ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.7 - OCTOBER 1999
Gotta Buy 'Em All!
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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 power of 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, if you let your child try to catch and train these specimens, you need to have your Poké ball examined. Could it be that the creators of Pokémon took a good look at the powerful, ever-present watchdog agencies Stateside and backed off the battle riffs in favor of prosocial messages? If there's one thing that the Reverend Donald Wildmon, 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 until more 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; shortly before 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 American male would blow a month's allowance on an effeminate, pink puffball named 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 following other 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 is a major market, and many video retail stores have sections lovingly reserved for hardcore fans. Another was the RPG card craze, typified by the wildly successful Magic: The Gathering series. Still another current obsession (which is reaching the point of 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!" could apply 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 way over to America during one of the most sustained bull markets ever recorded, with consumer spending at record highs. Some of this may seem 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.
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