R2-D2 & Early Bird Mailer
The Early Bird Certificate Package was the first Kenner Star Wars action figure item. It was also one of the great marketing coups in the history of toy retailing.
You see, although Kenner had signed on to produce Star Wars toys prior to the film's release in May 1977, they were blindsided (as was everyone else) by its massive popularity. They must have initially planned on making fairly easy-to-produce, low-investment Star Wars items, such as puzzles, coloring books and paint sets.
But a hit this big (and there really never had been one bigger) all but demanded an action figure line. However, it takes close to a year to develop a line of plastic toys: they have to be designed, sculpted and tested. Most importantly of all, steel molds need to be created, and that takes time, not to mention money. So, in mid-1977, as Star Wars sold out theaters across the country, Kenner found themselves in a bind. On the one hand, they were sitting pretty as a license-holder for the biggest hit in movie history. On the other hand, they they had no proper toys to release. Even if they worked around the clock developing them, they wouldn't be ready for the all-important Christmas season.
How does a scrappy mid-western toy company solve the problem? It pulls a fast one, of course. It tells its retailers that they're going to sell what is essentially an empty box. Moreover, it convinces them that parents will go for the idea; that they will, in the absence of Star Wars action figures, settle for the mere promise of Star Wars action figures and place the Early Bird Certificate Package under their Christmas trees.
Did it work? Of course. In fact, it's a testament to the sheer force of Star Wars' popularity that this empty box was such a success. For Christmas of 1977, thousands of children received a cardboard envelope in which was packed a pointless display stand (pointless since there were no figures to display on it), a gimmicky Star Wars "Club Card," a few anemic stickers, and something that sounded more like a coupon for a small town breakfast joint than the ticket to Toy Nirvana-- the Early Bird Certificate itself.
The idea behind the Certificate was that kids could fill it out with their names and addresses, mail it in and wait. Months later, their set of the first four Star Wars action figures would arrive along with the plastic pegs that allowed them to be affixed to the once pointless cardboard display stand. The figures included in this set were Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. Although they were all sold individually later on, the special four-figure set was available only as a mail-away (for more information on the Early Bird figure set, click here).
Due to its importance within the Star Wars line, as well as it's awesome graphics, the Early Bird Certificate Package has long been popular with collectors. Unfortunately, collecting the item presents a problem, as most examples were seriously disfigured when they were ripped open on Christmas morning (and trust me, most kids really did rip them open). For this reason, sealed examples can today sell for several hundred dollars. But a sealed envelope, while it looks nice, also prevents one from enjoying the rather attractive contents. It's a dilemma that each collector must figure out on his or her own.
It should be noted that virtually all opened Early Bird Certificate Packages are lacking one important component-- the certificate. Most were mailed away and never seen again.