'Free' Star Wars action figures...

24 February 2021
The action figure special offers and the card backs that were ruined as a result!
'Free' Star Wars action figures... Images

Like many collectors, I’m always keen, where possible, to try and get the original packaging and boxes when I’m on the hunt for vintage Star Wars items. Granted it can substantially add to the price, it can be a lot harder to find, and then when you have it, it takes up more room to store. But there’s something special about having a vehicle in its original box or a figure, if not still sealed to its card, then at least having the loose card to accompany it. The figure cards from the original series are quite collectable in their own right. Even in isolation, some figure cards, particularly the earliest or last ones, can command serious prices.

The bane of collecting these cards though is just how many got partially destroyed and ruined by the mail in offers that Kenner and Palitoy ran throughout the series.

It all started in 1979 with Boba Fett. He was the first free figure on card promotion in the US. Kenner’s scheme involved redeeming a number of the Proof of Purchase (or POP) tokens from the back of the card. On the US Kenner card backs the POP was a penny-sized round token on the back of the card, stating “Proof of Purchase Seal” along the top and “Star Wars Action Figure” along the bottom. So loose Kenner card backs nearly always have this round disc cut and removed. The vehicle boxes also had the same style POP that you could remove and redeem. Occasionally more canny kids, probably parents you’d hope, would score the card or box and carefully peel the POP away. Still ruining most of the value of the cards for collectors 40 years in the future, but slightly more aesthetically pleasing than those that were hacked away with a pair of kitchen scissors!

Palitoy UK however, went for a different (most collectors would say worse) approach. Since UK cards didn’t feature a POP seal, when Palitoy introduced their first offers in 1981, they encouraged us to cut the whole figure name plate away from the card and mail those in instead!  

I suppose we all have to remember that no one was expecting the figures, let alone the packaging, to become collectables of the future. At the time, us kids were just glad to get an extra free figure to add to our armies.  

So what were the offers that encouraged us to mail in our POP’s and name plates?

The first one in America was Boba Fett in 1979!  He’d appeared in the cartoon section of the ill-conceived Holiday Special and the Kenner promotion explained he would have a major role in the forthcoming Star Wars sequel. He was first advertised on the Star Wars 20 backs as having the infamous rocket firing mechanism. Shortly afterwards these cards were covered with a sticker hiding the rocket mechanism picture. Kenner had re-modelled him due to safety concerns. To get Boba Fett, American children had to send 4 POP’s to Kenner headquarters with their name and address, then wait 6 to 8 weeks for the figure. The promotion was extremely popular and undoubtedly led to more figures being sold from the stores.  

The next promotion Kenner ran was for Bounty Hunter Bossk. He was advertised on the first Empire Strikes Back logos cards in 1980. These were still 21 back cards, so showed no ESB figures as yet (bar Boba Fett), and Bossk was advertised as a “Secret Action Figure”. Four more POP’s got you Bossk.  

Things changed for promo number 3 in 1981. This time, rather than a figure, it was a figure Survival Kit! This consisted of a grappling hook belt (think Luke under the ATAT walker), a Jedi training harness (for Luke to carry Yoda around Dagobah with), a couple of Hoth back packs, 3 asteroid gas masks and an assortment of 5 weapons. You needed 5 POP’s for this.

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It was about this time that Palitoy UK got seriously involved in the redemption promos. They had already done a low key trial on a Boba Fett mail in offer in 1980, with leaflets given away at stores. A black and white A6 sized leaflet encouraging you to send 3 name plates, a till receipt signed by the retailer (yes, really), and 20p for postage to get a free Fett figure. But in 1981 they started a large scale scheme by launching the Bounty Hunter Capture Log. The log was a leaflet that came in the vehicle and playset boxes and could also be obtained from the stores and toy shops. The log gave you three potential offers: 1) Another Bounty Hunter, this time the new figure Dengar, looking like a cross between Johnny Cash and Mr Bump from the Mr Men, Dengar would cost you 3 figure name plates plus 14p postage;  2) the Survival Kit, the same one Kenner had been promoting, for 4 names + 30p postage;  or 3) A Darth Vader collector case for 6 names and £8 postage. Quite a big step up in cost there for parents from the first two. I remember my brother and I had a Dengar and a Survival Kit each, so that was at least 14 cards cut up in our household in 1981!  

Back to the US for another freebie in 1982 – a rather dull for the time, Display Arena. Four ‘L-shaped’ plastic bases with 4 movie scene backdrops from which to display your figures. Had these allowed to make a proper looking base, like a Death Star interior or a Rebel headquarters I’m sure it would have been more popular than just 4 general movie scenes? Also it required 10 POP seals, $2 postage, and a 10-12 week delivery time! No rush Kenner...

Thankfully both Kenner and Palitoy returned, mostly, to figure promos after that. Over the course of the next few years the following special offers would appear: 1982  4-LOM;  1982 Admiral Ackbar, a preview figure from Revenge of the Jedi as it was being labelled then; and 1983 Nien Nunb. These were all promoted from card backs. For the UK only, Palitoy did a promo on the Chewbacca Bandolier Strap. A bizarre shoulder strap bandolier that encouraged kids to clip their figures to and then wear them… I’m pretty sure no kid in the UK ever did this! In 1984 Kenner US had free figure promos on the cards for both the Emperor and later for Anakin Skywalker. In the UK these were advertised in the Star Wars weekly comic book magazine, since European cards had now switched to the Tri Logo multi lingual cards. It was probably too complicated to do the offers in three languages so they switched to the magazines in the UK for advertising offers.

The final UK name plate offer was for the Rancor Keeper, again through the Star Wars magazine; a serious contender for worst figure in the original line. Possibly Palitoy had over produced this figure and needed to move on surplus stock?  

In the US, Yak Face was scheduled to be the 1985 free figure offer but by then, with no new movies on the horizon, the vintage line was losing momentum and the promo never happened. The Yak Face figures were instead carded and sold in Canada, Australia and Europe only – becoming yet another high priced collectable of the 21st century.  

Availability of the free figures? Well firstly, all the free figures became available to buy in stores, on standard card backs shortly after their offer period expired. So loose, prices are standard. But boxed and /or in their original mailer bag? Nien Nunb, The Emperor and Anakin are fairly easy to find still sealed in their baggies and often with the mailer boxes they would have shipped in. Generally unmailed, plain boxes (factory surplus) are found on ebay. Admiral Ackbar, 4 Lom, and the Survival Kit are a bit scarcer but by no means difficult to find. Dengar, Chewbacca Bandoliers, Rancor Keeper and Display Arena are hard to find being either Palitoy only for the former three, or just less being less popular at the time in the case of the US only latter one. Bossk being an earlier promo, and Boba Fett being the first, coupled with the ‘Fett Factor’ – i.e. collectors just love him, means there’s not much change there from £200 for Bossk in bag and box, and £400 or more for Fett in his mailer bag and box.  

So that is a brief reminder of why the loose cards you see at toy fairs, antique shops and on eBay are invariably cut up and mutilated! If only there’d been a better way to redeem the offers?