Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman tries to guess what the hot animation related toys will be this gift giving season. Its a hard job year with lot of television cancellations un-merchandisable features and racy Internet content.
Aardman's Angry Kid has been watched by over 1 million people -- an Internet record. © and TM Aardman Animations Ltd. 2000. Angry Kid. See why he's the daddy now! © and TM Aardman Animations Ltd. 2000.
This year I have been a very good boy. I would like a Weekend Pussy Hunt play set, and a Hard Drinkin' Lincoln action figure with the "Super Abe" accessories. Santa, could you also bring me some Space Puppies and please bring my little sister an Elmo the Aardvark doll. She's kind of a brat, but she always gives up the computer whenever I want to watch Angry Kid. Oh Santa, while we're on the subject of Angry Kid....
As we swelter through the dog days of summer, heading for the harvest of new fall toons, we begin to check furtively our Christmas Club status, sift through the loose change in our Xmas fund jars, and prepare thick coatings of Teflon for our overtaxed credit cards in the hope that for once, the charges won't stick this Yuletide. For those of us confronted with kids, kids of kids, or sundry progeny such as nieces and nephews, we know what is coming as surely as Acme rockets find their way to mortified coyotes. Then, of course, there are those of us somewhat further up the developmental scale who love to give -- and get -- animation-related goodies for the holidays. As Fred Flintstone happily sang, "Christmas is my favorite time of year because/Everyone can be a Santa Claus!" Well, guess what, toonheads: Forget the present temperature and barometric readings; your turn is closer than you think.
Make A Prediction
So, my dear Santa manqué, what will be in the sack come Christmas Eve? While it might prove interesting (if not downright scandalous) to fill the order given by our young do-gooder, it is unlikely that much Web-based product will be found beneath the tree in 2000. To begin with, some of the recent Web toons would melt Frosty the Snowman in his tracks. Some of the new characters most likely to break out into a merchandising campaign have only existed for some three to six episodes at the time of this writing. Even bootleg product won't likely be found by Jesus' next B-day. The days of hastily tacking a Mickey Mouse doll together and shilling it in the local five-and-dime belong to the sepia-toned days of Olde Saint Nicholas. Today, targeted niche marketing strategies and complex licensing agreements guarantee that the elves will be buying annuities before Rudolph and company ever hit the skies.
The products that will result in fistfights at the local Toys R' Us come December are easy to identify, even at this early date: simply draw names out of a hat, use a dart board, or cross the gypsy palm with silver. In other words, take your best guess. "Just a minute!" you might say. "What about the niche selling strategies you just mentioned? And the test marketing?" Quite so. Fact is, none of it may actually work as designed. The marketing strategies and licensing agreements may be solidly in place but the series, like Clerks or Sammy, may die on the holly bush or ivy vine leaving your local specialty shop holding a hefty bag of coal come Christmas. Worse yet, companies may make a major tie-in or investment with one "surefire" series only to find that they have backed the wrong reindeer; what if you sank all of your candy canes into Pepper Ann only to watch The Powerpuff Girls performing a Holiday pageant on the shelves of every Wal-Mart in America? A merry Christmas indeed, Mr. Cratchit! With this in mind, it may still be possible to make some guesses as to what might be under the tree this year.
Fantasia/2000's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. Chicken Run's coopful of characters. © DreamWorks Pictures.
No Slam Dunks
Sadly, this may be one of the bleaker Holiday seasons in the history of animation marketing for the simple reason that few big hits materialized either on the small or big screens. If we examine the past year in review we find that animation-based products may have more in common with the Sahara Desert than the North Pole. Disney's Dinosaur cleaned up at the box office but the early summer release date means that the shelf life of the products is likely spent by now. Also, the main characters were dinosaurs, and the toy market is already inundated with scores of saurians virtually indistinguishable from Aladar and company. Disney also released Fantasia/2000, which had no strong central character to market. No one has been lining up for vernal sprites or sinister jack-in-the boxes, and it's difficult to believe that Santa will be dropping many pink flamingoes down our chimneys come Yuletide.
The Road to El Dorado and Titan A.E. produced little merchandising of note, although the latter film did come out with the obligatory action figures. Look for them at your local discount store or rummage sale early this fall. Hamilton Toys LLC had some success with a line of plush Rocky and Bullwinkle toys, as did Playmates with a coopful of characters from Chicken Run. However, the Holiday prognosis for these products appears to be Ho-Ho-Hum. The winner among movie-related merchandise this Xmas will ride the tide of two successful films and a pre-existing marketing empire. This year Santa's elves will again be bright yellow and carry electric stingers in their baggy little pants. The reindeer, I hear, have evolved into a higher form and now wield ocular laser beams. I would come right out and say the "P" word but the entire scene is depressingly familiar by now. Besides, I tire of importing the "é" from my character map.
Even more depressing are licensing opportunities lost from the past year of TV animation. The Primetime Slaughter of 2000 left few animated series standing; often, death came within a few episodes and there was never a chance to exploit any of the new primetime shows in the retail marketplace. The most appropriate merchandising items this holiday season would be dreary sepulchers engraved with Home Movies, Family Guy, Sammy, God, the Devil, and Bob, Dilbert, Downtown, Clerks, Mission Hill and "This Space Reserved For Baby Blues" (sort of gives the phrase "under the Christmas tree" a macabre new meaning, eh, Mr. Grinch?).
