Looks like Cartoon Network has its first big time merchandising hit with The Powerpuff Girls. If you haven't seen the products, then you haven't been outside of the house! Rick DeMott investigates.
The Powerpuff Girls presence is undeniable. Every store, from Toys 'R Us to Linens 'N Things, across the U.S. has some sort of Powerpuff merchandise. From T-shirts to plastic dishware, Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup could be the most widely seen cartoon faces in America. It is estimated that by January 2001 the merchandise will have made US$300 million.
Here's some facts. The Powerpuff's TVdebut in 1998 was the highest rated premiere in Cartoon Network history. The series has consistently scored the highest rating each week for the network across a wide range of demographics -- young and old, male and female. For CartoonNetwork.com, PowerpuffGirls.com ranks in the top five locations and the Powerpuff games rank #1. In February 2000, the girls were featured on the Cartoon Network sponsored NASCAR racing car and are also featured on the sides of Delta planes. The Powerpuff "Heroes and Villains" CD spent 7 weeks at #1 on the Soundscan Kids Chart; hit the Billboard Top 200 chart twice; hit #1 on the College Radio Chart (CMJ Top 200) and is still in the top 15. Plus, The Powerpuff Girls fanzine is selling so well it has gone back to press for a second printing.
What a phenomenon! So I decided to find out, how a show ends up in almost every store in America and who decides what gets made. These questions were answered by Bob Bryant, Cartoon Network's vice president of off-channel commerce -- the man behind the development of the Cartoon Network brand and related character properties. "It always goes back to the show," Bryant simply says. "We're not going to have the girls do anything that they wouldn't in the show."
According to series creator Craig McCraken, he talked to Cartoon Network about the marketing and said, "'When you're making these products you should always keep in mind that these are little girls who are superheroes. They aren't just some kind of pop icons that you can plaster onto anything and combine them with...whatever girls or kids are into right now.' [Cartoon Network has] been great at keeping the fact that they're superheroes and that they're little kids in with all the products."
Before The Toy There Was A Student Film
To better understand the marketing of the series, one needs to understand from where the series came. McCraken originally created the Powerpuff Girls as characters in his second year student film at CalArts. "I've always been a fan of superhero films," McCraken says. "I wanted to do a superhero film, but I didn't want to have the same typical strong guy. I'd drawn these three little girls and I liked that initial contrast of these cute little innocent looking things being really tough. And so that was the core of the idea and it's still the core of the show -- it's that contrast between cute and toughness." Originally The Whoop-Ass Girls -- Chemical X, which gave the girls their super powers, was originally a can of whoop-ass -- McCraken showed his short to Hanna-Barbera and Cartoon Network in 1992 with great response.
While The Powerpuff Girls wasn't the first short to go to series when Cartoon Network was looking for new programming (Dexter's Laboratory, Johnny Bravo and Cow and Chicken took the lead), it certainly pulled ahead once it got the greenlight. Obviously, the subsequent response to the series has been stellar. The show attracts a viewership from adults to teens to young kids. Everyone seems to be caught up in the little cute girls who can play dolls one moment and break the bones of a villain the next. Regarding the phenomenal reach of the series, McCraken says, "I thought it would get on Cartoon Network and college kids would watch it and there would be a few random T-shirts out there in the rave scene or in record shops. But I had no idea that it would take off to this extent."
And taken off it has -- most surprisingly with young boys. It has been a longtime standard in Hollywood that "girl shows" just don't attract a mass audience. Long thought that little boys determined what a household of kids watched, shows based on girl topics were never made. However that's all changed. Since The Powerpuff Girls has become a hitevery channel is scrounging around for their own "girl show." However Bob Bryant says, "It's the combination of superheroes and little girls that attaches the boy audience."
Regarding the boy audience McCraken says, "You know I thought they would just completely dis the show because it's cute little girls and they would want nothing to do with it. But they have really responded well, they really like the show. I think that they just like the fact that there is this visceral action that they can respond to."
