you see above.

And here's the model that MPC offered as a prize. It was called the Mighty Pick-Up.

Was it nutty for MPC to assume the pick-up should be used to haul around a bunch of model kits? Well, take a look at the image illustrating the pick-up in Hagstrom's catalog.

It looks like there's an airplane model in the box that guy is carrying.

Naturally, his date looks less than enthused.

Why did MPC choose a gas-powered pick-up truck as their number two prize?

Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. As far as I know, MPC and Hagstrom's had no official relationship. Maybe someone at MPC just thought it was cool?

On the other hand, as a company that produced a lot of model kits based on vehicles, MPC catered to people who liked cars and trucks. The Mighty Pick-Up was a truck. So maybe the pairing wasn't as odd as it seems at first blush. [1]

If you were lucky enough to win a prize in the Superstakes, you were notified by Fundimensions.

Above is an example of the letter received by Superstakes winners. 

As you can surely tell, it's addressed to one of the 1,000 winners of the fifth prize. I've seen a couple of these letters, and they both concerned the fifth prize. That makes sense, as winners of that prize were by far the most numerous.

Here's the envelope in which the letters were mailed.

If you're wondering why both the letter and the envelope are branded with the Fundimensions name and logo, it's because Fundimensions was the parent company of MPC -- as well as Craft Master and Lionel. All three of these companies produced licensed Star Wars products. You can read about Lionel's quirky product here. [2]

You're probably wondering how the prizes were shipped to winners.

Well, we don't know for sure, but the Darth Vader TIE Fighter that you see above came to me accompanied by a winner's letter. And I suppose it's at least somewhat likely that the two items have been paired since 1979. 

So it's possible that this TIE Fighter is representative of the prizes that were mailed to winners.

As you may have noticed, the box -- which bears no graphics -- is labelled with a number corresponding to the mail-order business of JC Penney. [3] So either kits packaged for JCP (and perhaps other mail-order retailers) were used as Superstakes prizes, or the letter I own and a JCP kit were paired erroneously. 

Of course, the version of the Darth Vader TIE Fighter sold in stores came in a box featuring full-color graphics.

As I mentioned in the introduction of this post, I can't recall entering a sweepstakes as a child.

The same cannot be said of collector Martin Thurn.

Above you see a Superstakes entry form completed by Martin back in 1979. It was sent to me by SWCA blogger Jonathan McElwain. 

For some reason, though young Martin took the time to complete it, he never mailed it to Fundimensions.

My curiosity piqued, I asked Martin about this.

After expressing surprise at seeing his name on an old entry form, he said, "I built some of the models back in the day and tried to get as many entries into the contests as possible."

He then added: "I've always been a puzzle freak and contest freak . . . And when it came to Star Wars contests I was double freaked."

To obtain his entry forms, Martin wrote to Fundimensions directly. 

Above you see the response he received.

Writing to the company was not as crazy as it sounds: Kids desiring an entry form were instructed to do just that. Just scroll up to the image of the print advertisement and see for yourself.

So Martin was only following instructions.

But why, if Martin resided in Columbus, Ohio, as the address on this letter indicates, did his entry form specify a Florida residence?

Because he was trying to game the system, of course!

"They always said 'one entry per person' or whatever," he told me, "so I used friends' and neighbors' addresses . . . The hard question is, whom did I know in Florida at the time . . . to trust them to give me the prize if it was sent to them?"

The rules, printed on the reverse of the entry form, do indeed limit prizes to "one . . . per family." Second paragraph, third sentence.

Maybe Martin never submitted this entry form because his ringer in Florida refused to participate in this little scheme? 

It's possible.

Of course, writing to Fundimensions for a form was a pretty labor-intensive entry method. Surely not all kids were as industrious as Martin Thurn. 

How did lazier children enter the contest?

Fortunately, SWCA co-editor Pete Vilmur was able to supply me with images of something very special.

 And that something answers the question I just posed.

It's what appears to be a complete promotional kit related to the Superstakes. It was sent to retailers, who were expected to display its materials in high-traffic areas of their establishments. In doing so they advertised the promotion to consumers.

The kit includes a cardstock shelf-talker with a pouch designed to hold copies of the entry form. 

The piece behind the shelf-talker is a cardstock sign intended to be hung elsewhere in the retail location. It measures 17" x 22".

As you've no doubt noticed, both items feature the graphic that decorates the entry form. 

The graphic appears again on this 34" x 22" poster, also included in the kit. One of the very few examples known to have survived, it's got to be one of the cooler Star Wars advertising posters of the era.

Well, that's about all I have on the MPC Superstakes of 1979. A curious promotion, for sure, and one with some interesting collectible material tied to it. 

If anyone is looking to sell any items deriving from the promotional kit, don't hesitate to contact me!

Special thanks to Mark Enright, Luis Villagomez, Jonathan McElwain, Martin Thurn, and Pete Vilmur for their invaluable assistance in collecting the information and photos featured in this blog post.


[1] This is the second time I've blogged about miniature gas-powered vehicles. See here for the previous post.

[2] Though the linked blog post doesn't mention Lionel, the Power Passers product line definitely fell under the Lionel umbrella.

[3] The JC Penney mail-order division offered the Darth Vader TIE Fighter model in 1978. By 1979, when the Superstakes occurred, the product was no longer featured in the retailer's holiday catalog. It's possible that unsold examples packaged for JCP in 1978 were used by MPC for Superstakes fulfillment in 1979. 

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