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To sell toys

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MarvelUS-19

Hasbro wasn't quite sure whether to advertise this expensive toy until the fans forced their hand.

To understand Transformers fiction, it is important to understand that it exists to sell toys. Hasbro and TakaraTomy are toy companies, and they are primarily interested in continuing to sell toys to children and, yes, even "adults". The cartoons, comic books, etc., mostly exist to make this happen. To be sure, they normally make a profit in their own right, but this is regarded as mere gravy.

The "to sell toys" effect often distorts the fiction in interesting ways. Primarily, since you can't usually sell someone the same toy twice[1], HasTak constantly introduces new toys, and often requires the creators of the fiction to introduce the new characters into ongoing storylines. Older characters (whose toys are no longer being sold) are shoved aside to make room.

Another effect of "to sell toys" is when the toys have gimmicks which must be explained in the fiction. Sometimes (Mini-Cons) this is relatively easy, while other times it requires a lot of imagination on the part of the writers (the in-comic explanations for the Headmasters and Targetmasters are kinda wonky).

The UK movie-based Transformers comic takes this to more blatant heights. Not only do the movie toys like Clocker and Skyblast appear in strips, not only has the editor told readers in Mech Mail that all the toys are great and should be bought - but there is a specific 4-page feature every week called Top Gear, which exists solely to promote the newest Transformers merchandise. This has led to readers being told how great Optimash Prime was.

Casting

Huge casts

Hasbro makes a lot of toys at once, and they generally want all of them to appear in their fiction. This can force writers to bring in vast numbers of characters all at once, sometimes with awkward results. Examples include:

Random casting

The Hasbro-induced need to show all the toys can also cause stories to suddenly focus on a new character, sometimes dropping ongoing plot threads about older ones. Examples include:

  • Season 2 of the cartoon introduced many new characters/buyable toys with no explanation; despite never having been seen before, the story treats them as though they have been there the whole time.
Decepticonpretenders-behold

After seven issues, it's finally time for these six dudes to do something!

Optimusprimeg1preearthmarvel2

Apparently, the Triggerbots didn't make much of an impression on Prime.

  • The comic issue "Pretender to the Throne!" suddenly introduces a dozen Autobots and Decepticons that we've never met before, and follows their adventures. The story adds nothing to the long-range plot that couldn't have been accomplished by using existing characters; these teams were added to the mix to promote their new toys.
  • Many issues of the Marvel comic had cover blurbs in the form "Introducing the _______!", where the blank was whatever the latest line of toys was. The following issues specifically introduce new toys on the cover: #8, #10, #11, #19, #21, #29, #30, #40, #41, #46, #47, and #60. Throw in a few covers where new characters were pictured but not named, and that's 1/5th of the series.
  • In issue #36 of the Marvel comics, when Wheeljack decides that he needs help in dealing with Grimlock's inept leadership, he doesn't turn to any of the dozens of Autobots aboard the Ark, which include two combiner teams and Omega Supreme. No, he has to call in his "old buddy"/new toy, Sky Lynx.
  • In the prelude to the Underbase Saga, Optimus Prime and Megatron were the lead characters in a story set before the Transformers came to Earth. But rather than palling around with the likes of Jazz or Prowl, they are instead shown alongside the newest "gimmick" characters, the Triggercons and the Triggerbots.
  • Mainframe planned to use Wolfang in Beast Wars, but Tigatron appeared instead because he had an upcoming toy, and to save money as his cgi model was only a slight tweak of Cheetor's.
  • Rather than revealing stuff about the Vok and Tarantulas, a long-running subplot, Other Victories spends much of its time telling us how great Tigerhawk is and how we should buy his toy.

Limited casting

On the opposite side of things, Hasbro doesn't want to pay to depict characters that aren't selling toys. This can force a story, particularly an animated cartoon, to have a smaller cast than it otherwise might.

  • The early episodes of Armada featured only the toys available on the shelves. This resulted in two ridiculously small teams going to Earth for the all-important mission of gathering Mini-Cons; rather inexplicable in story terms, although hardly the smallest armada in Transformers fiction. The comic book suffered exactly the same problem.

