Friday, July 24, 2009

25 Years Ago in Transformers Part 7: The 1984 Hasbro Toy Catalog (but actually just pages 64 and 65)

The words "1984" and "Hasbro" and "toy" and "catalog" are pretty awesome separately but to put them together is to name one of the Holy Texts of Roboplasticology. There are several of these tomes in existence-sacred books published annually during the Toy Robots Wars of the 1980s, but the 1984 edition from Hasbro is the Alpha and Omega Supreme of them all. For to gaze upon the 1984 Hasbro Toy Catalog is to witness the birth of all things Cybertronian (and also to know the terrible, fiery embrace of Glo-Worm). These books were not meant for perusal of mere mortal eyes-they were made by Hasbro so that wholesale level toy buyers could decide where their toy budgets were to be spent. And therein lies the reason these sacred pages are among the most beautifully crafted marketing publications in existence. The Transformer related material within wasn't just a clone of the blandly composed fold out flyer catalog packed in with boxed Transformers that year. No, Hasbro knew that if you got one of those it meant you already paid your ten bucks and bought in to the roboplastic fantasy. The 1984 toy catalog's purpose was to sell the concept to a much tougher audience-toy dealers with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend. These buyers had to be dazzled and amazed so that Transformers could even make it to the shelves in the first place. Hasbro's marketing presentation had to be up to the task, and a bunch of tiny pictures of toy robots on a solid color background wasn't going to do the trick. It had to be big and bold. It had to be more than met your consumer level eye because it had bigger eyes to meet!


Indeed the contents of old 80s toy manufacturer catalogs are revered and shrouded in mystery because as industry trade publications they're quite rare and hard to find. It is not unusual when they pop up on ebay for them to fetch hundreds of dollars. Hell, I paid $15 once for just two pages of the 1985 Mattel toy catalog so that I could get pictures of the unproduced Mighty Orbots toy. When Hasbro catalogs pop up they are very rarely from the early years of the Transformer line and when they are, sellers expect to get hundreds of dollars for them. So imagine my surprise a couple months back when I scored the 1984 toy catalog for only 45 bucks! As the Indiana Jones of toy robots archaeology I was ecstatic. Maybe I'm overstating the value and rarity of this artifact but I was expecting to have to travel to the far off land of Rhode Island and break into the house of some old retired toy executive and steal his copy, replacing it with a bag of sand and dodging his giant rolling boulder security system as I made my getaway. I wonder how the real Indiana Jones would feel today if all he had to do was wait for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail to pop up on eBay with a decent Buy-It-Now.


I really admire certain webpages made by Jem fans and Care Bears fans that have exhaustive online collections of pages from dealer toy catalogs relevant to those toylines. I've always wanted to see or do something like that for Transformers but I don't have the resources to pay hundreds of dollars or spend every waking hour on eBay to get the seven holy G1 Hasbro catalogs when they pop up. Plus (and most importantly) I am lazy. But this being the 25th anniversary of my favorite talking robot Lamborghinis and their transforming Volkswagen cohorts I can do no less as a fan of grainy pictures of toy robots than take some low resolution pictures of a couple of pages from the '84 Hasbro catalog and call it a blog.

The Transformers portion starts with a two page splash on pages 64 and 65 featuring that now classic 1984 battle scene that everyone's seen a million times before-or have they? The version here is a variant where the Autobot and Decepticon logos are missing from the individual robots. Those sigils would be added eventually on the toy packaging and most other places this promotional art was later used. It's strange because even the ads Hasbro ran in trade publications as early as February of '84 had the completed art. I've only seen this scene with a lack of logos once elsewhere and it's on an item that actually made it to retail. The "Attack of the Decepticons" LP record sleeve featured a mirrored version of this factionless art. Why exactly these versions exist without the faction symbols on the robots is unknown to me. My guess is that the Transformer portions of this catalog were rushed into production before all the specifics of the marketing were ironed out. It's not unusual for things like that to happen in manufacturer catalogs and part of the allure of these books is seeing product concepts and ideas in their earlier stages. But why the factionless art on the record sleeve exists is a bit confusing. Hey I never said the roboplastic apocalypse was going to make sense.

Let's check out the text that started it all...

Prepare for out-of-this-world sales excitement!

Imagine strange metallic beings from a war-torn planet able to transform their bodies into awesome weapons. Imagine that these aliens have landed on Earth and continue their battle here. Imagine Heroic Autobots and Evil Decepticons. Imagine The Transformers!

Imagine reading this for the first time in 1984! Imagine a world where nobody had ever heard of Autobots or Decepticons! This first paragraph establishes the basic and enduring premise of the Transformer mythology-a premise the Michael Bay movies so elegantly distilled to "Their War/Our World". It's interesting that the Transformers' home planet isn't named outright but I don't know why that is. Maybe all the names hadn't been established by the time this catalog went to press. Or maybe given that the audience was toy dealers, Hasbro may not have wanted to get too technical too early? If you mention Cybertron maybe the buyers would expect to see one later in the catalog?

The Transformers are incredibly powerful and intelligent robots-controlled by logic centers and microchips-who can convert themselves into mechanical creatures. Autobots and Decepticons transform into sports cars, trucks, planes, guns and more-then back to robots again!

