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Gotta Buy 'Em All!

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman looks at the marketing and licensing scheme that has turned 150 viscous monsters into the Pokon every kid in America must have.

Left to right: Pikachu, Misty, Ash Ketchum and Brock of Pokémon. Photo © 2000 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

peek a chu peek a chu peek a chu peek a chu... Listen...can't you hear it? Not very long ago, it was only a faint whisper from far across the Pacific... PEEK a chu PEEK a chu PEEK a chu PEEK a chu... But now it's grown louder, coming at us like a flame-spitting, deranged locomotive! Surely you heard THAT! It's almost on top of us! It's headed straight towards... PEEK A CHU PEEK A CHU PEEK A CHU PEEK A CHU... ...OUR WALLETS!!! The first time that anyone in America (besides the most fanatic otaku) heard of Pokémon it was as a news brief a year or so ago. A stroboscopic special effect in one episode of this popular Japanese series produced seizures in some young viewers, causing the episode to be pulled and redone. Pokémon then receded from our memories, but not for long. During the very time that episode was being aired, one of the most effective merchandising projects to go transcontinental since Mickey Mouse was already underway. For the few of you who are not familiar with this latest confluence between popular fad, brilliant marketing strategy, and free-market capitalism, here's the story...

Left to right: Team Rocket: Meowth, James and Jessie of Pokémon. Photo © 2000 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

The Birth Of An International Craze

Several years ago, Satoshi Tajiri of Game Freak teamed up with video game producer Tsunekazu Ishihara, president of Creatures,on the original idea for Pokémon. Knowing instinctivelythat they had a potential hit, the pair approached Nintendo for a distribution deal. Ishihara came up with two different versionsof the video game, apparently with the intent to market it moreeffectively overseas. Before the game was released, however, the creators also hooked up with the staff of Koro Koro comics, distributedby Shogakukan Publishing Co. The intent was to develop the premiseof the game into viable (and profitable) manga. If the significanceof this alliance escapes you, consider the role of manga in Japanese culture as a source of entertainment, enculturation...and merchandising, especially to the youth market. With all these dealsin place, Pokémon was ready for a stellar debut. Atfirst, game sales were moderate but as they picked up steam, Shogakukan's managing editor, a Mr. Kubota, came up with the idea that Pokémon might -- just might -- make a good animated series. All licensing and marketing weapons were now primed and at the ready.

The back story to Pokémon is not a complicated one, but then it doesn't need to be. There are some 150 Pokémonrunning around the world, each one seemingly a product of acid flashbacknight at the recombinant genetics lab. It's the dream of every childto become a masterful trainer of Pokémon so that the (generally)wee beasties can subdue other trainer's wee beasties and capture them in Poké balls. The universal goal? "Gotta get 'em all!" (Or, "Getto Da Ze!" forthe otaku among my readership.) The animated series focused on the efforts of a young, none-too-savvy Pokémon trainer named Satoshi (Ash in the US version) who, along with his friends Misty and Brock, compete against costumed adversaries Jesse and James of Team Rocket in their quest to, "Get 'em all." Ash is aided by Pokémon Pikachu, a 16 inch-high electric mouse. Team Rocket, not to be denied, enlists a Pokémon of their own named Meowth. The game, the comic book, a role playing game (RPG) in trading-card form, and then the animated series generated a roaring tsunami of profit and popularity, each feedingoff the other until Pokémon became a yen-sucking phenomenon the size of Ghidrah (OK, OK, King Ghidorah. Sigh...).

Ghidrah, however, tended to stay in Japan; Pokémon was another matter entirely. This product, in all of its manifestations, was meant to be exported to the lucrative American market, and this was done in a number of astute and telling ways. A look at the changes made from the original concept prior to exportation reveal that considerable thought went into the methodology by which Pokémon would be marketed in the US. In a recent interview with Animerica (Vol. 7, No. 7) Takemoto Mori, who produced the animated series, admitted that, "From the very start we thought about children from both countries." The first thing that was toned down was the notion of battle between the Pokémon, a mainstay of the Nintendo game. In its place, Mori aimed for a more genteel approach where "'s not the battles that are important, it's thevalue of friendship and making new friends." Later Mori averred that, "We're trying to draw something that shows the valueof being a nice person...the Pokémon world is a verynice world...So we don't have any scenes that are bloody or anyscenes where characters die." As we all know, such things never occur in anime. Now, for all I know, Mr. Mori is the very model of sincerity, but I cannot resist adding a bit of cynicism here; this column is, after all, about merchandising.

