Friday, May 08, 2009

25 Years ago in Transfromers PART 6: HASBEENS-A toy robots convention panel transcript about second chances, marketing, and good ties with Bandai

This is the month that Hasbro broke the seventh seal of the Roboplastic Apocalypse 25 years ago by unleashing their onslaught of transforming toy robot Volkswagen action figures and associated tie-in merchandise. Today in particular marks an extra special occasion as it is the date most agreed upon by toy robots archaeologists as the day the very first Transformer comic was released 25 years ago. So to celebrate the arrival of the GoBots' worst nightmare, a bunch of bloggers united, taking some time to write posts specifically about Hasbro's transforming toy robot Datsuns and police cars and Datsun police cars from 25 years ago.

HOLD ON IS THIS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OR THE 5TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY?

Running the topic of toy robot dinosaurs and their transforming Volkswagen counterparts into the ground is somewhat of a specialty of mine, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do for this robobloggery memories collaboration.
Some of my fondest memories of this hobby have been born of the Transformers conventions I've attended. One convention in particular, Botcon 2004, was especially super retrorobo fantastic because of a panel that featured Bob Prupis and Alison Segebarth, two ex-Hasbro marketing executives who worked on the Transformers brand during the early days of the line. They had so many interesting things to say about the behind the scenes birth of the Transformers and the thinking that went into many major decisions when they created the line. Going in I knew it would be a fantastic panel so I took my microcassette recorder to the show and recorded it. But a panel recording not shared is about as useless as a microcassette recorder that can't record (unless it can turn into a robot).

MY EARS TRANSFORMED THE PHRASE "GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS" INTO "GOOD TIES WITH BANDAI" AND BACK!

So I tried transcribing the recording and I uploaded that transcription to Usenet to share with the internet, but honestly my transcription was awful! I did the best I could but the recording was really bad and I got a lot of key statements incorrect. I spelled people's names wrong and even left out a whole paragraph because I couldn't make out what was said. In retrospect, if I could go back I would never have uploaded that transcription. But the past is done and like a broken GoBot, it cannot be changed. All is not lost, though, and on this momentous day I want to make right a great wrong-I want to figuratively buy myself a shiny new GoBot the same as the broken, unchangeable one (although still just as sucky). Thanks to 2009 technology I can be a microcassette George Lucas and fix my transcription errors or at least make new errors I can live with. And so my fellow Macrocranians, on this momentous day of uniting robobloggers I replace the existing crappy, incorrect version of the Botcon 2004 marketers panel transcript I did and I present to you my new definitive, crappy, incorrect version of the Botcon 2004 marketers panel. As a bonus I sprinkled in topically relevant ads from the Vintage Space Toaster Palace and I've included an MP3 version of the recording that will melt your brain and fry your ears as you read along because I'm dumb about internet audio engineering. Hey I never said the Roboplastic Apocalypse was going to be painless.



Bob Prupis:
[Bob started off with something like "We're all here today to..."]

...pay homage to a product line, although it's really more than a product line-it's a fantasy concept that was designed for a nine year old. But this is the kind of enthusiasm that keeps all of us young and vital and enthusiastic.

I think that the main reason that the Transformers was an immediate and a long term success was the passion that Alison brought to the brand. It was a passion that affected everybody who was involved in the continuing development of the line. And that's the passion that kept this thing alive all these years.

As vice president of Boy's Toys at Hasbro, I managed the original introduction in 1983 and with my marketing team and others, developed the positioning and the rationale for the brand.

There was a product out of Japan called Diaclones, which was a moderate success in Japan and a failure in the US. A product developer by the name of Henry Orenstein brought the concept from the Japanese company called Takara to Hasbro's head of R&D, George Dunsay.

I personally was V.P. of Boy's Toys at the time and I fell in love with the magic of the physical transformations, but I felt that the concept which was needed was an emotional connection with our target market. I believed that the fantasy needed a logical reason for being-something that the kids could understand and truly relate to.

Bob Prupis and Alison Segebarth
At the time we already had a relationship with Marvel Comics. They'd done our G.I. Joe. I called a meeting with our marketing team and Marvel's creative group. And after much discussion and rejecting many concepts, we decided to throw out the little men that were in the Diaclone line that were supposed to be the operators of the robots and to make the robots themselves heroes of the line.

Working with comic book writer Bob Budiansky from Marvel, we came up with a rationale that the kids could relate to so the concept that you all know so well of the Autobots and Decepticons and how they came to Earth was born. It was an overwhelming success.

In fact, in the first year I had forecast a potential sales volume of 30 million dollars. Management fought me on this and they decided that as a new line it was too aggressive and they cut the forecast down to 15 million dollars. We actually sold over a hundred million dollars that first year and the backlog that we could not manufacture of another 70 to 100 million dollars. In the stores there was a buying feeding frenzy that Christmas.

Although there were other similar concepts in the marketplace, the Robots In Disguise campaign was so successful that it lead to a leadership position in boy's toys, creating a high level of awareness by developing unique and appealing personalities for the individual Transformers themselves.

