Monday, November 17, 2008

The Silence of the Lions


I'm not really up on what's going on with the Transformers of today, but I do remember the latest incarnation-Transformers Animated-struck me as odd because the cartoon debuted around five months before the toys hit the stores. With Transfomrers it has traditionally been the other way around-the toys' presence in stores usually precedes the media on television. Launching the mass media tie-in without the toyline on the shelves is not entirely without precedent, though. The most famous example would be Star Wars where the film hit theaters in May 1977 but the toys weren't in stores until Spring of '78. A more appropriate historical parallel to the 2008 Transformers Animated toyline would be Voltron, which was the number one rated syndicated cartoon of 1984 but whose corresponding toyline didn't start hitting the stores until March of 19851. The synchronicity doesn't stop there. Transformers Animated and Voltron are both shows with 3 seasons about a core team of five transforming robots. Each robot is predominately one color-both shows have a red robot, a black robot, a yellow robot, a green robot, and damnit, if Ratchet was blue I almost would have sounded like I knew what I was talking about. Did I mention they both has robots?

CURIOSITY (ABOUT WHAT) KILLED THE CATS

Joslins 11/09/85
Voltron's been on my mind a lot lately because I just recently updated the Vintage Space Toaster Palace's Voltron section with 17 new* ads (and 5 better copies of ads that were already there). Looking over what I've collected it's no surprise that the vast majority of my Voltron ads are from the 1985 Christmas season. What I've found intriguing, though, is how the 1986 holiday season starts about the same as 1985's with newspaper ads for Voltron merchandise beginning in October but then they abruptly stop in early November and Voltron is MIA for the rest of the year. Were it not for a very few clearance outlets advertising discounted Voltron toys in 1987, Voltron would be missing from newspaper ads entirely after November 1986. Even GoBots had a more gradual disappearance from newspaper ads than Voltron did. It would be easy to explain the sudden lack of Voltron ads on the legendary product recall, but that only affected the die cast Matchbox lions, which amounted to just a few items from a much larger line. Was the recall so devastating to Voltron's image that retailers were afraid to advertise it? Or did something else kill the cats?

THE SCHWARTZ WAS NOT WITH VOLTRON

Sears 10/22/86
I think that just as one asteroid did not wipe out the dinosaurs, one recall did not kill Voltron. Instead it was a combination of factors. The timing of the product launch was probably the most crucial mistake. Looking at the series schedule it becomes obvious that Voltron as a syndicated show running every weekday from September of 84 to March of '85 (104 episodes!) had way more exposure than the Transformers, which was a Sunday morning show that only had 16 episodes in its first season in 1984. Voltron sort of blew its wad before the toys had even hit the shelves, which was good for sales initially because the show was fresh in kids' minds. But at the 1986 Toy Fair in February, Marvin Schwartz (a toy buyer for the S. E. Nichols retail chain) said "Voltron sold early last year and was nothing at December."2 Voltron did get a third season of twenty episodes that aired from mid October through late November of 1985, but by that time The Transformers was on its way to action figure dominance and in the midst of its second season with more than twice as many episodes. Was there a benefit to having toys in stores while the cartoons were running fresh new episodes? Sure enough, industry trade publication Toy & Hobby World's December 1985 issue ranked the top ten hottest selling toys based on a survey of 3,000 stores and Voltron was seventh with Transformers tied at number one alongside Cabbage Patch Kids.3

ME GRIMLOCK FINGERING THE LION-O

Pic 'N Save 11/26/87
Voltron was more a victim of unfortunate timing than anything else. Not having the toys in stores when the show was at its strongest was an insurmountable handicap. I've found a Sears ad from a full three weeks before the product recall where whatever Voltron toys they had left were reduced to half off, indicating that Voltron was finished well before the lead paint fiasco. The recall was just the blazing sword up the butt of the black lion after the Dinobots already took a dump on his head. It's a shame, too, because if Voltron had its crap together in 1984 the Great Toy Robots Wars of the 80s may have ended very differently. I can see a scenario where The Transformers may not have been as popular if Matchbox and Bandai could have pumped enough product out in '84 to satisfy Voltron demand while Takara and Hasbro were forced to cap off orders and leave retailers understocked on Transformers like they did. It's pointless to second guess now and my amateur analysis of a couple of articles and some newspaper ads probably doesn't begin to uncover the reasons Voltron toys were so unpopular after being featured in such a highly rated cartoon. There were probably many more factors that played into Volton's demise like its redundant product line where the same robot just got repeated at different sizes with slightly different tooling. They could never get away with that today, right? DID I MENTION THEY BOTH HAS ROBOTS?

1Dean Rotbart "LJN Toys' Voltron Product Line Could Spell Big Success for Company, Some Retailers Say" Wall Street Journal (21 March 1985)

2Larry Carlat "Toy retailers predict return to basic buys" Discount Store News. (22 September 1986) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3092/is_v25/ai_4138142

3John Dreyfuss "Transformers and Cabbage Patch Dolls Top Santa's List" Los Angeles Times (Nov 22, 1985)

*23 year old

4 comments:

deadbeat Senna said...

What if the plan all along was for the Voltronners to make as much money as possible in 1985 then fade off into the sunset and blow it all on hookers and cocaine?

Paul said...

You should write a book with all this stuff.

If you need someone to work on it with you, let me know. I'll do almost anything to see my damn name in print. ALMOST ANYTHING ;)

Evil King Macrocranios said...

DS, no, I think that at least initially the plans were to keep Voltron around beyond '85. World Events Productions was in negotiations with the Korean Olympic Committee to get Voltron force (actors dressed up like Commander Keith and others) in the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Olympics. I think they did at the very least get Voltron some sort of official "Defender of the Olympics" status even though the show and toy was totally dead by then. So I don't think they expected it to die as early as it did. There was still much cocaine and hookers to be bought.

Paul I can get ignored by way more people on the internet than if I wrote a book. It's cheaper, too. I thought you were already a famous Toyfare writer, though. Your name is already in print in like a billion Toyfares, right?

Paul said...

lol, no it's in exactly one toyfare in a side bar and in one as a quick hit and and another as a memory I wrote in for a G.I. Joe piece. So I guess it's in print in a lot of copies of the same issue. heh

So I want to see my name in more print, I guess...

 

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Evil King Macrocranios was voted king by the evil peoples of the Kingdom of Macrocrania. They listen to Iron Maiden all day and try to take pictures of ghosts with their webcams.