Luminous Beings Are We: The First Star Wars Commercials

The only welcomed interruption from cartoons in 1976.

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The dog was barking next to you. Your sister was probably throwing crayons. And out on the edges of your senses, you could feel your math homework, like a miasmic shadow of evil, untouched in your backpack.
You had to close your eyes and clear your mind.
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It usually took two remote controls: the massive VCR remote and the smaller one for the TV. You had to put the TV on Channel 3 (or 4) and switch over “Input” to VCR. After a long second, you’d see the signal of your regular programming. You were ready.

As you watched your usual cartoons, you had your finger hovering over the squishy red button that said REC. You were waiting for the Star Wars commercial.

 

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The recent release of the first television spot for Episode VII calls to mind the very first Star Wars TV commercials. Back then, TV was everything. The Internet was science fiction. The idea of an interconnected multimedia virtual network was so outlandish – it didn’t even appear in Star Wars! Lightsabers were actually more believable than smartphones.

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The first Star Wars TV commercials caught us by surprise. We knew it was coming from posters and the preview, but it was still all-new. Narrated by actor William Conrad, the spots appeared during the four holy hours of Saturday morning cartoons as early as 1976. As they sped across our wood-paneled cathode tubes, we tried to stop each image in our minds. The commercials, with TIE fighters, Imperial Star Destroyers, and spinning gun turrets, made it all too easy.

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Even without the familiar John Williams theme (which they were still working on), the commercials worked. They whipped us up into a frenzy (the Captain Crunch didn’t hurt) and got us thinking – for the first time in our young lives – about a movie. That is good marketing. But it was more than that. They were telling us there was something better than the Fangface or Godzilla cartoons we were watching. And we were in total agreement. By the time Empire came, we were watching cartoons that were just echoes of Star Wars anyway.

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And if we got lucky and actually successfully taped one of those commercials (trust me, it was way harder than it sounds), we would watch and rewind and watch again and again. All it did was raise questions, of course, more so than answers. Is that snow? Luke is fighting Vader? What are those giant metal dogs? That’s the cool part – we’re doing the same to the new commercial now.
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The best part of the commercials – and also the most painful – is that they always ended with a version of “Coming Soon,” “Opening Soon,” or my favorite, “Coming Soon To A Galaxy Near You.” That was a good one. Star Wars and its successors (and precursors, and now more successors – you know what I mean), really was the first movie to get a specific release date into our heads.
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Because as we watched and waited and looked for clues, the newspapers counted along with us.
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As kids, we viewed time in three quadrants: school, Christmas break, and summer vacation. There was nothing else. Sure we had places to be and maybe a Mickey Mouse watch, but that was really just for show. We went where people – our parents and teachers – told us to go. When the bell rang, we went to class. We got on a bus to go home. We went to bed at bedtime. That’s the part people forget about being a kid. You have very limited freedom. But with Star Wars and that magical release date, we finally had someplace to be. The cartoons told us when to be there. So we made plans and told parents. We got ourselves ready.
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Sure, you can look at this all as the triumph of marketing, but I think that these commercials were when we started to fight back. This was the birth of the real rebellion. Not of starships and old stories, but of growing up – or at least starting to – by taking our first steps off the Imperial world of our homes.
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Brad Ricca is the author of the award-winning book Super Boys and the upcoming Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. He also writes the comics column “Unassuming Barber Shop” at The Beat. Visit www.brad-ricca.com and follow him on Twitter at @BradJRicca.

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