As far as the second birth of the Transformers, in 1989 I was transferred to England as senior vice president of international marketing, responsible for all of Hasbro's brands in Europe. The Transformers was an incredible success in our European markets. The United States marketing and R&D group had decided in 1990 to discontinue the Transformer line and develop no product for 1991. However, as the important segment of the international sales marketing, and (for) the continuing success of the line, I had to do something.

I flew to Tokyo and was able to convince the Japanese, who had been creating the new product under US direction, that Europe and Asia can do enough volume to make it worthwhile for them. So in 1990 we structured a new marketing and R & D team in Europe to take over the development of the brand. And because of the increasing success of the Transformers in the world marketplace, the US market group re-introduced the Transformers in 1993. It's actually a born again product that is still successful today. Thank you.

[Audience applauds.]

Alison:
All I can tell you first of all is thank you for having me. (It's been) the entire day that we've walked around and looked at the booths uttering, "Gee, I remember that". Did we believe that what we did 20 years ago would hatch this? That there'd still be people interested in that? That it would grow with you-that it was important enough to grasp this long and probably keep in you for hopefully a number of years to come? It's amazing.

King Soopers 12/22/85
You think about what you do everyday in your everyday lives and that it was fun having that passion about the product and that's what made the things come to life, but there were the day to day distractions and aggravations and problems that you have with other stuff you do. You don't remember those things. You remember the good things. And that it's still alive is fantastic, so I'm glad you're all still enjoying it.

I came onto the brand at the end of '84 after its first year in the market and it was a feeding frenzy. It was an awesome place to be at Hasbro right then because it was exploding. They just bought a company called Milton Bradley which owned Playschool. I was in Boy's Toy's at Playschool that year on something called Bigfoot, a super monster truck. So I was a girl in boy's marketing and they absorbed me into their team and put me on a little brand called Transformers which was exploding.

It was a different development pattern than a lot of the products were at Hasbro at that time because Takara and the Japanese designers and product developers were responsible for all of the toy development of it and worked with us. It was a very much an international collaboration. This was before the internet, though. We sent out faxes everyday. It was before digital photography. It's amazing to me now what we can do. It was a dynamic team. George Dunsay turned Japanese during that time and went over there frequently. He got married in Japan. (He) went a little nuts, frankly.

We-the people that were on the brand, the people that worked with me, the product managers, the packaging people that were in the states, some of the engineers and some of the safety people-were part of the key people because we had to satisfy US toy safety standards. So it was a small team but we were dedicated because the product was so cool.

We worked very closely with the Marvel people-Bob Budiansky-forcing him against his will sometimes to add more characters to the teams. We were interested in expanding the toyline. We watched the voice of Bumblebee this morning. I thought, "Oh, that's great. I'm sorry that we put you in the background, but we needed to add more characters to the line to make it what it became back in the second or third year-a 300 million dollar product line."

It was the beginning of the birth of the super toy brands and it spawned licensing. We tried to make the licensed products have a higher standard than products had in the past. They had to have an element of transformation in them. It wasn't just enough to do a t-shirt, we wanted t-shirts with heat sensitive inks so you could see a transformation. We wanted lunchboxes that had some element that was more than what had been there before.

When we worked with the agencies we'd be challenging them. Griffin Bacal-a name that you may have heard in the past if you're into this-came up with the original position of Robots in Disguise / More Than Meets the Eye, which was the tagline that had set the tone for everything. So when we challenged them to do more with the advertising, they'd come up with more and better ideas-turning a boy into a robot-turning kids into what they were doing.

Toys N More 11/17/85
It was a great place to work. It was a fantastic line to work on. I'm looking forward to hearing what your comments (and) your questions are, and I'm asking you to remember right now that this was 20 years ago. [Audience laughs] While I've been studying a little bit, there may be some flaws in my memory. But anyway, why don't we open it up to questions? I'm hoping that each and every one of you played with these toys-that you didn't start out as little adult collectors in 5 year old bodies-that you do remember the fun things about them.

Bob:
That's right. In fact, I have to thank all of you. My retirement has been very very comfortable.

[Unintelligible audience member question]

Alison:
What she's asking is how do we as marketers know what kids want. If I had that answer perfectly down I wouldn't be here, I would be retired, too! I'm finding that when you research with kids, especially kids in a five to nine year old age group for instance, (it goes like this):
"You like this?"
"Yeah."
"Why?"
"Because."
You don't get a lot usually as you're talking directly to kids. You get a lot out of watching them; how they play with something, what they're doing, how they didn't do something. You're working a year and a half ahead of time a lot of times so that a lot of the other factors that come into play...

Bob:
We had study groups all around the country, and we'd go to all different parts of the country, put kids in the room with product, and just see how they reacted to the product.