Cute and Kick-Ass Spell Merchandising Dollars
It's the duality of The Powerpuff Girls' nature that makes them a merchandising dream. The initial line of products that is out now is geared toward girls, however upcoming lines will feature T-shirts for boys and adults. One might question how do you market a series that has such a wide aged fan base without alienating either end of the spectrum. Bryant answered the question with the same mantra: "It goes back to the show. It's the show that attracts the different age groups. And if the products come from the show then you won't alienate anyone."
A perfect example is the "Heroes and Villains" CD, which features a host of alternative bands performing songs that make up the action of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls. The idea for the CD came from McCraken who handpicked the bands who influence him and the series. When asked whether there was any concerns from executives about the album being too old for kids, Bryant says once again (let's repeat all together) it comes from the series. Now the CD is a hit with both kids and college students. The influence of The Powerpuff Girls is so powerful that it has urged children to remove Britney Spears from their Walkmans and listen to Devo, Frank Black and Shonen Knife. God bless Craig McCraken, God bless him dearly.
Attracting a diverse audience, these key chains can be found on more than just little girls. © Cartoon Network. The Powerpuff Girls in their latest swim fashions. © Cartoon Network.
But why has this series captured the hearts and pocket books of so many? First off the cute look of the character design attracts female shoppers to buy Powerpuff Girls' key chains and what not. Look at Hello Kitty. It doesn't have a hit TV series or a rock CD, but it makes millions each year in merchandising. Frankly, cute sells and that's it. Then you add the action/superhero factor into the mix -- you have the boys. It's the visceral action like McCraken says that gravitates boys to play with half-plastic half-plush action figures. The Powerpuff Girlsare superpowered heroes and boys from the dawn of human existence have played superhero. The Powerpuff Girls happen to be the superheroes for the 21st Century. Every boy has dreamed of saving the world at one time in his life and these young-aged superheroes give them the vehicle to embrace that desire. Moreover, The Powerpuff Girlsencourage girls to embrace the same fantasy. Finally, one adds the series' retro-style and pop culture humor and one has the adult audience. Just like Ren & Stimpy re-envisioned cartoons in the 1990s, Powerpuff Girls is doing the same today. This time the superheroes are reworked.
Thus, the floodgates are opened for a merchandising bonanza. Bryant says that the initial intent to market The Powerpuff Girls didn't come from the network. "Retail stores called and asked for merchandise," Bryant says. As the show became more popular, the more the demand for merchandise grew. McCraken and his crew were involved in the creation of the initial style designs, sculpts and plushes.
But the Powerpuff creator says, "There are so many things being made that Cartoon Network doesn't have the time to keep me abreast of every little notebook or pencil. The way I find out about a lot of products is looking on eBay actually. I'll go check it out and say, 'Oh, I've never seen that shirt or I didn't know they made erasers.'" Keeping with the 'it goes back to the show' idea, Bryant told of one particular marketing meeting, "About a week ago Craig and I were in a meeting and they wanted to make a T-shirt of the girls playing volleyball. And Craig says, 'You have to remember that they're superheroes and that when Buttercup spikes the ball there should be an explosion of sand."
Cute girl crimefighters, who would have ever thunk it? But they are here and they are everywhere. When asked how you build a short into a mega-merchandised franchise, McCraken says, "My job is basically to make cartoons. It was never our intention to design a show that's going to be this massive thing. My goal is just to make a good television show. And the outside stuff is just extra icing on the cake. It would have been nice, I always wanted it to happen, but it wasn't ever the goal. My motivation to make a show wasn't to have a ton of products. It was just to make the best show that we could possible make." So if you ask yourself how the heck did a Powerpuff Girl key chain get onto the hardware store shelf, just remember the Cartoon Network motto it goes back to the show.
Rick DeMott is the Associate Editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he served as Media Coordinator for Hollywood-based Acme Filmworks. He holds a B.A. in Film/Video from Penn State University with a Minor in Comparative Literature.