Star Wars Made Millions Selling Children Boxes Of Nothing

By Zack Zagranis | Updated

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Before Star Wars was Star Wars, it was just an upcoming sci-fi movie that looked cool but wasn’t expected to set the box office on fire. No one had any idea of the cultural impact Star Wars would have, least of all Kenner, the small toy manufacturer with the license to produce figures and accessories based on the movie. As a result, Kenner had no Star Wars toys ready to go when Christmas of 1977 rolled around. Their solution? Sell an empty box instead.

Star Wars Action Figures Weren’t Ready In Time

Star Wars was so big that every kid in America begged their parents for toys based on the movie so they could continue the adventures of Luke Skywalker from the comfort of their living room carpet. Poor Kenner knew that if they had nothing on store shelves for the ’77 holiday season, they would lose out on a fortune. They knew the first batch of figures would be ready early the following year, so they devised a plan to stall children until then.

The Early Bird Certificate

The Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package was essentially an IOU. It consisted of a nearly empty box that contained a cardboard display stand, some stickers, a fan club membership, and most importantly a certificate for four Star Wars figures. The idea was that parents would have something to give their greedy little ankle-biters on December 25th while Kenner bought itself more time to produce the actual Star Wars toys the kit promised.

Only The Heroes Of A New Hope

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A kid could mail the certificate for four action figures to Kenner, and a few months later, Kenner would mail actual Star Wars toys back to the child. The four figures in question were Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca—kind of an odd starting line-up if you ask us.

With no villains present in the initial batch of Star Wars toys, we can only assume that children were forced to pretend that one of the four heroes was secretly a villain. How many times did poor Chewbacca have to double as a man-eating monster thanks to some unnamed space rabies? How often did the two droids suddenly turn into evil murder-bots forcing Luke to strike them down with his tiny plastic lightsaber?

The Hottest Toy On The Market

The Star Wars Early Bird Certificate package sold like hotcakes. It sold too well. It was all Kenner could do to keep them on the shelves.

Some stores actually refused to carry the Early Birds. As one rather snobby New York store owner put it, “We sell toys, not promises.” Other stores sold them but not to the demographic Kenner intended.

Kenner Underestimated Adult Collectors

The toy manufacturer had intended for the Early Birds to be wrapped up and put under the tree for Star Wars-obsessed children to find on Christmas morning instead of toys. Kenner was shocked to receive several of the certificates before the holidays even arrived. Adult Star Wars collectors existed even at the franchise’s beginning.

Star Wars Became A Merchandise Powerhouse

Ultimately, the Early Birds were successful and kicked off an era of Star Wars collectibles that continues to this day. While far from the weirdest Star Wars product ever sold—if you’ve never seen the Jar Jar Binks lollipop where you suck on his tongue, consider yourself lucky—the Early Bird Certificate Packages were still an oddity for their time. The idea of getting an empty box for Christmas sounds laughable now, but at the time, it was one of the most ingenious marketing schemes ever conjured up by a toy manufacturer.

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