Alison:
One of the things that we noticed right away about the Transformers and that you'd hear a lot was there were a lot of different levels that this appealed to and the first set that appealed to almost everybody was that it was a puzzle. That it was more than just you can play with it as a car. They'd say is it an action figure or is it a vehicle? What is it? It was the intricacy of the puzzle. And the fact that as a kid you could do it, but your parents couldn't and they're never gonna tell you this. [Audience laughs]

When you'd have an exec come in, something they do a lot, you'd give them a Soundblaster or a Blaster. I'd take the boom box because that was the easiest one in the line. (I'd say) "Here, you can do this one," and they'd feel accomplished and walk away and leave you alone. [Audience laughs] They didn't know what they were doing. If you really wanted to pee 'em off that day, you'd give 'em a triple changer and say, "Here, try it!" [Audience laughs]

Circus World 11/30/83
The original transformer line which was developed by Takara-[at this point she looks to Bob] was it Diakron? Diaclone?-were the best puzzles ever I think. I don't know what the current line is, but they were almost like Rubik's cubes. If you think about it, at that time that was something that was in the psyche of the country at that time.

So we got kids. You look at 'em. You watch how they play. You try and get other little signals and sometimes it all comes together.

[Audience member question: For somebody like myself that has a marketing degree and wants to get into Hasbro or another toy company-I've applied to several places and haven't got my foot in the door. How do you get your foot in the door?]

Bob:
There's a long story how Alison got her foot into Hasbro. [Alison laughs] Actually, during Toy Fair she was with Playschool.

Alison:
Correct.

Bob:
And I was very impressed with the presentations she had made. At that time we were just starting the Transformers. I already sensed that it was going to be too big for me to be able to handle by myself and the team that I had put together for G.I. Joe. And it was just two months to brand that I was facing and I needed somebody strong to handle it and Alison impressed me.

I tried to recruit her so I went after her and asked her to come and work for Hasbro. (She said) "Well, I've got to think about it. People don't work imported, so..." I said, "Well let's just think about it." After Toy Fair I called her again. I said, "We'll come out to Chicago and we'll talk, right?" So she put me through the ringer after she took me to her favorite bar. (She) made me do upside down shooters. [Audience laughs] Then she finally said...

Alison:
..and that wasn't twisting his arm, really. [Audience laughs]

Bob:
She finally said, "Ah, I guess these people must be okay. I'll go to work for them."

Alison:
It was kind of like that. The way I got to Hasbro actually was they bought me, literally. I was working for Playschool, which was owned by Milton Bradley. Some random company made a run on that company. This was when takeovers were just starting. And Hasbro wasn't in danger from Milton Bradley so they took 'em. Instead of a hostile takeover, they quote "merged". And it was the best thing that ever happened to that company. So they did more dynamic marketing and more creative things.

Bob did try and recruit me and I was shaky. I didn't know these people. I didn't know if I wanted to move from the Chicago area all the way to Rhode Island. Is that a state, really? [Audience laughs] But it was. It was a phenomenal area and I did love it and I learned so much.

But your question was how do I break into marketing or product development at a toy company, and I...now? Persistence helps. Going in through other avenues-through sales, through whatever way you can get into a company. I mean it's a tough market right now for any toy company. The market is about changing.

There's a story in the book and it's true. This guy named Vinnie D'Alleva who should be here today by all rights but unfortunately his daughter had a tonsillectomy. I was like, okay, fine, but...[Alison laughs] He had tried to get in repeatedly. He's from the area, you know. (It's) luck and timing sometimes. There's an opportunity (and) you know somebody, you don't know somebody, you don't need to know somebody sometimes. He couldn't do it. (He) took another job in the toy company but he always had his eye out for where he ultimately wanted to be.

He came in with me on an interview. (I) didn't even want to see him. I think my car battery died that day so by the time I got in I was not really happy. And this guy pulls out his master's thesis on robots and I'm like, "Okay, I got a crazy! I don't know!" [Audience laughs] But his drive and enthusiasm and what he portrayed in an interview is what you want to do. Frankly, the worst thing you can say to some people who ask, "Why do you want to be in this company? Why do you want this position?" is, "Because I love kids." [Audience laughs] It's like, "Great! But we're in business, see? We wanna sell things to kids. I mean, not in a nasty way. [Audience laughs] Oh, okay. Maybe a little bit, but...[Audience laughs]

Safeway 10/23/85
Keep trying. Find out what they want. Have a backup plan. Go to other companies, too. Marketing experience is good. Even if you can't get into toys right away, get something that'll translate (like) kid's candy, (or) advertising. Maybe that's the most direct way, and make the most out of what you get when you get there. My first job was on bacon and hot dogs, which...I don't know. Then I walked into something else, so I was experienced.

Bob:
You actually have to understand for the corporations and the companies themselves, the whole direction, the whole point is the bottom line. They're looking for a profit so that they can be a successful company where it's not going to be temporary.

The difference at Hasbro at the time was I talked before about the passion that Alison brought and it's true. It became not just a product but it proved we had a passion. We got intimately involved with every product, and in turn every little detail. Not only the engineering, (but) the packaging. The packaging was critical as well. So there was that kind of spirit and passion behind everything we did at the time. That's what made this brand a long lasting brand.

