Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How to make friends and write a 1970s newspaper ad for 2 foot tall toy robots (or die trying)

I've added about a dozen new* Shogun Warriors ads to their section of the Vintage Space Toaster Palace so it's time to look at some highlights and reflect a bit on some thoughts I've had about the marketing of the line. According to me Mattel's Shogun Warriors is one of the first two historically significant robot themed toylines of the modern roboplastical era, the other being Mego's Micronauts. Both were imported Japanese toy concepts but the similarities end there. While Micronauts emphasized their "micro" sized fantasy world, everything about the Shogun Warriors was big big big. They were portrayed in comics as giant robots and the toys were nearly two feet tall. There were also some big ideas in how the line was sold. Shogun Warriors pioneered the marketing of the same robot characters at different sizes and price points, which has only recently become common practice for Transformers today. In many ways Shogun Warriors was the template for how to manufacture and market a successful sci-fi toy robot line. I believe it would have gone on to further success were it not for Star Wars and the resultant decline in the popularity of toy robots that were not droids. I also believe GI Joe is a government subsidized mind control program used to recruit kids into the military. But that's just according to me.

FedMart 10/11/77
Also according to me, the first newspaper ads for Shogun Warriors began popping up in 1977. Most all the ads I've found from that year were for the 20 inch robots, not the smaller die cast figures and vehicles or Halloween costumes and related merchandising, advertising for which began showing up em masse in 1978 and later. It was the 20 inch robots that dominated the newspaper circulars for the majority of the line's run. The most notable thing about ads for the 20 inch robots is that from '77 to '79 almost every ad from every store quoted verbatim from the same set of talking points. From grocery stores to department stores, every ad had only slight variations in their descriptive ad text. I suspect Mattel furnished their retail clients with a master list of ad copy and the individual stores printed as much of it as possible depending on how much space they had allotted in their ad.

True Value 11/21/77
This True Value ad from 1977 could possibly be the most unedited presentation of all the Mattel talking points. Every ad for the big Shogun Warriors I've ever seen uses at least some of these product descriptions or slight variations of this wording. This ad is unique in that it also uses an "As seen on TV" blurb and I'm not sure what that refers to beyond maybe commercials. What was smart on Mattel's part was the lengthy descriptions applied to the whole line and not just individual robots, so any portions of it could be mixed and matched with any photo or line art of any of the robots and the text would still be applicable. This made the ad copy extremely versatile but not very informative about the specific figures. Occasionally I've come across ads with short writeups about what accessories the individual robots came with but that's it. This feature-focused approach contrasts sharply with some early Transformers ads that read like Playmate of the Month profiles telling the reader how the robot feels about his job and what his turn ons and turn offs were.

Skaggs Alpha Beta 11/23/78

As with many toylines, the chronology of character appearances in the ads gives some insight into how the product line unfolded. The ads from '77 featured Mazinga, Dragun and Raydeen and referred to the Shogun Warriors line as "three space age Samurai defenders". Then Gaiking (the guy with a big skull for a chest) started showing up during 1978 and the text in some ads changed appropriately to "four space age Samurai defenders". Godzilla also started showing up in newspaper and television ads beginning in 1978 and Daimos only appears in ads from 1979. (Dragun becomes less common in ads after 1978 so I wonder if he was replaced in the assortment by Daimos.) Godzilla is interesting because he's oftentimes featured alone without mention of being part of Shogun Warriors, but if any other Shogun Warrior figure is depicted alone it's always in an ad about the whole line. In fact I haven't found an ad from '79 that refers to any of the jumbos by their own name except for Godzilla. Godzilla's insistence on top billing and pursuit of a solo career is generally accepted as the main reason the band broke up.

Gibson's 12/17/79
Aside from being one of the first and literally biggest toy robots lines ever, Shogun Warriors was also unique for being the only robot toyline I've seen that so blatantly used its Japanese origins as a selling point. The inclusion of iconic Japanese super rockstar monster Godzilla in a toyline that was 99% robots seemed an odd choice unless they were really trying to emphasize how Japanese this line was. Then there was Japanese writing on lots of the toys and Mattel really beat people over the head by using terms like "Shogun" and "Samurai". Although they sound good, those concepts don't translate well within the context of giant robots if you think about it. But I guess that's just me taking things too serious. This was simply Mattel marketing a toyline, not conducting some experimental examination of American attitudes and perceptions of Japanese robot culture through late 70s Shogun Warriors newspaper ads. And what a great toyline it was (according to me).

*30 year old

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