“I keep trying to imagine it…Alien dolls? I don’t see how they have any merchandising potential whatever. But I’m sure they’ll find it—maybe a little rubber Alien doll that sneaks across the room and bites your foot off. Great for people with kids and pets.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, MediaScene, 1979.
Bizarrely for an R-rated feature, Twentieth Century Fox hoped Alien’s release would encourage the sort of toy craze that had come in the wake of Star Wars (some promotional materials boasted ‘From the producers of Star Wars!’ possibly in a hope to lure kids to the shelves). MediaScene reported the high hopes Fox had pinned on the film’s merchandising, saying that, “The merchandising aspect of Alien is not being left to chance either. Charles Lippincott, whose position was to oversee the licensing and publicity for Star Wars, is performing the same function for Alien.” There were Alien egg puzzles, Alien picture viewers, Nostromo baseball caps, blaster target toys, various Alien puzzle and jigsaw sets and more that you can see in Alien Ads from Yesteryear. But most infamous of all is Kenner’s Alien figurine, released Christmas 1979.
The 18 inch figurine’s appearance was remarkably faithful to the movie’s creature, though perhaps too much so for parents to handle. Sales were reportedly low and the toy poorly constructed: the back-pipes and tail would snap off (not ideal when your packaging reads: ‘Movable tail to swing by!’) and the translucent dome was prone to falling off and going missing.
While adults shook their heads at the distastefulness of trying to make such a monster appeal to young children (another packaging blurb read: ‘Spring loaded arms… to crush its victims!’) I have never seen anyone gifted it grow up and regret its inappropriateness as a child’s toy (here’s one kid who looks absolutely delighted — Alien toys were quite common in stores when I was young, having been born in the late eighties, but I distinctly remember seeing -and wanting- a plastic Freddy Krueger glove, never realising the strangeness of wielding a child murderer’s weapon on the playground.)
Amusingly, Kenner were not allowed to show images of the Alien on their packaging throughout much of 1979, resulting in early promotional materials that replaced the creature with an amorphous cloud from which only the Alien’s hands reached out. One jigsaw set replaced it with a question mark and an explanation to assuage buyers that their children were not being asked to assemble images of punctuation marks.
While the 1992 toy line would find more success (Alien variations included Gorilla, Bull, Scorpion, Panther and Snake Aliens, and were probably considered hokier as a result) Kenner’s original remains a more memorable and perhaps endearing attempt at rendering the creature in plastic, probably because of the toy’s fidelity to Giger’s original Alien and the inherent strangeness in prohibiting children from seeing a film and yet merchandising said film to them. As such, it remains a popular collectors item, with unboxed figurines going for as much as $2,000 on eBay. Other industrious fans have taken to restoring broken originals, with AVPG’r Windebieste chronicling his restoration of an original 1979 Kenner Alien over at Mego Museum.
Often regarded as a marketing failure, Kenner’s attempt provided a precedent for merchandising R-rated movies for younger audiences. The Terminator endoskeleton, Rambo, and Robocop would all become action figures throughout the late eighties and early nineties, with the latter two even boasting their own cartoon shows — plans for an animated Aliens series were made on the back of the new toy line’s success, and the project even entered production, but never came to fruition.
“One day, I happened to be wondering if I had any impact on the world at large. I was shopping at a drug store and I saw a plastic toy version of the Alien. That is when I realised I had reached out and in some small way, put my mark on history.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Starlog #228, July 1996.