Alison:
It's easier with toys, really, but if you can do it with whatever you work on...the guys that can make me go nuts about a Thermos, you know, (I'm) like, wow! This is where it begins. It's a win-win. You're doing it for everybody.

[Audience member question: The decision to separate Battle Beasts from Transformers as a line-do you remember those?]

Toys R Us 10/29/87
Alison:
Umm-Hmm. Go ahead...fire, wood, water, yeah.

[Audience member: Why did you separate the two lines? Did you make the decision?]

Alison:
It wasn't presented to us as part of the (line). We would go to Takara frequently and look at all of their products-girl's toys, anything they were developing. We were their first major collaboration. It was conceptually, so we were looking to see if they were any good.

I don't know how fully formed the idea of Battle Beasts was within the Transformers line. We thought it was not related. Bob came up with the concept of rock paper scissors and adding that to the Battle Beasts. They have a heat sensitive sticker like the Autobots and Decepticons but it would reveal one of three symbols-fire, wood, or water.

Bob:
Actually we were a little bit ahead of our time because (of) what you have today. Today the big thing of course is the card games that the kids play. In a sense it was trying to do a card game with a three dimensional object that was interesting to look at. And it was moderately successful at that time, but it really wasn't part of the Transformer line.

Alison:
It was-I remember a fun story. It was a great concept. They were collectible. Remember the decoys that we used? I think it was in the second or third year? It led to collectibles because those worked. That was kind of due to a concept called M.U.S.C.L.E. from Mattel. That's how we knew here's the collectible figures we'd do the Transformers way.

The Battle Beasts were what we did and we thought it was more like that-more novelty, more collectible. As far as a commercial there was an animation where water beats fire. Water puts out fire and they showed a big torrential downpour. We got a call from a consumer that her kid was playing with all these Battle Beasts in the water and all the labels washed off and ended up on the kid. She wanted to know if there were any toxics in them and if we hurt her child. We said no, just get more soap and water to get the glue off of him. [Audience laughs]

Sometimes we saw things from an American perspective. There's a difference between the Japanese perspective and the American perspective. So we just didn't see it as part of the Transfomers line, but we thought it'd be an idea and apply something else to make it different.

[Audience member question: I've got two questions. You mentioned the changes from Diaclone to Transformers and removing the drivers. What else was involved in making the line more appealing or conforming to safety regulations?]

Fiesta 10/20/84
Bob:
We had to re-engineer it to a certain extent, but the magic of the transformation itself was there. We also used different products interacting with the Diaclone line because when we develop a line, we look at price points and they really were just putting out a line of product-period-without any real thought to it. And what we wanted to do was have stuff at a very low price point so we had those little cassettes and we had Bumblebee...

Alison: The mini Autobots.

Bob:
..and then a medium sized price, and then a higher priced item. We came up with Optimus Prime at the top of the line as a matter of price point. So we look at it in terms of price point as well.

Alison:
Kind of an easy way to enter into a collection.

Bob:
We adjusted it, but the point is we saw the engineering and the development that Takara had done in trying to do transformations and they were sensational.

Alison:
But there was a certain amount of what with US safety regulations and because it was Hasbro-Hasbro wold often have higher safety regulations because they were a bigger target and they were becoming a bigger target. So they went the extra level to make sure in support and tension and small parts issues and things like that. I was reminded there were some spring loaded weapons at the time and that was removed because of a Hasbro policy as much as anything as well as safety issues. That was the primary reason. And then you know, product selection making the characters come out more.

[Audience member: My second question. I'm obviously from England. The '90-'93 line-I'm very familiar with it. It's brought up a lot of questions from the fans, especially around some of the Action Master figures. When you chose to continue the line in Europe, were the products previously designed by Takara or were they all new designs?]

Bob:
They were all new designs. We did that because we had a year's grace up front. We were able to do it in '90 to come out with it for '91 because we knew the US was not developing products in '90 and '91. So we were working a year and a half in advance all the time. So actually it was my group from England that flew out to Tokyo and we sat down with the Takara people and we designed a line based on price point and content at first. Then we had them develop a product that had the transformations that we were looking for. It was a collaborative operation that went back and forth where we got the product that was right for the marketplace.

The reason-I always would kid the guys back in the states when I was in England at the time-that they brought the line back is I think they were simply embarrassed that we were so successful after they were gonna drop the line. Because the company started getting on their back, and then they (the US team) feel-we'll pick this up.

[Audience member: There was such a bold transition between the movie and the actual line and series. Could you reflect on that? What were you thinking? What was going on in the market? Did it work or not?]

Alison:
It wasn't us! That, uhhh....

[Audience member: No, I liked it! I commend you for that.]

Bob:
The individual weekly shows were really designed to sell product. They were trying to create the excitement, trying to get the kids really involved. So if they looked at it as more than just a toy they really got involved with the product line themselves.

The movie was a concept that we figured-let's see if we can make some money in the movies. It was such an exciting thing that the line was so big. The agency ran with it. They got a lot of outside writers. They did not work with all of the Marvel people. They had a couple of Marvel people involved but I'm not sure everybody was there. And they developed an entire group that came to us on how they can write, or for advice on certain things (asking) "Could we do this? Can we do that?"