Plot

Forced explication

Main article: Introdump

Rather than simply showing up in the background, new toy/characters often overtly introduce themselves, often with a ridiculous description of their special abilities. The Marvel comic is rife with examples, but it shows up across numerous fictions.

  • Again, Transformers #1 has two huge splash pages in which 28 characters do nothing but stand around and tell each other who they are and what they can do.
  • The two-part Generation One cartoon episode "Dinobot Island" features many new 1985 characters getting their own short little introductory scene, often with a characteristic bit of self-description (Tracks: "I'd rather stay in my stunning auto mode!" Inferno: "I'm always ready for action!" Beachcomber: "Wow, like, I hope we don't destroy this place before we can study it!")
  • "The Rebirth" has three different sequences in which large new groups of characters form a lineup and introduce themselves to viewers one after another. Strangely enough, much of this screen- and dialogue-time is given over to Nebulan partners; the "main" Transformer characters get no such introductions, even though they are the items kids would have to purchase to acquire the Nebulan accessories. For instance, Spasma, Monzo, and Peacemaker (all speaking characters) are introduced by name as part of various lineups, but their in-store hosts Apeface, Weirdwolf, and Pointblank are never named (and Weirdwolf never even speaks).

Gimmicks

When the toys can do something special, fiction writers must often go out of their way to show the gimmick in action.

  • The Headmaster gimmick got an entire Limited Series comic book devoted to it.
  • The comic issue "Pretender to the Throne!" features Scorponok proudly creating the Pretenders, gloating that they will hide the Decepticons' identities from the Autobots "until it is too late". Not only does the plan not actually work, it's also a plot point with absolutely zero lead-in or build-up -- at no point has Scorponok ever expressed concern about his troops being detected by the Autobots, and we've never even met the Pretender characters before. It was brought about solely because the new toys had to be jammed into the story. The plan makes even less sense when you consider that the Pretender shells are giant monsters, not exactly typical of Earth. Even with Grimlock in a position of power, the Autobots would probably have been able to work out that the giant monsters trying to steal energon from Earth in the exact same way as the Deceptcons MIGHT be connected to them.

The Unicron Trilogy, noted for its gimmicks in all three toylines, was particularly notorious in this regard:

  • The quest for power-enhancing Mini-Cons practically defined the plot of the Armada cartoon, with both factions out to recruit or capture all the Mini-Cons.
  • Powerlinxing is shown again and again and again in Energon, despite having comparatively little relevance to most episode plotlines.
  • Cyber key powerups are likewise shown repeatedly in Cybertron.
  • All three series were also marked by lengthy transformation sequences which highlighted the gimmicks in very toy-accurate animation (and also made production cheaper, thanks to recycled footage).

Strange developments

Shoehorning loads of new characters with new powers can compel the writers to do things with the plot that, in all probability, they otherwise wouldn't.

  • Marvel UK had to promote the Special Teams toys before they knew how they'd be appearing in the US reprints. To get around this, Simon Furman wrote a story arc titled Second Generation!, where Buster Witwicky, Optimus and Shockwave watched an advert saw a Matrix-induced vision of the Special Teams.
  • In the US Marvel comics, the simultaneous introduction of the Aerialbots and Stunticons and the introduction of the Pretenders both saw a lot of rigamarole involved in explaining why both the Autobots and the Decepticons had new members with identical numbers/gimmicks at the same time.
  • Season 3 of the Generation One cartoon almost completely ignored the characters of the previous two seasons that were no longer on toy shelves. The 1985 Autobot cars, for example, are not seen at all. Bumblebee and the 1985 Mini-Vehicles, by contrast, show up now and again, as their toys were still shipping. Even Starscream, who was dead, managed to get a couple of Season 3 episodes all to himself; again, his toy sold through 1986.
  • The first thirteen issues of the Armada comic were focused around the Mini-Cons, with plots often revolving around their desire to be seen as equals and not be enslaved. Then without any prior set-up, the last five issues turn into a dimension-spanning battle against Unicron - who had just had a new and expensive toy.

