It’s a common misconception that the band KISS had a master plan from their earliest beginnings. We recently told you how the marketing of the group evolved, and that no one connected to KISS knew what to do with them in their early years. There have also been assumptions that merchandising was part of the KISS blueprint. In reality, the idea of KISS products didn’t occur to anyone in the group or close to them until they had their first hit. Even then, no one could have predicted just how much money KISS merchandise would generate by the end of the 1970s.
In his autobiography, ‘Face the Music: A Life Exposed, Paul Stanley writes that, in the beginning, he and his fellow band members in KISS were “clueless about merchandising.” Stanley credits the idea of selling KISS products to their manager, Bill Aucoin. It was Aucoin who, after the initial success of KISS’s double live album, Alive! (1975), presented the group with their very first piece of merchandise: A tour program.
Bill Aucoin always saw the bigger picture. He could tell that we connected with our fans in a way that far exceeded the norm. He grasped the extent to which people would respond to us beyond the music: he understood the potential of merchandising.
When I first saw the tour program Bill created for the later stages of the Alive tour, I had never seen anything like it. He never told us he was going to do it. He just showed up one day and said, “Here’s the tour program.” After paging through its twenty-four pages, I thought it was terrific. Bill also thought—and was quickly proved correct—that our fans would want t-shirts and belt buckles. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. He founded an in-house merchandising company together with a guy named Ron Boutwell. Initially, the company fulfilled orders from our fan club. Bill just announced it to us, very matter-of-factly: “We’re going to start marketing merchandise.”
It could not have happened without Bill. (from ‘Face the Music: A Life Exposed’)
The KISS ON TOUR—1976 program debuted at KISS’s January 25, 1976 at Cobo Hall in Detroit. A fitting location, as Detroit was full of rabid KISS fans, the first city to wholly embrace the group. The program included a KISS ARMY membership form, as well as a merchandise form.
As KISS’s popularity increased and the money started rolling in from merchandise sales, more and more KISS products were made available. Official KISS merchandise included lunchboxes, radios, model vans, kid guitars, jewelry, watches, Colorform sets, Halloween costumes, jigsaw puzzles, sleeping bags, garbage cans, and a board game.
Trading cards wrapper, 1978.
Belt buckles, 1977.
Pinball machine, 1979.
Beginning with Alive!, KISS albums usually included a free item of some sort such as a poster, sticker or booklet—gifts, one might say, from the group to its fans, furthering the connection between band and audience. It also became standard to find a merchandise form inside a KISS LP.
The 1978 KISS solo albums, with interlocking posters and merchandise order forms for each member.
Between 1977 and 1979, KISS grossed $100 million from merchandise sales. By the end of the decade, KISS’s popularity had waned in the States—partially attributed to the public’s negative reaction to merchandising excess—so the focus was shifted to other markets. In November 1980, KISS went Down Under as part of their overseas Unmasked tour, where they were greeted with a Beatle mania-like reception. Dozens of KISS products were available in Australia during that time, though many of them failed to sell. KISS could see that writing on the wall, with Gene Simmons telling a Melbourne reporter, “We’re now taking a couple steps back from the merchandising.” Unmasked would be the last U.S. KISS album released during the period to include a merchandise order form and a tchotchke.
The temporary tattoos that came with Alive II, 1977.
Fast-forward to 1996: The original four members reunite and put the makeup back on, resulting in a massively successful world tour. KISS was back—and so was the merchandise. New KISS products glutted the marketplace, with even more types of merchandise than in their ‘70s heyday. Once again, this contributed to their overexposure, and the general public quickly moved on. But there was still a market for KISS merchandise, and new items continue to appear to this day. The KISS logo and the likenesses of the Starchild, the Catman, the Space Ace, and the Demon have appeared on virtually every product imaginable.
The infamous KISS Kasket, 2011 model.
A few more images from the KISS ON TOUR—1976 program (see the whole thing here):
A fan shot video of the aforementioned January 25, 1976 show in Detroit recently appeared on YouTube for the first time:
We’ll leave you with an amusing commercial hyping the “KISS Show Bag” that aired on Australian TV in 1980:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
KISS comes ‘Alive!’: How to market a band of superheroes