Alison: They didn't take the advice. [Audience laughs]

Service Merchandise 10/19/86
Alison:
It was a big..The movie became embarrassing to us like the My Little Pony movie. I'm not sure why Transformers the Movie was first because G.I. Joe was down the line and G.I. Joe got aborted. That was their plan, so...

Part of the crux of it was that the agency people from Griffin-Bacal and Sunbow were in the movie business. They were seperate from Marvel-Bob Budiansky and the team that developed the storyline. So they went off in a different direction.

They did an initial sketch of a character and we worked with Takara to try and make something that supported that, but because it was backwards from how they usually worked sometimes the transformations weren't as good. It wasn't as satisfying as the core product.

There were some issues within the company. The people that worked on the product line didn't appreciate the fact that they killed Optimus Prime. They thought it was wrong. It could have been a bold move. It could have been dramatic but it didn't have the same effect as what we thought at that point. [Audience laughs] It wasn't as satisfying for us.

And that year we had basically double the work because we had the regular line and then we had movie product, too. I mean, the movie was neat. There were neat elements about it...the visuals. It was more than we'd ever done but it wasn't as satisfying a product.

Bob:
For the agency-for the corporation it was a profit making operation. They felt that regardless of how the movie would do at the theaters, and if it didn't do that well, they still had all this film that they could break up into smaller segments. Then what they would do is give these segments to the various stations in an exchange (for) advertising time. So even though you couldn't actually see the profits, it was very profitable in the long run for the corporation.

Alison:
..and if it would have worked it would have been phenomenal.

[Audience question: I want to hear more about your collaborations with Takara in Japan. Tell us about some ideas they had that you didn't like.]

Bob:
They generally were directed making clay forms. They had some incredible engineers, some young men, a very young group and they were developing just exciting transformations. But some of their transformations did not turn into a satisfying final product. The transformations were okay, but the robots didn't look right or the vehicles didn't look quite right although the actual transformations were really magic.

Those were the things we rejected because we felt that we had to truly relate these to the different product. We wanted to make sure that there was a real personality for the product. If we couldn't see a way to develop a personality with a product, we'd have to let it go. Sometimes also the cost of it became the stipulator if we couldn't do it. You'd have to find a way to get a better price point.

Alison:
And working with them-Takara-was phenomenal. They were so responsive. On their own they'd develop things. You'd make a comment. We're there for a week at a time and in the morning you'd say something and in the afternoon there was some guy coming back into your room with 16 drawings of, "Well if you don't like this, how about this, this, and this?" So it was great to work with them. Some things you ran and some things you weren't interested in. They were dynamic.

They had a man named Yoki-san. He actually came and worked with us in the states for about six months one year. As a Takara (employee) he worked for Hasbro on other things. He worked there as an on-site exchange program. It was totally, yeah, (this) work style difference. (He was) trying to understand us. (He was) so respectful.

Bob:
He wanted the American viewpoint-the American attitude toward Japan.

Alison:
He was trying to understand us and why (or) what made us tick. I don't know if they could ever figure it out or if they did, but they were much more interested in trying to study us.

[Audience question: Why did the cartoon stop 3 years before the toyline and why were the '87-'90 Japanese lines were so different from the US?]

Alison:
So the first question would be why did the television show stop in '87?

[Audience member: That's right.]

Alison:
The money, the funds to put new shows in the next season and make it still viable for the syndication market weren't allocated to it, basically.

Bob:
The corporation's attention went elsewhere, basically. Also, attention started to wane anyway at the time. As I said, in 1990 they said they were not going to go on into 1991 with Transformers and they dropped the line.

I left the company around '88. I went over in '89 to Europe so I wasn't involved at that point in what their thinking was. I was only concerned there and then when I heard they were dropping the line.

Alison:
So it was frustrating to be on the brand and not have (that) lifeblood. We were taking advantage of what had gone on and helped it keep coming out and keep everything going, but without some fresh programming that would help it, it made it harder to finish it.

There was kind of a shift in what the culture was looking for. Right around then is when the turtles came out. With those things you want a humorous, much more wacky bent, and Transformers and G.I. Joe were more serious. So then we tried to evolve a little bit, but we couldn't.

I think the second question was why did the Japanese line vary so differently? Takara was just your (average) Japanese company-they won. It was frankly their choice-they took what they needed, what they believed they could apply to their market and they took our marketing and used it in Japan. They'd turn around and was just the way they did it. They saw what was successful for their market and they used it there and then they continued on. They had the right to do that there. We fed each other. It was a symbiotic relationship. The way you would be able to say, "We don't think that's going to work for the U.S. market, at least not on a mass scale," they said, "It's going to work in Japan. It will."

Bob:
And they could do certain things in Japan that we couldn't do. First of all, they could create fantasy on their commercials that was absolutely illegal in the United States. [Audience laughs] When you do a US commercial, it had to be real but in turn attain and create a fantasy attitude. But you have to understand that when you get down to it what you're seeing on TV is real and you can then go in the store and you can buy it and that's how it's going to function.