Power levels

In order to make new characters seem more totally awesome, they're often depicted as ultra-powerful in their initial appearances. Once they become old news, they frequently seem to lose their super-charged abilities.

  • The Generation One cartoon introduced Devastator as the ultimate threat. Once newer combiner teams came along, however, he was less of a threat, easily defeated at various times by Menasor, Broadside and even Perceptor.
  • In The Transformers: The Movie, Galvatron is powerful enough to make Starscream crumble to dust with one blast then he couldn't do anything that powerful after.
Buzzsawyikes4

Buzzsaw reminds Omega Supreme he's not a new toy any more.

  • The Marvel comics feature Omega Supreme as nigh-invulnerable and ultimately powerful in his début issue. Just two years later, he's getting his butt handed to him by the likes of Buzzsaw.
  • In her first appearance on the Beast Wars cartoon, Airazor effortlessly blasts Terrorsaur to pieces. She never displays such a level of power again.
  • Initially, Inferno was an unstoppable warrior for much of Season One, being highly durable and powerful enough to give all the Maximals and Predacons a run for their money. And though he had his moments, Inferno eventually fell behind in power to the Transmetals and more powerful Transformers such as Rampage, Dinobot, and Tigerhawk when Seasons Two and Three rolled along.
  • Similarly, Rampage was presented as a huge threat when he first appeared, but just a few episodes later, he seems just slightly tougher than the average Predacon (save for a few notable occasions).
  • Sky-Byte was actually a credible threat for his first couple of episodes.
  • Any new toy character in the Unicron Trilogy cartoons is almost guaranteed to win the day's battle.
  • Tidal Wave was a staggering behemoth as big as the sky in his introduction. By the time of the Energon cartoon, he's just this slightly tall guy (despite the fact he had a new toy at the beginning of the series).

New bodies

There's rarely a compelling reason for a Transformer to get a brand-new body in fiction; it's simply to promote a new toy. It has become a default way to keep a popular character on shelves, rather than having to kill them off and introduce a new character to keep moving toys. Sometimes fiction writers are able to work these alterations in elegantly, sometimes not so much.

  • Season 2 of Beast Wars introduced the new Transmetal toys in short order, requiring some strange sci-fi waffling to explain why members of both teams suddenly got special new bodies.
  • The Unicron Trilogy cartoons feature Megatron getting recolored and renamed "Galvatron" three times; at the start of each subsequent series, he's turned back into Megatron but with a different body. This is due to Hasbro's wanting to keep the trademarks "Megatron" and "Galvatron" as well as to sell more toys.
  • Several times during the Unicron Trilogy, characters get new paint jobs as part of some magical power-up enhancement. These new color schemes exist solely to promote redecorated toys like "Energon Ironhide" or "Powerlinx Hot Shot". Even the comics got in on the action, introducing the redecorated versions of Jetfire and Optimus during the Unicron arc.
  • The three future members of the Cybertron Defense Team get shot up by Megatron, then transmogrify through the power of BLAZING HEART OF JUSTICE into new forms. These new forms, of course, were just hitting shelves at a toy store near you.
  • In the course of the live-action movie, Bumblebee gets irritated at a slight against his alternate mode, and scans a new form. Voila, suddenly he's got two even more toys on the shelf!

Abrupt conclusions

Just as Transformers fiction lives at Hasbro's pleasure, so too does it die. Falling sales, a change of plans, and standard rebranding can all cause a storyline to come to a sudden end when Hasbro decides to pull the plug.

MarvelUSG2-12

It's the end of the road for Transformers Generation 2! That can't bode well for the toyline.

