How Did Kenner’s Star Wars Toys Change Culture?
In 1977 Kenner’s Star Wars toys popularized collectible action figures helping to create a second business for Hollywood and a cult following for Star Wars.
Between 1977 and 1985 Kenner produced over 100 Star Wars figures and sold over 300 million throughout the world. This was one of the first successful major cross platform merchandising deals and one of the first collectible action figure lines. Below is the story of Kenner, Star Wars, the birth of major cross platform media merchandising, and the birth of collectible action figures. 
NOTE: A 2014 documentary featuring a Kenner employee at the time quotes sales at 3/4 of a billion dollars by “their” best estimates (see below).
- Not only did Kenner start the toy tie-in craze, but the toys and their related marketing are one of the critical factors for the success of the Star Wars franchise today.
- This phenomenon would be repeated by movie and TV tie-ins for years to come like He-Man, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Pokemon, and more. TIP: LEGO good example of another Star Wars tie-in success story.
- The marriage of movies, toys, television shows, marketing, and a broad range of merchandising opportunities that began with Star Wars forever changed the future of Hollywood, television, marketing, and collectibles.
Kenner popularized collectible action figures with their Star Wars toys. Those toys are part of the reason Star Wars still has the reach it does today.
BUY IT: Check out the Kenner Star Wars Documentary, Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys (on Amazon.)
FACT: Walt Disney was one of the first people to realize the enormous profit that could be made by tying real life experiences and toys to films. Today Disney owns Star Wars. If you think the only goal of buying the Star Wars brand was to make movies, think again. See a quick story of Disney licensing here.
Toys Before Kenner’s Star Wars
The hottest action figures before Kenner’s Star Wars figures were Hasbro GI 12-inch Joes, which began selling in 1964. The first GI Joes were marketed with the expectation that people would buy one figure, and then buy different accessories for it.
In 1982, the line was resurrected in a 3- 3/4 inch version, with the marketing strategy of trying to get buyers to collect the whole set. By 1991, the 12-inch version was re-launched. (see 3 3/4″ G.I. Joe Action figures)
This video shows the difference between different types of action figures from the 60’s and 70’s, including the 3-3/4 inch dolls.
FACT: GI Joe and the DC comic and Marvel comic toys were popular as well and there were TV and movie tie-ins, but t was nothing like what would happen with Kenner and Star Wars starting the phenomenon at Christmas 1977.
FACT: Kenner changed everything when they released their 3-3/4 inch (3.75 inches) scale size collectible action figures, each of which performed a unique function. No more just buying one action figure, now you “gotta collect them all”.
The Story of Kenner and the History of Kenner and Star Wars
The history of Kenner starts with the EZ Bake oven in 1963 and earlier products, but the Star Wars toy line is the product that takes Kenner from B-list toy maker to A-list superstars. The story doesn’t really start with Kenner though, it starts with Mego Corporation (who made most TV and movie toys up to that point) rejecting the Star Wars licensing deal.
A Mega-Bad Move by Mego Corporation and an Opportunity of Kenner
In 1976 Mego Corporation, the leading action figure company at the time refused the license to create Star Wars action figures. A B-list toy maker named Kenner (a subsidiary of General Mills) took the contract instead.
Kenner’s plan was to create a few puzzles and some dolls, but everything changed in May of 1977 when Star Wars was released. The Kenner staff went to see the movie with ideas about puzzles, and left feeling they needed something bigger.
The Star Wars “Early Bird Certificate Package.”
As fans started reacting to Star Wars, Kenner knew for sure it needed more than a few puzzles to meet the popularity of the movie, so they made a mad rush to meet the 1977 Christmas season. When they realized they couldn’t make the season they decided to sell a cardboard cutout that came with a mail-in IOU (“Early Bird Certificate Package”) for 12 action figures which would be shipped sometime over the next year. The box also contained a diorama display stand, some stickers, and a Star Wars fan club membership card.
In a way, the “Early Bird Certificate Package” can be considered the start of modern collectibles. The children who got this thing on Christmas now had months to dream about how good it would be to have all the toys. They told their friends, and when their collection was finally complete they could for the first time enter the Star Wars universe with more than the movie or their imagination as a guide.
Kenner commercials. All of them. See how Kenner tells you “how” and “what” you can do with Star Wars. Constant reinforcement of the characters and universe and the need to be a part of it.
Star Wars – “Gotta Collect Em’ All”
After collecting the first 12 figures, Kenner expanded the set to 20, then over the years, to over 92. Each toy was different and each allowed kids to recreate endless scenarios in the Star Wars universe. This creativity exploded due to Kenner’s determination that every toy had to “do something” and the fact that the marketing of things like the cardboard backs of toys and Star Wars commercials helped to show kids how to play with the toys. (Children’s fascination with being shown how to play with toys has burgeoned into the trendy Hobby Kids and Surprise Eggs youtube phenomenon.)
Without Kenner, and without “Early Bird Certificate Package”, the unique ideas that Lucas brought to the screen may have never had the impact they have today.
Star Wars Toys After Return of the Jedi: Droids, Ewoks, the Power of the Force, and Hasbro.
Eventually, the trilogy had ended, and Kenner’s business started to die down a bit. Kenner made one last line of toys after Return of the Jedi called “the Power of the Force” alongside Kenner TV shows featuring Droids and Ewoks (the first actual TV tie-in, to toy tie-in, to movie tie-in).
The toys were cool and in retrospect are sought after, but without the movie to reinforce the toy line and an aging audience the craze eventually dissipated and Kenner discontinued production in 1985.
Kenner was sold to Tonka in 1987 and then to Hasbro in 1991. By 1995, with the release of the trilogy on Laser Disc and VHS a new generation of Star Wars fans and an older generation seeking nostalgia revitalized Star Wars collectibles. Today in 2015 a third generation is experiencing Star Wars for the first time and the movie, toy, and TV tie-ins are as popular as ever.
Thank you for making it to the end of the page. You have now earned the right to watch an amazing documentary on Kenner “Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys“. I mean if you are willing to pay for it.