They (Takara) took stuff and what they did with their product line was impossible. They had their stuff actually flying without a kid holding it. They'd get away with it.

Alison:
It was a different culture, too. Kids played with toys longer to an older age in Japan. The books they had to support the fantasy went beyond what our market would accept. They did it right. You cater to your audience and they were able to.

[Audience question: Where did the Autobot and Decepticon sigils come from, where did the concept of the -masters lines from after '86 come from, and why weren't there girl figures?]

Lionel Playworld 12/13/87

Alison:
I think I got them all. So first question was where did the Autobot and Decepticon logos come from. [Looks to Bob] You got a take on it?

Bob:
Yes, well actually that was a collaboration between Marvel Comics, between Griffin-Bacal and between my marketing group in the very first year, which was a very small group because it was introducing the original product. We worked in terms of packaging that would work, in terms of the look that would appeal to the kids. We did a lot of research on that. We were always trying to find out what would work. These were simply a decision that me and my marketing group took and thought it worked. Then Alison came on board and then it all goes dynamite. She really did good.

Alison:
Yeah, he was really convinced. [Audience laughter]

One of the other questions was where did the -masters series come from? Headmasters, Targetmasters? We were kind of wondering what's the next step? Brainstorming. Can we bring back those little people that we tossed out from the first year? I had said that's probably too risky. There were safety issues with them, but it was the idea of how do we (advance the line)? What's the next step? And I just wanted to bring something back that had some merit. But if we could figure it out, then they (Takara) could figure it out. How do we put it (the pilot concept) into the product? The idea being able to plug them in and having their tech specs show up in the chest of the robot-there was some interaction between the characters and the kids brought it to life. It seemed like a good thing coming from the packages that we did periodically. That was one of the hot buttons. So we had this that worked and (combined) how you were playing into of all of the price points.

Bob:
All of the product didn't come from Takara by the way. I was going to Hong Kong, and you'd go into a Hong Kong Toyfair and you have every knockoff guy in the world, every tiny little manufacturer trying to knockoff the Transformers. Occasionally there'd be a product that some little guy would come out with that was terrific. There was a gun, a weapon was functional as a water pistol and whatnot. There was one that just functioned as a great looking gun that looked terrific and turned into a great robot. Well we took these little guys and said, "Hey, wait a second. Don't try and distribute, don't try and move it, we'll move it into the Transformer line," and we'd make deals with them and move it that way. Any product that really looked good that was exciting we didn't care where it came from. We did some work with Bandai, who had been working with other people, and took a few products that looked right for our line.

12-n-Under 12/12/85
Alison:
Here's what the idea was when you're working with Japanese culture-it's to keep your enemies close. Bandai was doing the GoBots line, so we had an in with them. They didn't know what we were doing, but we had some way to get into them. George Dunsay was a part of them and he was in Japan a lot working, finding himself where he could get on many product levels, not just Transformers, with a lot of things.

I'm sorry, what was the third question? You had a third..

[Audience member: Why wasn't Arcee made?]

Alison:
Despite all of my efforts I could not sell the idea that girls would sell in our line.

Bob:
It's terrific that I look over this crowd and about 30 to 40 percent are female here, but...

Alison:
Yeah, I told them I was just the tip of the iceberg, girls. But (it was) because there were a couple of female figures in G.I. Joe that just didn't pull their weight in their program. Sometimes management gets a bug up their butt and they say, "Nope, not gonna go."

Bob:
And it hooks on if anybody would buy it, so..

Alison:
They just didn't think the audience was big enough, and frankly the collector's audience hadn't grown as much or gotten as much appreciation at that point. So we probably could have gotten them on that angle but it wouldn't have the big revolutionary size at the time.

[Audience question: What was your biggest disappointment after working on the line?]

Bob:
My greatest disappointment was when I got promoted to senior vice president in charge of international marketing. I was no longer involved with the line per se. Plus just knowing what was going on in the US-I got shown the records as this all happened-because of that, when the US dropped it, of course I got very excited and I got a payoff from line to line.

Alison:
My biggest disappointment was not being able to come up with the spark that would without programming-without the product plug-that would let us continue it. We had the responsibility to G.I. Joe and other things in the line at that point in the end, and the company had shifted priorities with us, too, so it was frustrating. I poured a good part of my career and passion into the brand. (I was) excited about working on new products and new opportunities that were related to it but I couldn't come up with it and the team I left working on it couldn't. And it was working against what was wanted, so you got as much as you could. But the fact that the concept itself-the core concept-was so strong and you're all here proving that it could come back again. It may be even more successful than the first time around.

[Audience question: What college courses do you recommend an aspiring toy designer should take? I know you're in marketing, but...]

Alison:
Oh, no, we're very flexible.

Bob:
I'll tell you. I think first of all you have to take care of your engineering.