Non-adult animation managed a few toy train wrecks as well; Hardee's Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot toys hinted at the promise these characters might have had, but by the time they were nestled in burger bags most kids couldn't identify them as the show was inexplicably canceled after a couple of episodes. O, what Kris Kringle could still do with Batman Beyond if only Warners could make up its mind! Instead, the show's successful product line may get a stake of holly through its heart for Christmas.
Ya Need A Star...
Why is this year chillier than the Snow Miser's heart? In order for a brand to become successful there must first be brand recognition. This can be achieved in several ways. In the first example, a product is heavily pre-promoted months in advance. This was a ploy popular with Disney in the 1990s. Long before the celebrated summer animated blockbuster arrived, there would be mall tours, promotional tie-ins, early releases of action figures, and even books featuring characters that had yet to hit the screen. A second scenario is the "runaway" hit. Take South Park as an example: Merchandising had to play catch up once the scatological scamps went from cult hit to nationwide phenomenon, but the buyers were there when the goods arrived. In a third instance, time and endurance leads to expansion of brand recognition. The Simpsons are a case in point; as the show continues to roll into its second decade, the number of licensees has steadily grown to over 200. Much the same can be said for Rugrats, which is quietly toddling to its tenth anniversary and second feature film. In one of those depressing tests recently administered to school-age children by concerned social scientists, Bart Simpson had a higher recognition factor than several famous U.S. Presidents. What the researchers don't realize is that few children tote Thomas Jefferson lunchboxes or FDR backpacks to school.
At this point, marketability ties into fashion-consciousness. There are no products bearing the likenesses of early heroes of democracy or architects of the New Deal because these luminaries aren't cool enough (translation: "They won't sell"). The important image is the one that's hot at any given time, and not hot is not hip. Thus, people will not buy merchandise tied to shows that have a low cultural recognition factor, are unpopular, or not disseminated widely enough to be accepted as "Kewl!" Needless to say, no one will be buying any merchandise representing shows that lasted less than five episodes. In a society already infamous for its short attention span, almost instant popularity is needed in order to assure large (if short-term) profits and a shot at long-term licensing muscle. This year's crop of animation has had some artistic winners and creative triumphs, but may prove as scrawny as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree in the actual retail market.
Animated primetime shows and much of the Saturday-morning and/or cable fare simply did not survive long enough over the past year to achieve recognition by any of the roads described above. The pre-promotion and hype that originally accompanied Family Guy could not make it a runaway hit with the public. Although there were some very pleasant surprises this year, such as Courage The Cowardly Dog and SpongeBob SquarePants, neither achieved the cult-to-hit status that leads to marketing bonanzas. Some of the Web toons truly do hold promise, but probably for the next holiday season. Finally, much of the animated product market was cornered by (oh, not that "P" word again!) a certain Japanese import that likely outsold all other animation-related merchandise combined.
Ah, The Evergreen
Ebenezer Scrooge pleaded at his own graveside, "Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!" and thereafter got to do just that. Much of this year's animation may have Tannen-bombed just in time for the Holiday season but animation fans, like Scrooge, may still find succor. This season may be one of the best in recent memory for "evergreen" products, a term used to denote characters and items which are proven, consistent sellers. The most obvious example is the Looney Tunes gang; at this time, Taz and Tweety appear to be the most prevalent of the bunch in terms of licensing (although the entire line continues to be a strong seller). Love him or hate him, Scooby-Doo will undoubtably continue his licensing resurrection throughout the Holidays.
The best candidate for future "evergreen" status can be found in the aforementioned Powerpuff Girls franchise; the number of licenses presently stacks up higher than Mojo Jojo's turban and is still growing. These ineffably cute products appear to have "legs" (albeit tiny ones) as well as crossover appeal to children of both genders and beyond. The CD has just made its appearance as I write this, and there has even been a licensing agreement with Avon for the distribution of dolls. Look for sales to blossom (so to speak) this Christmas season.
There are other kisses waiting under the mistletoe too. Disney may not sell a lot of dinosaurs or Rhapsody In Blue playsets, but the success of The Tigger Movie guarantees that the ever-popular Pooh characters will be snuggled by many tiny tykes on Christmas Day. There are great hopes being pinned on the Action Man product line imported from Europe, but my guess is that another Japanese import may provide the most prevalent items graced with a ribbon and bow this Xmas. If you loved spending your coppers on (No! I won't type it!), then get ready to cash in your paychecks for Digimon. This will undoubtedly be followed next year by a series called Broke-emon, which is what most parents will be by Christmas 2001.
So it seems most of our holiday product this year will be as "evergreen" as our Christmas trees, since too many animated TV series and Web concepts were either axed or still a-borning while Santa was on vacation. Take cheer, however; sometimes a traditional, old-fashioned Christmas is the warmest and the best. Just ask Fred Flintstone; he'll be glad to sing all about it for you, and then sell you a Dino doll.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.