Now 25 years later it's amusing to see the intention was that the robots be these incredibly intelligent beings because Transformers has given us some of the biggest robot idiots of all time. The statement that they're robots that turn into mechanical "creatures" instead of "vehicles" or "devices" or "vehicles and devices" is also interesting. It implies that the alternate mode is the creature. But when I think about it how else could I describe a talking Porsche?

Advertising and promotion

The Transformers are backed by a powerful multi-million dollar TV and print media campaign.
An action-packed comic book series from Marvel will hit the stands this spring.
Major licensing activity is planned for 1984.

While I think much of the credit goes to the fantastic design of the toys and the way they were marketed as alien sports cars from space, licensing and promotion were a big part of the success of the Transformers. Although GoBots had a nearly six month head start on the shelves, the amount of money Hasbro spent on advertising the Transformers won many retailers over. In the March 19, 1984 edition of Discount Store News one toy buyer for discount store chain Clover said he thought Transformers would beat GoBots in popularity based on the amount of money Hasbro was spending on advertising in 1984. I haven't been able to find solid figures but I do remember one newspaper article that said Tonka put 8 million into Gobots ads and promotion in '84 so that would put Hasbro's Transformers ad budget at somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 million dollars that first year.

"Robot Points" printed on each Transformer package will encourage kids to collect the entire line. They'll save these special points, then send them in for exciting and exclusive premium offers.

Ah, the beginnings of the Robot Point based economy. Those early days were good before the big Robot Point recession of 1988 when millions of kids' life savings in Robot Points became worthless overnight due to excessive Robot Point inflation.

Each Transformer comes with a bio card and a Tech Specs chart, which rates its strength, speed, skill, etc. Kids can decipher the specs using the special decoder found inside Transformer packages!

And now this post ends with an homage to the tech specs decoder entitled
"I Wish I was not Still a Nerd of Ten"

Tech Spec Decoder, red plastic emoter of aspects of toy robot degree
Just red cellophane but to me in the fourth grade, marvelous modern technology

Held up to the package, revealed in frenzied red line a message-
the scale of toy robot relativity
Within decoded squiggly line you helped me to finally define
how much robot my mom got me for eight dollars and ninety nine

Were you a product of M.I.T. or the Roswell UFO recovery?
Like Leo Da Vinci, you helped me to see the secrets of the Budiansky code
Told me things I'm not meant to know, special secrets from Hasbro
washed my brain in your red glow until I'd know what only Teletrans know

You are the greatest invention, even if your original intention
was just to show me Starscream's rank was five
I love looking through your crimson the world's different within robovision
I will tape you to my head to see through you all the time

If I were king of the world I'd hand every boy and girl
a Tech Spec Decoder and make everything okay
There would be no war or famine with tech spec decoders we'd examine
where mankind went so horribly astray

Oh say I can't see so Tech Spec Decoder talk to me
Tell me what's wrong from what's right
Let me see the truth, tell me what's the use of life
but mostly what lotto numbers to choose tonight

Tech Spec Decoder, red plastic emoter of aspects of toy robot degree
Just red cellophane but you take away the pain when life starts getting to me

Tech Spec Decoder I still keep you in a folder
Because there's one last thing I'll be needing you for
When the time comes for my demise
I will put a Tech Spec Decoder to my eyes
and breath my last breath in 1984


Benjamin Meyer said...

The Care bear website it my wife's :) She has collected various holiday catalogs from stores (sears etc) that have Transformer sections. Would you be interested in scans of those?

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Most definitely. Does she have a Flickr account she could put them in? If you guys ever attempt an ambitious undertaking like scanning all the books you have Flickr would be a good place to put them. I'm collecting links to various catalog scans I've found on the internet. From what I've seen Flickr's format is best for doing an archive like that without having to make a webpage from scratch for it.

fairplaythings said...

I too have a great love and admiration for yee old toy catalogs of our youth, and a strong collection to boot. This includes an uninterrupted run of Hasbro catalogs from 1987 to 1996, including preshow catalogues for 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1996.

I also have a fair number of Playmates, Mattel, Kenner and LNJ from 1985, year of the (Thunder)cat. I continue to hunt for more.

I am deep admiration and envy over your acquisition of what can only be the holy grail of catalogs, and offer you much praise and glory on your find and score. It would be nice to put up a collection of catalog pics centrally, and it's something I've been toying with for some time on my site. The trouble of course is scanning the catalogs in a way that does not destroy them (as they have troublesome glue binding). If you have some thoughts, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

I'd be certainly interested in chatting with you more on this. I regret to say that I saw you at Botcon 2009 this year but didn't have the opportunity during the panel (G1 writers) to say hello. I have a lot of old Transformers adverts from my youth (although not detailed as to their source material) and scans of them to share with you and your site can probably be facilitated.

In any case, please drop me a line. Cheers!

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Your collection of Toy Fair catalogs is awesome! Honestly I could be happy with just the two catalogs I have and maybe 1986. Beyond that I don't know that I'd appreciate them as much.

The catalog archive idea would be great to see but it'll be a better guy than me that does it. I don't mean better at winning auctions or collecting the books or writing HTML, I mean better at staying on topic. I can't even post two pages of from the '84 book without going on about Indiana Jones and writing love poems to tech spec decoders.

It always seems like there's never enough time at Botcon to talk to anyone in depth or as much as I'd like, too.


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