Alison:
You know what, honestly? I'll tell you back in the dark ages when I was there-industrial design was an excellent start into it, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of computer aided design would be a great in for toy designers now. Sculpture-(there's) so many avenues they get into and they pull from a wide variety of resources. You know there's sculptors in there, people with good ideas, people with brainstorming (ability).

Bob:
I don't think you can learn from college-we promote college graduates and college students, but how to be a product developer-that's something that comes from within you. You have to just be a tinkerer and you have to be somebody who wants to create new things, doesn't matter what it is.

Alison:
But as with anything, you can learn elements that can help you.

Bob:
You need to know design elements, you have to know art elements, you have to know engineering elements, and put these things all together to help you do it.

Alison:
Then do whatever you want to do.

Bob:
Tell 'em you're a friend of me!

[Audience question: How did you decide which toys would be good or evil? And why'd you stop with realistic vehicles in '86 and beyond?]

Bob:
You gotta understand, the auto industry itself just wasn't coming up with new cars. [Audience laughs] We'd end up getting little adaptations of the Altima! And the idea of how it originally started-the biggest problem I had relative to Diaclone itself is why would a robot be an automobile? That's what the discussions with Budiansky and the agency-that dilemma-were about. That's where we decided we were gonna have good guys and bad guys, that's where we decided there's gotta be a reason for it.

Sears 11/17/85


So we developed a storyline. A storyline of how they got to earth, and how when they finally woke up they sent out the spies and they looked and they saw-these robots saw-metallic creatures. They figured they were the characters-they were the people of this particular planet. So they came back and their scientists had them-so they could be in disguise-disguised as the individual characters of earth, which they thought were the automobiles and the trucks and stuff like that. So we tied in good with something that kids could actually understand. (They'd think) "Oh yeah, that's a good reason you've got a product that was a robot, why you've got a vehicle that's a robot."

Eventually though, you run out of local designs from US automakers because they just weren't building (new makes and models) the majority of the time.

Alison:
And you wanted to have variety. When you're transforming, there's only so many ways you can turn into a car, so the idea of pushing it beyond was something Takara and we felt gave the line variety. When you expand to over 300 products you're going to get a little bit repetitious in some areas and you're going to try different things to see if they work. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Expanding the line into animals, into dinosaurs, into...what else can we transform to make sense with the characters, the storyline, to make sense with what the kids would like?

I think one of your questions was how was it decided that cars were Autobots and planes were Decepticons?

Bob:
Well actually that was simple. It was simply a matter of balancing the line. You had good guys and you had bad guys and you wanted to choose so kids would want to have everything. [Audience laughs] So what you did is you simply tried to bring balance to the line in a weekly purchasing formula. So you couldn't have everything overly weighted on one side or the other side. We tried to do a mix that made sense in terms of storyline as well as in terms of product.

[Audience question: Are you still involved with the product right now?]

Bob:
No, unfortunately-or fortunately-I've been retired now for two years. I spend my time swimming, traveling, and I sculpt. So I'm not involved in the line except I like to know the product and I still have stock in the company and I've had concerns. [Audience laughs]

Alison:
I'm no longer with it. I left in 1992 and even though I still have some people that are still there, we've got the 'Hasbeens' as we call ourselves-people that have left Hasbro. I'm not involved in toys anymore. I left the toy division about a year ago and went into-I now work for a company called Lava World. I'm vice president of marketing for lava lamps. I think it's got a nice parity with what I was doing before. [audience laughs]

[Audience member: I'm 29 now and I know that's scary..]

Alison:
Oh, believe me..what's scary is I sold toys to you! [audience laughs]

[Audience member: Thanks for everything.]

Alison:
Oh, well thank you! [audience applauds]

Bob:
For a number of years right now, if you walk into my office at home, on half of the wall there are Transformers pictures and the other half are G.I. Joe. I have a split personality because I was also responsible for G.I. Joe. They were two major successes.

Alison:
Thank you-it's nice to hear that. It should be totally understood that when you go into many situations that it was more than one person. It was more than Vincent D'Alleva or myself, Takara, you know...it was Camelot. It was the emergence of all those things coming together. Things came together. When somebody was stuck somebody else would continue it. It was a dynamic working out (where) everybody else made everybody else's ideas better.

Bob:
They would even cross over. Originally we had a G.I. Joe team and a Transformers team. When somebody from Transformers got stuck the guy from G.I. Joe would help. It would go back and forth. It was a brilliant total department. It was really very gratifying.

[Audience question: What happens to the molds when you're done making the toys?]

Bob: I really don't know.

Alison:
We wore some of them out. In the first two years we had to go back in and make new molds because after a million pieces, it's rare sometimes, but you can actually wear a mold out.

Bob:
They told me about how it was a monster plant. We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of product that was sold in a very short period of time.

Alison:
Theoretically, though, because it was a corporate event, a corporate happening, those tools are cataloged in a warehouse someplace in China or Japan or whatever and they're assets of the company. Their value may be written off, but they still have them.