Pikachu and Ash Ketchum of Pokémon . Photo © 2000 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Walking A Fine Line

An examination of the Pokémon shows them to be the ultimate arbiters of Darwinian theory; all of them have some super powerof which no sane person, much less a fellow Pokémon, would want to be on the receiving end. Even harmless-looking critters like Butterfree and Weedle carry toxic dust and sport poisonous appendages. Many Pokémon carry around enough voltage to light up Yankee Stadium, and the rest are deadly in other fanciful ways; Jigglypuff, for example, can sing fatal lullabies. In short, ifyou let your child try to catch and train these specimens, you needto have your Poké ball examined. Could it be that the creators of Pokémon took a good look at the powerful, ever-presentwatchdog agencies Stateside and backed off the battle riffs in favor of prosocial messages? If there's one thing that the Reverend DonaldWildmon, Peggy Charen, and a legion of child advocates have proven,it's that boycotts and well-placed missives to politicians can stun even Mammon. Thus, the focus of the animated series is on Ash, Brock, Misty, and their cooperative adventures in Pallet City and beyond, with Pikachu recast as a faithful mascot.

The Nintendo game series, on the other hand, is far less sanguine, with titles such as Pokémon Stadium, which features exciting head-to-head combat in "Free Battle" or "Event Battle" mode. Still, it pales next to the combative (and highly expensive) RPG. A full set of cards will set a neophyte trainer back some $600, and a booster box at least another $400. This buys the privilege of setting the Pokémon upon each other in their full glory. Any player with the requisite luck, skill, and ability to absorb more rules than exist in the Geneva Convention can battle it out to his or her heart's content (or at least untilmore booster packs come out). By tailoring the video game and the RPG to a different context than that of the animated series, the merchandisers of Pokémon managed to walk a brilliantly conceived tightrope between the cultural watchdogs and the kids who want to let those little suckers rip. There is only one hint of this balance in the animated series; shortlybefore it was produced, the creators replaced Pippi (Clefairy) with Pikachu as the main Pokémon. Data research had revealed Pikachu to be the most popular character, but I wager that no young Americanmale would blow a month's allowance on an effeminate, pink puffballnamed Clefairy. Pikachu is cute enough for the girls, but wields a wicked electric stinger in combat; a nifty marketing move, hei?

Contributing Cash Cow Factors Pokémon also appealed to consumers by followingother recent fads in the US One is the success and popularity of anime in general. Not long ago, it was called "Japanimation"and was available only through specialty outlets. Today, anime isa major market, and many video retail stores have sections lovingly reserved for hardcore fans. Another was the RPG card craze, typifiedby the wildly successful Magic: The Gathering series. Still another current obsession (which is reaching the pointof psychiatric illness) is the Beanie Baby craze. There is an eerie similarity between Beanie Babies and the Pokémon; both are cute, tiny fantasy animals that must be fanatically chased after and collected. The catch phrase "Gotta get 'em all!" couldapply equally to either fad. Adults who empty bank accounts, cross the continent, or stand in line for hours to get their hands on a plush sack shaped like a duck have few sane arguments to present when their kids want a $45 Charizard foil card or the equally expensive Nintendo video game. Finally, Pokémon found its wayover to America during one of the most sustained bull markets ever recorded, with consumer spending at record highs. Some of this mayseem like coincidence or even sheer luck, but it seems more likely that the trends listed above were duly studied and then combined with exceptional marketing strategies.

Thus, the latest fad hits us like a thundershock attack from Raichu (an evolved form of Pikachu, dontcha' know). There are now hundreds of duly licensed Pokémon products cramming the stores, so kids can pick-and-choose their Pikachus, be they on book bags, notebooks, T-shirts, or virtually any paraphernalia his likeness fits upon. Warner Bros. is bringing out Pokémon: The Movie in November (a holiday release; what timing!), and you can already listen to the Pokémon 2BA Master: Songs From The TV Show CD, which includes the "Pokérap." Well, all the better for Messrs. Tajari, Ishihara and Kubota; if their research was that slick and the overall marketing strategy that clever, then their riches are probably well deserved. Having owned, at various stages in life, a Howdy Doody swimming pool, a Zorro mask and cape, a Beany-copter cap, and enough Batman trading cards to pave the streets of Gotham City, I can only shake my head in admiration and dish out $9.99 for an adorable plush Squirtle. No...make that a Pokémon Micro Playset...or maybe a few Power Bouncers... At any rate, I'll probably need to move quickly; somewhere in this world some toy, video game, comic book, or RPG developers are creating the next must-have commodity. Attention spans being what they are in this "what's hot/what's not" culture, Pokémon may be moving to the closet shelves, clearance racks, and fading memories of millions of kids fairly soon, so better "get 'em all" while you can. After the locomotive roars by, you can almost hear the kids chanting in the schoolyards: He-Man, Care Bears, GI Joe, Pink Ranger, Blue Ranger, Donatello In a year, less than two, They'll be joined by Pikachu ! Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.