Kenner Bionic Toy Logos

You may be wondering where these cool action toys come from. In case you missed THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN on television in the 1970s and in subsequent reruns, here is their back-story. Colonel Steve Austin did not originate on television, but in the 1972 novel CYBORG by Martin Caidin. In 1973, CYBORG was brought to television as the movie THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, starring Lee Majors.   After producing three Bionic movies, ABC-TV gave THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN the green light, and it became a weekly series in January 1974.

(c)Universal Studios

The story revolves around former astronaut Col. Steve Austin. A test pilot for the U.S. Air Force, Steve becomes a top-secret project after the experimental plane that he is testing crashes on the runway. The crash leaves Steve near death, and with the loss of his legs, right arm, and left eye. Steve's life is only spared by U.S. government intervention. Performing a radical experimental surgery, Steve Austin is fitted with cybernetic limbs and eye to replace what he had lost. The mechanical replacements not only save his life, but also give him superhuman strength and abilities. The Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI) takes advantage of their six million dollar investment in Col. Austin, and sends him out on dangerous action-packed missions.

Kenner's Give-A-Show Projetor, 
Play-Doh, and Easy Bake Oven

Enter, Kenner Toys of Cincinnati, Ohio. This toy division of General Mills, which was known for classic toys like Play-Doh, Give-A-Show Projector, and the Easy-Bake Oven, became the perfect home for the Bionic toy line. When interviewed by the now defunct KENNERTOYS.COM, former Kenner President Bernard Loomis had this to say about acquiring the Bionic licensing rights..."I first saw the show on the air---I thought it was "toyetic" as hell and I personally went out to Universal and made the deal. It changed the licensing business."

Kenner's Bernard Loomis, Lee Majors, 
and fans with Steve Austin figure. 

The following year in 1975, the Col. Steve Austin action figure hit the toy store shelves along with his Back Pack Radio, and Bionic Transport And Repair Station. Fans of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN series fell in love with the innovative new action figure and it quickly disappeared from toy stores everywhere. The Bionic Man became Kenner's greatest success ever for a first year toy, and the number one selling toy in the country!

Several of the marketing techniques used to promote The Six Million Dollar Man figure and accessories included television commercials, comic book ads, and Kenner’s $28 Cash Refund which ran in newspaper Sunday comics in November 1975. Another promotional tool was the Bionic Action Club. Enrollment forms for the Club were enclosed in the Bionic Man toys and included on comic book ads. For $.50 (postage & handling) kids would receive a Membership Certificate, Autographed (printed) color picture of Col. Steve Austin, Membership Card, and Logo Decal. More than 250,000 kids enrolled in the first year!

(c)Universal Studios

Back on the TV series, Steve Austin is reunited with his former high-school sweetheart, tennis pro Jaime Sommers (portrayed by Lindsay Wagner). The couple fall in love and plan to marry, but tragedy strikes the happy couple when Jaime is critically injured in a sky-diving accident. At Steve's request, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), the Director of the OSI, agrees to make Jaime Bionic. All goes well with Jaime's Bionics and her life with Steve until her body rejects its new artificial limbs. With Steve by her side, Jaime dies on the operating table.

Miraculously, Jaime is given another chance at life. An experimental cryogenic technique is performed on her and she is brought back to life. Unfortunately, Jaime's ordeal has taken its toll, and she has suffered brain damage. Her memory of her past life and her love for Steve are completely gone. Steve realizes that there may no longer be a place for him in Jaime's life, so he lets her go to discover a new life of her own.

The television version of The Bionic Woman was so wildly popular that by August of 1975, Kenner had started work on a Jaime Sommers figure. Early sketches looked nothing like Lindsay Wagner, or the figure that would eventually make it onto the market. This is most likely the result of the artists being provided with a vague description to work from.

In January 1976, Jaime Sommers made the Bionic leap right into her own series, THE BIONIC WOMAN. In the series, Jaime returns to her hometown of Ojai, California and quickly lands a teaching job at the local Air Force base school. She also insists that Oscar Goldman call upon her when she is needed for top-secret OSI missions.

It wasn't long before The Bionic Woman and other action figures, playsets & accessories joined the line of imaginative Kenner toys. Having two Bionic toy lines to promote provided Kenner with a unique opportunity. They would be the lead toy lines for Kenner’s 1976 Cash Refund campaign. Refund Books with up to $32 in cash refunds on Kenner toys were inserted into 13 million boxes of General Mills’ Trix and Lucky Charms cereals. The Refund Books also included two stickers featuring The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (with a total of eight to collect).

1976 JCPenney X-Mas Catalog 
Store flyer ad 1976 Kenner Product Insert Catalog

The two Kenner toy lines were such a great fit that it was not unusual for toy and department stores to market the Bionic Man and Woman together in their ad circulars and catalogs. To further market to consumers who had already purchased a Bionic toy, Product Insert Catalogs were included with action figures and accessories. These booklets included photos and brief descriptions of current products. Later versions were specific to each toy line, with one page dedicated to promote the other Bionic toy line.

