So it’s taken quite a bit longer than I planned on to get back to another installment of my unproduced Star Wars gems. But here at last is the untold story of the promotion that you never got to see, and what a doozy it is! A couple of caveats right off the bat: I did not actually have anything to do with this promotion. It was developed and presented by another marketing agency in the wake of the Star Wars Trilogy re-release in 1997 as a possible idea to launch the Prequels, in specific Episode I. So most of this is strictly going from my memory of how it was explained to me. And the bag illustration at right is just something I whipped up based on what it might have looked like. Cool?
In the wake of the big hits of the Lay’s Spirit of Obi-Wan offer in 1996 and the Froot Loops Stormtrooper Han Solo in 1995, Lucasfilm wanted another big product tie-in to push Episode I on the masses. Unfortunately for the marketing gurus, pretty much every brand under the sun would be also launching Episode I promotions at the same time. Pepsi cans, Pizza Hut boxes, Taco Bell toys, and KFC cups were just the tip of the iceberg of what would probably be the largest promotional movie launch ever to be seen. Multiple companies pitched ideas to Frito-Lay as to what their big promotion would be, one that would stand out from all the other Star Wars items on grocery shelves and most importantly, what would sell more bags of chips. Keep in mind that Pepsi/TriCon/Frito-Lay paid up to $2 Billion for the license, so you better believe they needed to move product to make that worthwhile.
So what was pitched was this: trading on the success of the Spirit of Obi-Wan, each bag of chips would have a mini-figure inside it. There would be 128 (!) different figures to collect, from Episode I and the Original Trilogy. Not only that, but there would be a handful of rare figures, and a possible mail-away display case for all of them. Talk about an incentive to buy chips! And you have to think back to how it was in 1998: still relatively little Star Wars product was out there, and you had a ravenous base of fans who were desperate for new items to collect! And these would hit months before the movie actually came out, so it didn’t rely on how well the movie was anyway. It really was the only time this program could have been pulled off and been a massive success (and anyone who doubts it would have been a success didn’t go through the pain that was the initial Hasbro Midnight Madness launch!) But Lucasfilm pulled way back on promotions for the next two films, so this was the one shot it had.
Ok, so if I didn’t work on this at all, how do I know about it? Well, my company was contacted to help out a bit on the toy aspect of it, and make some prototypes for the pitch itself. This was fun, if a bit frustrating as we couldn’t affect any details of the actual promotion, just what the figures might be. And that in itself was a challenge; to be fiscally viable, each figure could only cost a few cents! So much of the work we did was exploring the possibilities with such a limited budget.
We had Gentle Giant sculpt and cast a few sample figures. You can see how fragile these had made resin figures are; I don’t think any of the Luke’s lightsabers survived the first time we moved them around. One way to save money was to have limited paint on each one. To save even more, we could have them as only one color. We also experimented with themed materials, as seen below: Luke is a sandstone finish, Leia is pearlescent white, and Yoda is glow in the dark! Another possibility would be for each figure to have a flat back with a peg that would plug into a cardboard diorama that featured a background from the respective movie that the character is from. These dioramas could then be fitted into each other, making one long scene when all connected. The backs of the dioramas would have character/film information on them.
But even then the cost might have been too high for Frito-Lays’ tastes. If that were the case, we also had a back-up plan: two-dimensional characters that would be die-cut from styrene that could plug into “puzzle bases” that you could make a large display out of. The bottom of the bases would have added info about each character. The art would either be photos from the films or would be drawn by popular comic artists as almost 3-D trading cards. These samples were drawn by Art Nichols and myself (and I had to cut A LOT of these by hand the night before the presentation…not fun!)
So why did you never see these on store shelves? Well, unfortunately the simple answer is that back then it was hard to explain just how big the collector base had become. Frito-Lay executives thought that it didn’t have a big enough payoff apparently, and they went with an instant win game with a limited number of game pieces that had the same movie pics that everyone was using. But it had one million dollar winner, and they felt that was a bigger draw than a tiny plastic figure. But what they just couldn’t grasp was that the chance in millions to be that one winner was no going to drive you to buy more chips. But you would if you were trying to collect 128 different figures!!! Hasbro proved the viability of the mini-figure idea nearly 10 years later with their 2006 Star Wars Saga mini Hologram pack-ins (one of which is shown in some pics above for scale). We tried to explain to them why the collectibility aspect would sell more chips, even if it had less of a surface “wow” factor, but they didn’t get it. We talked about seeding in some gold Yodas that could be redeemed for an instant full collection OR $1000. And we even talked about posing online as a wealthy collector who offered $5000 to the first person who could put together a full set for him. 😉 Not sure if we could have gotten away with that one…
Anyway, what these are, are “Starbles“! Most aptly described as a cross between marbles and pogs, Starbles did not take the nation by storm and have barely been heard from since. I got this set from a vendor about 9 years ago and was told it was an unproduced production sample. Housed in a non-descript black case lined with foam, these 12 Star Wars Starbles are apparently the entire set, and are just pogs suspended inside a very large marble- one side has a character photo, the other side the Star Wars logo. All from the original trilogy, too.
I tried looking up the manufacturer, Marble Vision, but there is no info about them online. As there are absolutely none of these on eBay, and barely a mention or pictures anywhere on the web, I’m guessing that fans did not rush out seeking their own set of Starbles. More’s the pity, as I would have liked to see further sets such as Godzilla ’98 Starbles, and Wild Wild West Starbles. Ah, Starbles… we barely knew ye.