Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Mail-Aways, one man's story

From X-entertainment, "This isn't just the story of a silly action figure a few people care about, but also the tale of changing perceptions towards a franchise I came out of the womb loving and will continue loving despite its ever increasing number of flaws. Before public opinion of George Lucas' "Star Wars" dynasty was forever taken down a few notches with 1999's "The Phantom Menace," the movies still felt untouchable. Even complaints about "Return of the Jedi's" shift towards juvenile marketing appeal had mostly been washed aside due to time, and us diehards were more than willing to talk up the films as being the best at any given opportunity. The prequels surely had their moments, but there's no denying that they've done more to hurt the magic than add to it. Most critics panned 'em to shit, and what could fans point to that'd prove 'em wrong? The scene where Jar Jar gets farted on by an alien rhino? Hayden and Natalie's spirited vie for the Most Awkward Movie Romance Ever title? If challenged, all we could do was fall silent or bring up "The Empire Strikes Back."

"Empire" has always been our easy out. No matter how shitty anything regarding Star Wars gets, we'll always have ESB. The "good" one. The movie that eradicates all other flops and failures. According to us, at least.

Today's article takes us back to a time just slightly before that monumental shift. The changes made in the "special edition" version of the trilogy were liked by some and hated by others, but it never really hit a level where our views of these movies had been terribly altered. The fact that they performed so well in theaters again after all of those years assured fans that they weren't alone, and in the years before the LOTR trilogy would usurp all the hype for these types of fantasy pictures, Star Wars fans had plenty to be excited about. The trilogy was back in theaters and brand new movies were on the way. And, while we waited, there was plenty of Star Wars crap to keep us busy. Like toys.

When Hasbro/Kenner revitalized the Star Wars action figure collection, fans went absolutely nuts. These toys were one of the cornerstones of the original trilogy's scope, weighing in with over a hundred figures spanning several years and gazillions of dollars in sales. When the line returned in the later part of the 1990s, children had to outrun any number of twenty-to-thirtysomethings at toy stores if they wanted a crack at Luke or Han. It's not that we weren't cognizant of how goofy and geeky it was to spend all of that time and money at Toys 'R' Us -- we just had too much company to really care.

For my money, this was the true beginning of the retro revival we're experiencing today, at least in terms of kid stuff. Walking through a toy store nowadays is remarkably like walking through one fifteen years ago, and the whole "collecting" bit -- really an excuse for us older folks to still buy toys -- went from being a nominal and almost underground thing to an immense subculture of people who liked dolls. This unspoken boom period hadn't gone unnoticed by those who stood to benefit, and in 1996, Hasbro teamed up with some potato chip guys to create a legendary promotion that let fans collect a mouthwash-colored action figure named Obi-Wan.

There's the bag. You love the bag. The promotion was mutually beneficial -- Hasbro wanted to draw attention to their relatively new and always expanding collection of Star Wars toys, while Frito Lay used Obi-Wan to publicize a peculiar series of "pizza chips." Dunno if they still make those, but we certainly shouldn't blame Obi-Wan if the public didn't bite on pizza-flavored potato chips. Not even a Jedi could forge such miracles.

To get the figure, all ya had to do was collect two UPC symbols from Lay's chip bags (any kind, even pizza) and send 'em off with two bucks to cover shipping. That's where things got interesting.

Tons of toy dealers smelled opportunity -- since these types of exclusives and mail-aways generally end up being worth something, and since Frito Lay didn't put a cap on the amount of figures anyone could get from a single address, many dealers ended up sending away for hundreds upon hundreds of tiny Obi-Wans. The theory was that the figures would appreciate in value after the prequels arrived, so shelling out two bucks for each figure (not to mention all of those chips) seemed like a smart investment. Wrong. Too many people shared this exploitive idea, and "The Spirit of Obi-Wan" has ultimately become one of the most common, "worthless" figures in the entire collection.

Keep in mind, certain dealers foolishly piddled their money away on thousands of the figures -- literally. As you'd suspect, very few of them ever saw a return on the investment. Even today, cases of these limited edition Kenobi toys are sold for less than a dollar per figure. It was a small victory for collectors who hated the typically greedy dealer types, and an even bigger one for Hasbro and Frito Lay: under normal circumstances, there's no way they would've sold ten trillion mouthwash-colored Obi-Wan action figures.

Still, for those who just wanted one or a few of the figures for their own personal enjoyment and molestation, this was a killer deal. It'd been a long time since most fans had seen their last Star Wars mail-away offer, and though Obi-Wan wasn't really a "favorite" character of most, that whole mouthwash bit seemed enticing. We'll get to that in a few minutes.

The wait was terrible -- nearly three months. Most of us like to get an early start with this kind of anticipation party, so we'd watch the mailbox like hawks starting from the day we sent out our letters. I'm the type of person who'll fill out a "No Postage Necessary" card from the back of a travel magazine and obsessively wait for brochures of obscure island resorts I'll never visit to arrive, so the wait for a cool little Star Wars toy was truly tormenting. Staring suspiciously towards any passing mail truck for Obi-Wan's 90 day journey, nothing in the world mattered except Ben Kenobi. When word trickled down that fans were beginning to receive their Frito Lay loot, the wait only became more impatient. Each day that passed without the Stupid Spirit of Obi-Wan felt like an eternity, especially when there was nothing good on television and all of our friends were out, I dunno, dating and stuff.

Finally, it came. Arriving in an unassuming white box not-so-neatly tucked into an orange envelope, "The Spirit of Obi-Wan" wasn't available in stores. The version of Obi-Wan that was available in stores looked quite the same as this one, only a lot less translucent and without that air of exclusivity and Jedi rarity. Whoa ho ho oh. As I recall, some fans were pissed that the figure didn't come in some sort of "official" packaging. I'm not sure what these people had against a neat white box. I mean, coin purse?? In any event, the promotion was a huge success. Hasbro gained a lot of loyalty from toy lovers, and Frito Lay managed to prove investor predictions wrong by getting at least one person to try pizza flavored potato chips. Everybody won. To really establish what all the hubbub was about, you've gotta see Obi-Wan up close...

Not too shabby, eh? You couldn't pose his arms, but while I was a little concerned with owning an Obi-Wan figure perpetually posed to sing La Cucaracha, I appreciated his strange blue hue. For those who've forgotten, the figure is based on Obi-Wan's "ghost" form -- the see-thru Jedi who advised Luke Skywalker to visit faraway planets while lying to him about his dead daddy.

I never really got much into Hasbro's newer Star Wars stuff. The line was riddled with plenty of ugly figures, and save for some small victories like this ghastly Obi-Wan, I've completely lost track of the line. Admittedly, Hasbro hit a better stride with the collection in later years, but I'd already moved onto collecting semiprecious stones and religious tapestries by then. My loss. The mid 90s was a pretty dry and flaccid time for toys in general it seems, but the "Spirit of Obi-Wan" shined through as one of the most unique, interesting little monitor-toppers of any era. A+."

1 comment:

Octopunk said...

Is this the same guy who talked about the Jabba Palace? He's very thorough, but he needs an editor.

"Too many notes"