SMDM Doll Display, 
BW Haning Sign, 
Profit Planners

To assist with in-store marketing, Kenner provided Bionic signage, doll display cases, and the Profit Planner kits. The kits consisted of a folder that opened up to reveal a page of product box dimensions on one side and a grid layout on the other. The two sheets of product stickers that were included enabled store employees to layout how they would like products to be displayed on their shelves.

Although Kenner's Six Million Dollar Man Profit Planner does not include the Jaime Sommers figure in its proposed store shelf layout strategy, Steve Austin's female counterpart was quite often found on the shelf next to him in the boy's aisle of the toy store. This posed an interesting dilemma for many parents…do you allow your son to have the action figure of one of his heroes, but not the other simply because it’s a female version? What would have typically been thought of exclusively as a girl’s toy was now becoming an acceptable boy’s toy too. Even though Jaime was often found in the boy's aisle, her fashions and play sets were typically restricted to the girl's section of the store.

The Bionic Woman Profit Planner marketing strategy does not include the Steve Austin figure, however, the Oscar Goldman figure is included in the proposed layout plans. Oscar was apparently the only figure from the Six Million Dollar Man toy line that Kenner considered to be an appropriate cross-over to the girl’s aisle.

1976 ABC Promo 
Dec. 1976 ''A Bionic Christmas Carol'' 
1976 Kenner commercial

The Bionic toy lines were fueled by the enormous popularity of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN television shows. Likewise, kids with the Bionic toys didn't want to miss an episode of Bionic action. The worlds of primetime network television and toy production silently promoted each other with their own marketing. These two worlds collided in December 1976 when the Steve Austin action figure made a brief appearance in THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN episode, "A Bionic Christmas Carol". It was the perfect cross-promotion…one that was noticed by millions of television viewers.

O.S.I. Headquarters, 
BW Tooth Brush, 
BW Styling Boutique

In 1977, Kenner made many additions to its lines of Bionic toys. From new figures, play sets and outfits to viewers, bikes and toothbrushes; it seemed that no potential “Bionic” stone was left unturned. Once, again Kenner turned to a marketing formula that had worked for them in the past with the Bionic Action Club (a Bionic Woman Club was introduced in 1976), television commercials, comic book ads, and the Cash Refund program. The 1977 Cash Refund books offered up to $40 in toy refunds and there were now 10 new Bionic stickers to collect! Refund books were packed in 20 million boxes of General Mills’ Cheerios cereal, and color ads for the refund program were featured in 240 newspapers nationwide.

Kenner also rolled out exciting commercial spots with Richard Anderson promoting The Six Million Dollar Man line, and The Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, selling Jaime Sommers dolls and play sets!

Meccano (France), Denys Fisher (UK), Lily Ledy (Mexico)

Kenner’s Bionic toy lines were a major success in more than just the U.S. As both series were broadcast worldwide, the toys also followed. Versions of the Kenner toys were marketed in Canada, in the UK by Denys Fisher, in France by Meccano, in the Netherlands by Clipper, in Australia by Tol Toys, and in Mexico by Lily Ledy. The success of the Bionic toys also led to a vast number of unlicensed products appearing on the market. Montgomery Ward stores sold the Mego produced Dr. Kromedome figure that was billed as “The Bionic Villian”. They also released sets of doll fashions that ‘fit The Bionic Woman’. Other playsets like helicopters and computer banks were also produced and targeted toward Kenner's Bionic consumers.

New Toys For 1978

There was a major down-sizing to the Bionic lines in 1978. The shows were airing what would be their final seasons, and Kenner’s main focus and money-maker had now become the Star Wars line of toys and action figures. Only three new Bionic toys were introduced this year…a new Steve Austin figure with Biosonic Arm, the Venus Space Probe, and the Bionic Woman’s enemy, Fembot. The Bionic Action Club continued as an ongoing promotion, and commercials for the new toys were introduced. The Cash Refund promotion was again inserted in Cheerios cereal boxes with folded Star Wars posters taking the place of the refund book. The reverse side of the posters included refunds on various Kenner toys, with several Bionic items thrown into the mix.

Kenner ceased production of the Bionic toy lines when both television series were canceled in 1978. Stores put the discontinued toys on clearance sale, and they disappeared from the retail market. Today, these great toys can still be found on the secondary market in places like antique shops, flea markets, conventions, and internet marketplace, eBay. The Bionic toys not only provided Kenner with ground-breaking sales, they also provided kids of the ‘70s with countless hours of Bionic fun and adventure. Today, these big kids get the same thrill from reconnecting with these amazing toys that continue to endure.

James Sherrard
Founder, The Bionic Woman Files.Com

©2010 THE BIONIC WOMAN TOYS.COM. Any passages quoted from this article should be credited to James Sherrard - The Bionic Woman Toys.Com.