One of the things you've noticed is sometimes with this market you get to bring things back in their original form. So they may be retired, but then brought back in a special edition. One of the greatest things we ever did on G.I. Joe was come back with a line called Tiger Force which started as using existing tooling that wasn't lost. The 'lost molds' theory-I've never heard that one. They'd call us and they'd come back out.

[Audience question: Hasbro/Takara has to retool some of the molds so they can be released again legally like shortening the stacks on Optimus Prime. Is it possible to release something that's not for kids instead it's a collector's thing, it's an adult only thing?]

K-Mart 11/26/89
Bob:
Yes, it's possible. (It) depends. Every once in a while they'd do a special sort of prize for one of the retailers, but we're not involved with that-it's all handled through the company. So I'm not quite sure what the policy is at the company (now). In the past it was taken out of individual product and redone, say for a time it was a special, and they would handle it as a collector's item only. It was done that way for G.I. Joe and the Transformers as their (the retailer's) usual item. We'd make minor changes to a paint job, change the name, change the attitude.

Alison:
It just wasn't safe for a style if it didn't meet the safety standards, though. Even if you said it was for an adult collector but still marketed it through child's marketing? You couldn't do that. If you could do that, you'd get in trouble for doing that. [Audience laughs] So they wouldn't do it, they're not that kind of a business, they're looking for it to sell things.

[Audience question: Could you offer us specifics on the thought process behind bringing the Macross Valkyrie into the Transformer line as Jetfire. Were you involved with that?]

Bob and Alison: Uhm..no.

[Audience question: Did you have exclusive merchandise that came out for employees only?]

Bob:
No, although there was merchandise done just for particular conventions at that time. Like I said there were individual specials that were done for individual retailers-Toys R Us, Target, and stuff like that. But there was nothing-nobody could take a tool and develop something generating an item.

Karl Hartman:
Let's take just two more questions. We need to end the panel at about 4:30 so they have time to sign some things and make sure we stay relatively on time.

[Audience question: Where'd you get the combiners idea?]

Alison: I don't remember the combiners-when were they?

[Audience member: They were the Constructicons, the...]

Gold Circle 11/27/85
Alison:
Oh yeah!, Oh, okay! [Audience laughs]
Huh? [Alison laughs]
Aerialbots and all the big team concept? The first one was the Constructicons, they made Devastator. That started out as a Takara idea. They were taking puzzles to new levels. It also was influenced by-there was a product on the market at that time called Voltron that combined into a giant super (robot). So there were many elements that kind of led into...

Bob:
It was bringing a price point. It was something could be advertised well and played in at a great price point. It had some good value there.

Alison:
It stimulated collectibility. You wanted to collect all six to get the right one. So that was successful, and doing one thing was so successful that you repeat it in other areas and give them more.

[Audience member: I thought it was rather interesting you said the movie was somewhat disappointing to you.]

Alison:
Ah-ah! That was me personally. [

[Audience member: What was your reaction when you heard Spike say 'shit' for the first time?]

Alison:
Oh, god. [audience laughs]

Bob:
I was....for it.

Alison: He wants reality!

Bob:
Yeah, in fact, I'll tell you. We also at the same time had been doing the G.I. Joe movie and we were gonna have Zarana come out nude in one of the scenes.

Alison:
In his fantasy. [Audience laughs]

Bob:
Actually, I was with the agency. The agency wanted to do it, and I was with them on it, because we really wanted to get away from the G rating and have a PG rating instead. Basically that was it. We'd sell more movies and have a better time slot if we had a PG rather than a G rating and that's what that's all about.

Alison:
It was marketing for the widest..

Bob:
Selling movies, that's all.

Alison:
It appealed to a teen audience. [rolls eyes] [Audience laughs]

Karl:
I think with that we're going to have to wrap it up. Ladies and gentlemen, please thank Bob and Alison. [Audience applauds]

7 comments:

B-W said...

I remember that convention (last time BotCon was here in Pasadena!). Thanks for posting the updated transcript!

Evil King Macrocranios said...

I remember meeting you there briefly and thinking, man, Mark is TALL!

Benjamin Meyer said...

Fantastic bits of Transformer lore!

Benjamin Meyer said...

BTW: that might be an interesting repaint for Cyclonus .

Professor Prupis said...

Bob Prupis is my dad, so it was really cool reading the transcript and the comments.
When my brothers and I were little, my dad owned a bar in the village (if you have to ask which village .....). After a career change he worked for Drug Fair and Two Guys. Just when I graduated college (when the bar in the village would have been perfect!), my dad went to Hasbro.
My nieces and nephews and my own kids were raised on GI Joe, Transformers and My Pretty Pony, as well as Cabbage Patch Babies. Let's say that Barbie's weren't welcome.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Wow! Well thank you Professor for commenting here What a wonderful childhood you must have had with one of the biggest Transformers fans ever for a dad.

And yeah, Benjamin, that four color Cyclonus would look pretty cool! It would be something else if Hasbro would do comic faithful recolors for the deluxe figures in the Classics line as they have done for the comic pack Star Wars and GI Joe sublines.

Sean said...

Thanks for sharing this transcript. Awesome stuff.

 

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