  • The American Generation One cartoon got a somewhat rushed conclusion in the form of "The Rebirth", rather than a full fourth season.
  • The Generation One comics were nearly canceled at issue #75, but granted a reprieve. The stay of execution was only temporary, however; with the Generation One toyline ending, the comic was terminated a mere five issues later, resulting in a rather hasty concluding plotline.
  • Hasbro was only willing to support the Generation 2 comic for twelve issues, unless it proved an unqualified (perhaps phenomenal) success. Aware of this from the start, writer Simon Furman was able to plot a story arc that reached its finale as the series ended (and poked fun at it with a character whose name is a pun on "Gee, axe us".)
  • The writers of the Beast Wars cartoon reportedly never had any idea if they'd be back for another season. When the axe fell with Season 3, they had only three episodes left to wrap up the whole series.
  • Hasbro nearly killed off the just-begun comic series The Wreckers in 2001, wishing instead for 3H to focus on a Universe comic advertising its current toyline.
  • Tranformers Animated was originally going to span four seasons, but due to Hasbro's push to end the series so they could promote Revenge of the Fallen resulted in many potential plotlines being dropped or unresolved, throwing many toy releases that were to come after revenge.[May, 2009]

Death

Killing off old product

Tftm1986a

Guess who's no longer in the Mini Vehicles case assortment?

Newyorkunderbase

Publisher's clearing house.

BW Scorponok Terrorsaur deaths

Scorponok, Terrorsaur, we're condemning you to a fiery death 'cause Waspinator has a bigger fan club.

The most obvious To Sell Toys effect comes from the temporary nature of retail sales. Even in the 1980s, toys rarely stayed on the shelves past two years; today that timespan is much smaller. Once a toy is no longer selling, Hasbro has no interest in supporting fiction about that character -- especially when there's newer toys to promote. Therefore, writers are often compelled to remove characters from the story by killing them off. Sometimes this happens through carefully developed story arcs, but it's easier to do it with huge, apocalyptic battles with massive numbers of casualties.

This has become less common in recent years, as Hasbro has come to realize that their target audiences can actually get attached to certain characters, and might not enjoy seeing them die random, brutal, meaningless deaths.

  • The climactic battle with Unicron 25 issues later killed off many of the Underbase survivors, whose shelf run had ended.
  • In the G2 comic, after Megatron kills Bludgeon (whose toy was years gone) in a duel for leadership of the Decepticons, Bludgeon's crew (which mostly consisted of Pretenders) fall under Megatron's leadership. Soon after, when the Decepticons get massacred by the Cybertronian Empire, the casualties all just happen to be former members of Bludgeon's team: Skullgrin, Runamuck, Quake, Stranglehold, Octopunch, etc. Darkwing, however, is spared, but only because of the upcoming Dreadwing toy. Meanwhile, "classic" Decepticons such as Starscream, Thundercracker, and Soundwave are newly prominent because much of the G2 line was repainted G1 characters.
  • With its enormously expensive CGI animation, Beast Wars was particularly vulnerable to toy-based interference. The expense of creating and animating a CGI body model meant that the character roster had to remain fairly constant; the introduction of all-new characters usually required the removal of an equal number of pre-existing characters. And so, Scorponok and Terrorsaur die just in time for the arrival of Quickstrike and Silverbolt. (Frustrated with the situation, the writers carefully planned out the demise of Dinobot, anticipating that someone would have to be removed to make way for newer characters.) Tigerhawk was introduced and then killed off within three episodes, due to corporate uncertainty about whether the toy would actually be produced.
  • The Reign of Starscream would end up killing a large number of Autobots in one issue, after their toys had been around for a while; as they'd not made an appearance in the comics until this mini, this is both an example of Huge Cast and Product Clearing. The Reign of Starscream issue 3

Hi-and-die

Chuffer cof

Likely dialog: "SHEEEAAGH!!"

Kids don't want to buy a toy of a character who's dead. So if the plot calls for someone to die, smart money bets on the character who has a toy as the survivor. The guy without a toy, who you've never heard of before? Toast. This is the Transformers version of Star Trek's infamous redshirt syndrome.

  • This approach was particularly common in the UK comics. Characters created specifically so they could be killed off include Wrecker leader Impactor, Autobot/zombie food Chuffer, Tailgate's Autobot trainee buddies/mutant fodder Subsea and Flattop, and the 6th member of the "Magnificent Six", Stampede.
  • The US comics also used this approach on occasion, as with Blaster's poignantly adorable buddy Scrounge.
  • The Energon cartoon introduced Padlock, whose purpose was to die at Shockblast's hands, proving motivation for toy-character Wing Saber.

