Monday, April 26, 2010

THE RETURN OF 25 YEARS AGO IN TRANSFORMERS: The 1985 Hasbro Toy Catalog part 1! OR: The road to Hell is paved with good Insecticons

I do oftentimes lament the current state of the toy robots scene and feel bad for the children growing up in my country where they can buy any toy robot they want as long as its a Transformer. When I was a kid there were many different toy robot lines with all sorts of varied themes in a slew of different sizes, shapes and colors. Now I do appreciate how Hasbro today is doing a great job of introducing a multitude of different kinds of varied toy robot designs, but my idea of toy robot diversity isn't being able to choose from multiple iterations of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron or any of the other half dozen color schemes they call characters. So the question arises-how did it get like this? How did we go from a country of stores with shelves full of GoBots, GoDaiKin, Kronoform, Transformers, Voltrons, Zoids, Robotech and Robo Force to multiple generations of children living homogenized Hasbro childhoods where the only choice is what kind of big red truck is Optimus Prime turning into this year? I'll tell you whose fault it is-his name is 1985!


If I were to take one year, one lineup of toy robots and present it as possibly the greatest of all time-if a really pissed off angry Jesus were to come down to earth and stand in judgment of mankind and ask me for one reason, one thing that proves humanity has made the most of its time on earth-I would proudly hold up to the heavens the Transformers lineup from 1985. These were the toy robots united under Hasbro's banner that destroyed all other toy robot competition, setting the unrivaled standard for several generations of how great toy robots in America could be, etching forever into the pop culture consciousness the defining characters of the Transformers mythos and ultimately setting the stage for Hasbro's domination of the global toy robot market in the future. The Transformers that came out in 1985 were perhaps the greatest toys of all time, which is why even if I feel like Transformers has been blogged to death it is my duty to do a page by page look at the Transformers pages of the 1985 Hasbro toy catalog. It is the line that birthed many a roboplastic historian and it deserves great tribute, even if it is the dawning of the roboplastic apocalypse and its success ultimately led to a) the eradication of toy robot consumer choices in America and b) that time Bumblebee peed on that guy.


Unlike the pages that opened the Transformer section of the 1984 Hasbro catalog, no artistically rendered airbrushed battle scene art was used to introduce the Transformers section for 1985 (see below). Instead, a diorama of various actual Autobot and Decepticon toys are shown posed amidst a simulated volcanic backdrop. I guess the inference here is that these toys are hot? The volcanic background theme carries on throughout the rest of the pages and is in marked contrast to the grid pattern motif established in the '84 catalog and echoed on the toys' packages. Even the 1985 pack-in catalog used the organic backdrops but in subsequent years the pack-in books would go back to neutral or non-existent backgrounds with the toys seemingly floating in space next to their descriptions. The Toy Fair catalogs would continue to use organic or diorama backdrops for the Transformer photoshoots but this would be the last year that the Transformer section opened up with an introductory two page spread like this. And now let's look at the four paragraphs Hasbro used to entice toy buyers at the wholesale level to carry their toy robot product:

The Transformers! More Than Meets The Eye
Ages: 5 & Up

The Transformers-incredibly powerful, "living" robots from a far away planet-continue their search for life-giving fuel and energy here on Earth. Evil Decepticons and heroic Autobots fight for control by transforming their bodies into vehicles, creatures, weapons and more!

I think a big part of The Transformers' success was the way Hasbro explained the concept to toy buyers at the wholesale level in their toy catalogs. I've seen a couple toy fair catalogs from the 80s and I've noticed that oftentimes the manufacturers would spend so much effort explaining what their action figures did that there was not much space dedicated to explaining the positioning and concept of the line. Hasbro's reiteration of the Transformer story right off the bat is a brilliant marketing stroke that left toy buyers with the impression that it was a more complete, well thought out franchise than other robot lines out there. Even if retail chain representatives didn't quite understand what the heck a Decepticon was in the first place, they could at least be confident Hasbro had it figured out.

Number 1 in America
Since their introduction in 1984, The Transformers have developed into the leading boy's toy robot-action concept and license. The theme involves evil Decepticons planning to drain Earth of all her precious energy sources while the heroic Autobots strive to defend the planet. The 1985 line extensions feature exciting additions including new vehicles, planes, dinosaurs, insects, a microscope and a radio. All transform into robots and back again.

