Stanford Design Professor Bill Burnett recounts his time at Kenner (and how Star Wars ruined the toy industry)
By Charles Russo
I still have my childhood Star Wars lunchbox. It’s the same one I took to my first day of pre-school…a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (which is to say — about 40 years ago in northern New Jersey).
My lunchbox is plastic, bright red and has a photo of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy in their snow gear on Hoth, lined up and pointing blasters at the camera.
These days I use it to store the last of my old Kenner Star Wars action figures. As a kid, I had many many more, but what now remains is a helter-skelter dozen that somehow survived vacuum cleaners, the jaws of our hyper-active golden retriever and the simple passing of time. I have an early model C-3P0 (the trademark date on his leg reads “1977”), Yoda, Nien Nunb, and amazingly — the ever-epically awesome Boba Fett. I also have a Hoth edition of Han Solo, though our dog did in fact chew off his right hand and foot.
Like a generation of kids who grew up during the years of the original movie trilogy, these toys factored heavily into my childhood. If the films impacted our imaginations, the toys allowed us to not only remain in that head space, but to fully indulge and expand it.
So when I learned that Stanford Professor Bill Burnett had worked at Kenner Toys back during the heyday of when that company famously produced these momentos from my childhood, I set out to track him down like some interstellar bounty hunter with stern marching orders from Darth Vader himself (though really, I just sent Bill an email and he responded that an interview would be fine).
Burnett is the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, and has a fascinating and extensive bio that not only includes time as a Program Manager for Apple during the ‘90s but numerous patents to his name as well. Ironically—and Burnett is keenly aware of this—many people (such as myself) mostly fixate on his brief but notable connection to Star Wars toys.
Heading into my interview with him, I wondered if we’d dive deep into all of the toy trivia and minutia that Star Wars geeks geek-out about: why were there so many different versions of Yoda yet so few of Vader? How did the names of Zuckuss and 4-Lom get switched on the packaging? Did the original Boba Fett really get leaked ahead of time to an employees’s kid as urban legend would indeed suggest??!! (Deep breath.)
While Burnett still has a genuine affinity for both Kenner and Star Wars, he ultimately told me a less fuzzy story, straight from the Dark Side of the toy industry, which had less to do with stoking the imaginations of children and far more with manipulating them.
The story of how Kenner—a “second-tier” toy company from Cincinnati— managed to sell three-quarters of a billion action figures is now regarded as an essential chapter in the history of the industry (and even garnered its own documentary a few years ago, titled Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys).
That saga began with toy manufacturers passing on the Star Wars franchise opportunity much in the way that many film companies initially had shrugged at the idea of George Lucas’ “space western” years earlier. Yet Kenner turned out to be an oddly good fit for the job, having already had some success producing toy figures through licensing, namely—The Six Million Dollar Man.
“Kenner was already making action figures …,” Burnett recalls, “but when they picked Star Wars up, they picked it up really late.”
The company secured the licensing rights to Star Wars one month before the original film was released in May of 1977. No one at Kenner expected much until they previewed the film and realized two things: they had a juggernaut on their hands and they had no chance of producing the toys in time for Christmas. In what is now a legendary strategy at holding back the flood waters, Kenner issued a cardboard display platform with a certificate guaranteeing children that their figures would—eventually—come in the mail. In terms of Christmas presents, it was pretty lame, but Star Wars mania was so rampant that it all worked out somehow.
And the rest is history, or rather, consumer-driven hysteria. Kenner went on to do blockbuster business with the Star Wars franchise to the tune of $100 million in sales during 1978 and again in ’79, struggling to crank out enough figures to keep up with demand.
Burnett came in on the heels of that initial success to work on the toys for the film’s sequel—The Empire Strikes Back. He had just finished his undergrad and inquired with his professors about opportunities in the toy industry. Through connections, Burnett soon found himself working at Kenner as a junior designer.
“Kenner was a great company, and it was a great place to work.” Burnett says. “We did Play-Doh, the Easy Bake Oven, Spirograph. Classic toys.”
He also worked on play sets and vehicles for the Star Wars toys, getting to preview concept art and story outlines ahead of the actual film. According to Burnett, George Lucas had rigid expectations for the toys and remained very hands-on in his oversight (“Lucas was super picky”). There was also a back-and-forth, in which the Kenner designers made suggestions to the filmmakers about what kind of movie content would sell more toys.
“We were looking for ways to have more characters, to add more playsets and troop carriers,” Burnett says. “Our idea was the more you needed characters to fill up a set, the more characters you would buy. At some point we even started suggesting vehicles for Lucas to put into the movie, because it would sell more toys.”
Before long, this shift towards an inverted process between the toy companies and the filmmakers became a slope that grew slippery very fast in the face of just how lucrative the Star Wars toy phenomenon had become.
“The best example of this was Care Bears,” Burnett explains candidly, “which was a movie [in 1985] and then Kenner made all of the stuffed animals. But we had invented that whole thing. We wrote the script, and then we had it animated by the cheapest animation shop in Korea. It was all just a giant commercial to sell teddy bears.”
The Care Bears strategy was so successful that they soon moved on to Strawberry Shortcake. Unsurprisingly, other toy companies emulated the approach. In fact, a critical survey of the iconic toys and their corresponding TV shows from the 1980's—Transformers, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe—suggests that this kind of strategy had become status quo within the industry, quite a long way from Play-Doh and the Spirograph.
None of this was lost on Burnett, who had a front row seat to watch it happen: “At that point, I thought, ‘Now wait a minute, we’re just manipulating kids here.’ It’s one thing if it’s a real story and then you make the characters, but if we’re making the movies just to sell the characters to the kids, that’s kinda…kinda evil.”
Overall, Burnett’s time at Kenner was short. After a few years, he returned to Stanford for graduate school and settled down in California for the long run.
The final film of the original Star Wars trilogy—Return of the Jedi—produced record breaking sales for Kenner, and featured the very Care Bear-like Ewoks for major portions of the movie.
Of course, none of Burnett’s account of these events is groundbreaking news (after all, didn’t everyone already suspect that the Care Bears were evil?). However, amid the relentless fandom, the nostalgia component typically eclipses the more manipulative side of this story, as was certainly the case in the very glossy Plastic Galaxy documentary.
Burnett is excited about the new Star Wars film and even already had advanced IMAX tickets at the time of our interview. He looks back on his time at Kenner quite fondly, citing his time there as one of the best experiences in his career, for both the design education and the co-workers. Yet towards the end of our interview he concludes that their success with the licensing of Star Wars, “kinda ruined the toy industry.”
It’s all curious to consider in hindsight, because as a kid I had always wondered about that photo on the front of my lunchbox. It’s not an actual scene from the movie, so someone must have pulled the actors aside, formally organized them in a row and shot it for…what? Publicity purposes? Did they already know by then that they were shooting a kids lunchbox photo? Probably, but I think I already knew that even way back when.
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