Wednesday 16 December 2015

The Darker Side of Transformers #8

#8 Mattel/IGA

Well, toys in general. Plasticos IGA SA were the company that produced Transformers for the Mexican market and while lead paint usage in children's toys had been banned in the USA in 1978, Mexico still allowed it. When the Transformers line flopped there the overstocks were shipped to the UK and Europe but laws here wouldn't allow them to be sold. The importers in some cases stripped the paint off entirely and repainted it but in many cases the offending paint was simply painted over. Badly.

Rise Ebola Prime.

You may wonder why this is a problem but in children's toys the paint invariably chips and flakes off with the child often eating the flakes. Lead is absorbed by skin and young children's skin is particularly absorbent meaning that handling a toy with lead paint can be enough to bring about poisoning, but consumption of the paint is far worse. Lead also builds up in the body so the affect accumulates and even small amounts can make very young children significantly ill while larger amounts can actually result in physical and mental development issues. The toys that never left Mexico still feature the lead paint.

Mattell on the other hand are unfortunate. In 1987 and 1988 Hasbro introduced sparking features into the Transformers line with the Sparkabots, Monsterbots and the Firecons as a simple gimmick; the toys were fitted with a wheel and flint like you'd find in a cigarette lighter and they'd spark away harmlessly. Or so you'd think. In small products aimed at young boys this wasn't a problem but in 1991 Mattel released Roller Blade Barbie which featured roller skates that would also produce sparks. The sparks generated by Barbie's footwear was a bit more significant than we saw in Transformers and these sparks would come into contact with something young boys don't generally use - hair spray. After young girls found their hair catching fire a product recall was issued for the whole line and sparking gimmicks were dropped until Hasbro resurrected them in 2014's Age of Extinction line.

The cold dead eyes and sick smile of a pyromaniac.

However, Mattel's misfortune didn't begin there and the biggest calamity they suffered massively impacted the toy industry and later the Transformers brand.

In 1977 everyone was going crazy over Star Wars and sci-fi was now the big moneymaker with film studios and tv networks clamouring to produce anything they could in order to capitalise. In August 1978 toys for an upcoming series were launched in stores and a month later, Battlestar Galactica debuted on September 17th 1978 depsite lawsuits from Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. By December the Galactica toyline was a huge hit, selling two million of their vehicles alone but instead of being able to celebrate, Mattel had a huge problem.

The missiles in the Battlestar Galactica toys were similar to those used in Shogun Warriors and were only an inch and a half long with a powerful launching mechanism. The problem was that vehicles were designed in a way, it was later argued, that children were likely to put the nosecones of the vehicles in their mouths leading to the trigger button on the nosecone being pressed and the missile being fired. As the launcher was based under the trigger that meant that children were accidentally firing missiles into their own mouths. Following 7 reports of children inhaling or swallowing missiles, Mattel added warning labels to their existing inventory of Galactica toys on the 8th of December but it was too late.

Tom Rosinski holding the missile that was surgically removed from his lung. (March 17 1977, Denver Post)

On the 29th of December 1978, 4 year old Robert Jeffrey Warren fired the missile from a Battlestar Galactica Cylon Raider vehicle (not the Viper as often cited) into his mouth with the projectile becoming lodged in his larynx. 4 minutes later he lost consciousness and was rushed to hospital where he suffered a massive cardiac arrest but was briefly revived after the missile was surgically removed from his throat. Two days later, on New Year's Eve, Warren sadly passed away.

That Christmas a number of children would be hospitalised by the missiles but these children were older and so the airway around their vocal chords was large enough to let the missile pass into their lungs. While they would require surgery the children made full recoveries. On January 11th 1979 Mattel announced a recall of the missiles and offered to replace them with a free Hot Wheels car but on both the 10th and 11th at least another two children (Christopher Auger and Michael Affanto) were hospitalised. At the New York Toy Fair in February redesigned non firing Galactica toys were unveiled but the meltdown was underway.

Redesigned non-firing Viper with sticker reassuring parents that the missile feature was removed.

On March 22nd 1979 the parents of Robert Jeffrey Warren filed a lawsuit against Mattel for in excess of 14 million dollars and on April 29th the final episode of Battlestar Galactica was screened after the series was abruptly cancelled. At this point 27 children had inhaled missiles from the toys. While unrelated to the missile controversy, there was a last victim when a 15 year old boy committed suicide due to the series cancellation.

While toy manufacturers scrambled to address the issue, the most famous of toys to be changed was Star Wars' Boba Fett which had been heavily promoted as a mail away figure featuring a firing rocket. The figure would be released with the rocket glued into place and the firing mechanism removed, making the prototypes of the figure the only rocket firing examples.

Kenner stock photo showing the filled in 'J slot' where the firing mechanism would have been.

When Transformers debuted in 1984 their launching systems had been neutered to confirm with US and European child safety laws and no longer were capable of firing missiles over a distance of feet like their Diaclone and Microchange predecessors could. By 1986 new Transformers no longer had missiles with only the last two Diaclone and Microchange designs still featuring them with either no springs (Ultra Magnus) or longer missiles that prevented choking (Metroplex, who was designed for the abandoned Diaclone Jizai Gattai line along with the Stunticons, Aerialbots, Combaticons and Protectobots). From 1987 onwards there were no Transformers designed for the Western market with launching missiles until the relaunch of the brand as Generation 2.

Reissues of Generation 1 toys now always feature the longer missiles to prevent choking and while adult collectors aren't a fan of them, Battlestar Galactica proved that they are essential.

Only a porn star could swallow the reissue missiles


IGA Prowl pic from author's own collection.
IGA red painted Optimus Prime picture courtesy of Maz
Barbie picture is a screenshot from the commerical
Tom Rosiniski photo is copyright The Denver Post
Battlestar Galactica picture comes from an unknown source
Boba Fett picture is from Kenner's stock photography
Optimus Prime missile comparison picture is from Fred's Workshop.