Montgomery Ward 11/13/86
Here's another reason I love Hasbro marketing. Stating that they were number one in toy robots in 1984 is a brilliant spin on their sales numbers. In terms of wholesale orders Transformers still fell behind GI Joe, Masters of the Universe and Cabbage Patch Kids in '84. Even if you narrow down the competition to just boys' action figure lines they're still no better than third place. But skew the perspective so that the competition is only other robot action figure lines then they were at the head of their class. Even then that was only in terms of millions of dollars (which is all that mattered anyways I guess). Tonka sold more GoBots figures in '84 than Transformers but since they were cheaper per unit they didn't come close to Hasbro's sales. It's like Ideal saying Robo Force were the best selling robots with accordion arms and suction cup butts. You know that joke about coming in first at the Special Olympics? It applies here.

A Unique Line With Distinct Advantages
The Transformers combine the play value of three toys in one: durability of die cast vehicles, the fantasy of extra-terrestrial robots and the intrigue of puzzles. In 1985, each character includes a "secret" liquid crystal labels to identify them as true Transformers. Individual personalities and Tech Spec ratings for each character encourage collectability of the entire line. Kids also save Robot Points from each package for special Transformers premiums.

They somewhat stretch the truth here again. While there was a lot of die cast in the line, the robots were hardly durable. I was always breaking my Transformers mostly because the plastic parts like car windshields and jet tailfins were very fragile. I'll give them credit for the alien robot fantasy and the puzzle angles. Die cast alien robot puzzles could also be used to pimp GoBots, though, so it was with their next few product features that Hasbro really differentiated themselves from every other transforming robot line of the day. The rub signs, Tech Specs and Robot Points truly made a toy robot a Transformer. It's like how naked slutty bimbos are a dime a dozen in trashy porn magazines but give her Tech Specs and all of a sudden she's a classy centerfold in Playboy magazine. This was essentially what Transformers did for me as a kid. Hasbro transformed me from just another 10 year old nerd playing with toy robots to the Hugh Hefner of toy robot Volkswagens. And the Transformer lifestyle was very much like that of a millionaire porn publishing magnate-I walked around in my pajamas all day with my playmates. I guess the only difference between a boy and a man is which side of your underwear you keep your Dinobots.

Advertising and Promotional Support
The Transformers are supported by a multi-million dollar advertising campaign which features special computer-generated effects. The Transformers' four-issue limited series comic book was so popular Marvel plans to continue the series. Kids can enjoy a weekly animated TV series and will look forward to two upcoming mini series. The fall of 1985 brings a daily after-school Transformers' TV show.
The Transformers' 1985 advertising campaign was a legendary onslaught unlike anything I've seen. Transformers were everywhere-television, magazines, commercials, celebrity endorsements, comics and a million other places and there wasn't even a movie like nowadays. The final paragraph of the Toy Fair intro is a bit of an enigma, though. I don't remember any overtly computer generated special effects during the 1985 Transformer advertising campaign so I'm not sure what they were talking about. And the bit about "two upcoming mini series" has me really stumped. It sounds like they planned something along the lines of the G.I. Joe cartoons with the five part standalone miniseries (like how Five Faces of Darkness opened up Transformers season 3) but instead they went headlong into season 2 with a bunch of unrelated episodes. It sounds like two miniseries were planned at some point before season 2 went daily in syndication but I may be misinterpreting things. So a lot of what was meant in this last paragraph is real big mystery to me.


I was at TRU the other day when I came across Hasbro's reissues of the Insecticons and Perceptor and it got me thinking about Transformers 1985 again. I was wondering what could possibly be said or written about this line that hasn't already, but this is such a big birthday and I wanted to commemorate it. Ironically these robots who have been written about to death are going to end up uncelebrated on this the 25th anniversary of their finest moment, their greatest year. I guess that's why I'm doing this retrospective. '85 remains my favorite robot year and Transformers is a big part of that. Although the big 25th anniversary Transformers celebration took place last year, this is the year that I think there's really something to celebrate. It is the 25th anniversary of the toy robot lineup that cemented the Autobots and Decepticons in pop culture history. Although there's really nothing earth-shattering or interesting in this Hasbro catalog that's noteworthy to hardcore robot fans and there are no previously unknown prototypes or anything that would make these pages newsworthy additions to the toy robots wikipedia articles, it is Transformers and it is the 25th anniversary of 1985. That alone is enough. It's really just wild speculation on my part that without 1985 there may not have been Michael Bay Transformer movies today, but I can guarantee without 1985 there would be no Roboplastic Apocalypse. So let the celebration begin!


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