Resurrection

Killing off a character isn't always toy-motivated; sometimes it's a dramatic plot development. But it can also be a problem if Hasbro decides to make a new toy of that character.

  • Optimus Prime has been resurrected so many times that it's practically a defining character trait, except for Transformers Animated Optimus Prime, who died and was revived in the pilot within 75 seconds of the RBFATE. His original revival in the cartoon didn't correspond to any actual toy release, but the Marvel comic brought him back specifically to advertise his Powermaster form. A second death-and-revival introduced his Action Master body. And a thirddeath-and-revival brought him into his Combat Hero toy form.
  • Numerous "dead" characters were brought back into the Marvel comic series when their Classics and/or Action Master versions were released. Many were "deactivated" rather than outright dead; however, very few non Action Master characters showed up alongside them.
  • The series writers for Beast Wars considered Optimus Primal dead and gone at the end of Season 1. Hasbro, however, had a Transmetal Optimus Primal toy to promote, and so he was returned to life in Season 2.
  • At the end of Season 2 of Beast Wars, Inferno was pretty clearly shown being killed--being disintegrated--but in the next season appeared to have just been bruised and cracked, because Hasbro was not ready to have a Mega-scaled toy removed from the series.

Notable exceptions

There are, however, a few notable exceptions to the To Sell Toys effect:

Toys not released in the relevant market

Occasionally the Transformers fiction released in a particular country features characters whose toys were not released in that country. The Marvel UK comic featured two variants of this phenomenon:

  • Characters inherited from the US strips. Some, such as Shockwave and the Predacons, were given fairly prominent roles in the US stories reprinted in the UK comic and so it was hard to ignore them completely in the UK originated material despite their toys not being around to need advertising. However the decision to develop the Predacons (even before their US appearances were reprinted) and also to keep Shockwave in continuity even after he'd been (supposedly) killed off in the US comic goes beyond this.
  • Characters not featured in the US strips. Bizarrely the UK comic also made use of some characters such as Roadbuster, Whirl, Chop Shop and Venom, despite their toys not being available on UK toy shelves. None of these characters were inherited from the US material.

Writer Simon Furman has since stated that when writing the stories he was generally unaware of which toys were unavailable in the UK.[2]

Post-Marvel comics

Infiltration 1c

"Hey, Runamuck, it's our first appearance on a comic book cover in twenty years!"
"Heh heh, now if only we could appear on toy store shelves..."

Both Dreamwave and IDW comics, the two recent holders of the license to publish Transformers comic books, sometimes produce comics using whichever toy line is current (e.g., Dreamwave's Armada comic or IDW's 2007 movie tie-ins), and sometimes publish comics using whatever characters they please (e.g., The War Within and Escalation). The characters in their "discretionary" comics are often not currently available in toy form (Hardhead, a current character in IDW's G1 continuity, has not had a toy in 20 years), sometimes are drawn with bodies that have never been toys (most of the War Within characters), and sometimes are toys that were never available outside of specific countries (Lio Convoy in IDW's Beast Wars).

Chris Ryall, IDW Editor-in-Chief and writer of the miniseries adapting the 2007 movie to comics has confirmed on IDW's forums that Hasbro do not dictate what comics IDW must make ("Nope, no dictates at all from Hasbro. We put the plan together, send to them for approval.").

Presumably, Hasbro do not now view the collector-based US comics market as a viable promotional exercise, and licences comic rights purely on the basis of how much money the licence itself will bring in.

Footnotes

  1. Except for repaints of Dinobot.
  2. Simon Furman: "We largely took our cue from what characters were being introduced into the US storyline. If there was a release schedule for the toys in the UK, we rarely saw it... But in the case of Swoop and the Predacons, I don't think I was consciously aware (at the time) that we were dealing with toys not generally available in the UK. They were just extant characters, and therefore fair game." TransFans.net - Interviews: Simon Furman - Part 1 'The Past'.

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