Exposing the Cartoon Consumerism Industrial Complex

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 Earlier this year I had the privilege to begin writing the High Voltage column in Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine. If you’re not familiar with it, Clubhouse is Focus’ mag for 8- to 12-year-olds. Each issue is packed with games, inspirational stories and faith-infused content to help young ones grow in their Christian convictions—and have tons of fun along the way.

High Voltage is Clubhouse’s monthly media discernment column where we respond to kids’ letters asking about popular culture stuff. I spent quite a bit of time going through a big stack of letters yesterday (shockingly, there are children out there who still know how to write a letter!), and one theme kept popping up over and over: the intersection of cartoons, computers and consumerism.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A 10-year-old girl in Hanover, Penn., asked, “What do you think of Ever After High?” I wasn’t actually familiar with Ever After High, but after a bit of research, I discovered it’s a series of very short videos related to Mattel’s Monster High doll franchise.

But the lavish website for the franchise offers much more than just videos and the obligatory, not-so-subliminal encouragement to purchase Monster High Doll paraphernalia. In addition, young fans will find video games, character bios, a chance to design a personalized Ever After High dorm room, features to customize your online character with the points you’ve earned on games elsewhere on the site (after you’ve created a user profile, of course) and, as they say on TV, much, much more.

From a kids’ perspective, it’s an integrated entertainment wonderland that bridges the gap between real toys and virtual worlds. From my parental perspective, though, it looked more like one of the most elaborate marketing schemes I’d seen in a while.

But as it turns out, this scheme isn’t particularly unique.

“Do you think the new show Max Steel on Disney XD is good for me because I’m a Christian?” a 13-year-old from California asked. Ten minutes of online sleuthing later, I’d found a carbon copy of the marketing plan I saw with Ever After High, albeit decidedly more boy friendly. Along with games and character bios, there was also “cool” stuff like technical readouts for vehicles and weapons.

Oh, and links to buy the toys, of course.

And the letters just kept coming. Letters asking about Cartoon Network’s LEGO-based show Ninjago. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Pokémon X&Y. In each case, there’s a show. And there’s a product. And there’s an immersive online world just waiting to engage—and perhaps enmesh—young minds ever more deeply in these series and in their associated products, enticing young fans to consume ever-increasing quantities of both.

 Obviously, merchandising tie-ins to pop culture franchises are nothing new. I remember pining away for Star Wars figures and a Millennium Falcon for Christmas way back in 1977. And even before that, I recall how excited I was to get a Six Million Dollar Man action figure and the unbelievably cool Bionic Transport and Repair Station to make sure my plastic Steve Austin stayed bionically robust. (I just checked on eBay, and for a pretty penny, I can now relive that experience if I want to.)

The ’80s, of course, pushed the cartoon-marketing connection to new heights with the likes of Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man, not to mention the first iterations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony. In that decade, it started getting harder to figure out what was marketing what. Were the shows pushing the products? Or were the products pushing the shows? The overarching answer was simply yes.

All of those marketing dynamics are still in play today. What’s changed in the last decade or so, though, is the addition of that online milieu cementing it all together. It’s not just about playing with the toys or watching the shows anymore. These days, elaborate and engrossing Internet sites for such shows have become the connective marketing tissue that holds it all together … powerfully and synergistically reinforcing children’s urges to spend both time and money engaged in the imaginary worlds placed before them.

Given the immersive nature of children’s franchises in the 21st century, the chief challenge we parents face involves setting appropriate boundaries and limits. And I’m not just talking screen-time limits (a subject we address here fairly regularly). There also need to be limits on the impulses to go buy all that cool stuff forever being put in front of kids online and on TV.

As a dad who sometimes likes to please his kids more than he enjoys instilling the sometimes painful disciplines of saving and disengaging, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that disentangling from these franchises’ elaborate worlds can be hard to do. But in our house—on our best days, at least—we try to establish screen-time boundaries as well as limits with a franchise as a whole.

My son, Henry, for example, has been increasingly interested in Pokémon in all its iterations: the trading cards, the TV show and the multitude of online info about both. Increasingly, we’ve felt the need not only to turn off the TV and the computer, but to set limits on all things Pokémon and do something else completely different (like, say, going outside to play or reading).

Simultaneously, my wife and I have also been working to critique the franchise’s worldview with Henry, comparing and contrasting where it values the same things we do, and where its ideas are at odds with a Christian understanding. And on still another level, we’re working to help him recognize and understand that many of the messages he sees are calculated efforts to get him to spend his allowance. In the last few weeks, that’s led to conversations about greed and contentment, thankfulness and asking God to help us wait for what we really want.

In short, then, we’re striving to help our kids navigate the vast quantity of marketing aimed at them in the form of what we might be tempted to see as just a toy or a TV show. Obviously, it’s a lot more than just either of those things. Intentional parental engagement isn’t easy. And we don’t always get it completely right. But we’re committed to connecting even more meaningfully with our children than the many toy marketers out there are trying very hard to do … through every means and medium at their disposal.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Alex Clark More than 1 year ago

--"ki-iroi hana hiroku!!"

Very interesting blog post.  It seems lately that all these merchandising style tie-ins are starting to get more interconnected than they have been in the past.  I remember when it was really unique that "Enter the Matrix" was actually connected to the matrix movies as part of the story-line, and not just a clumsy "retelling in video game form" that a lot of game adaptions are.  Now we have stuff like the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, with movies and TV shows and comics all linked together, and many series getting comic book adaptions and novel tie-ins like MLP: Friendship is Magic, and How to Train Your Dragon.  And it definitely can draw people in to consuming more than they would, just because of the brand; I've felt the effects myself ^^ (For instance, I have to admit that I probably wouldn't be into "Agents of SHIELD" if it weren't a part of the MCU, rather than being a stand-alone series like many of their animated shows.  the fact that it continues and ties in to the events of the movies ads extra appeal that wouldn't be there in a simple adaption.)  

Erik Hitechew More than 1 year ago

--Ever After High is an intriguing example--I came across those at Barnes & Noble while with a friend and inquired if the dolls were related to the Monster High series, which they resembled.  I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the Ever After line was created as a response to parental outcry over young girls playing with vampires and other forms of the undead.  (This doesn't bother me, but my point is that I imagine there are plenty of people who would be offended by this.)

Max Steel I haven't seen, but my mind also shifted not just to the likes of Power Rangers but also to Mobile Suit Gundam, whose products I wouldn't recommend for children not because of the violence--though that is a secondary factor--but because of their sheer complexity.  Those model kits can be rather formidable.  (The shows can serve as a sort of advertisement for the toys, some of which can be very expensive.  Think of the show/toy reinforcement mentioned in this article, except more suitable for grown-ups.)

Pokémon is an odd case since that game was meant to be a social tool from the get-go -- sure, you *could* just collect the cards, but in my mind it was much more fun to actually play the game and interact with other people.  I attend a weekly Pokémon gathering at a local game store, for the cards and the video games, and I'm continually reminded that one of the best things about these products is the i-person social element they encourage.  The original Game Boy games made extensive use of that system's Link Cable capabilities, making the desire to "catch 'em all" and pit creatures against one another in nonlethal, non-dangerous battles an excuse, in the bigger picture, to go out and interact with other players.  (The games have online capabilities now, but that hasn't stopped the in-person meetings or, to the best of my knowledge, slowed them down.)

What personally bothers me more would be the presence of additional purchase fees or small but repetitive transactions inside of mobile games that are marketed toward children, or game systems that were arguably designed to addict young players ("level up," "level up, "level up").

God bless!