TOY STORY

Rose­mary Neill re­ports on an in­dus­try wig­gling its way to a for­tune

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

LAST May, mar­keters who flog stuff to chil­dren gath­ered for a Kid Power con­fer­ence at the up- mar­ket Dis­ney Yacht and Beach Club in Florida. At this re­sort, dec­o­rated to cap­ture an 1800s sea­side sen­si­bil­ity, del­e­gates dis­cussed em­phat­i­cally non- 19th- cen­tury ideas.

They were given tips on how to un­der­stand ‘‘ to­day’s global girl’’ and how to ‘‘ drive kids on­line from the off­line world’’.

One ses­sion demon­strated how ‘‘ com­mer­cially edgy brands reach kids in school while be­ing so­cially re­spon­si­ble’’.

At an­other Kid Power con­fer­ence, held in China in 2003, the ad­vance pub­lic­ity was just as gung- ho: it high­lighted the mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties thrown up by to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Mar­keters were told they could not af­ford to over­look Chi­nese chil­dren be­cause the ‘‘ one- child pol­icy has cre­ated pow­er­ful and vo­cal kid con­sumers with huge buy­ing lever­age’’.

Such rhetoric may be ex­treme, but it un­der­lines how in an age of un­fet­tered glob­al­i­sa­tion mar­ket­ing to chil­dren, es­pe­cially in the field of mass en­ter­tain­ment, has be­come more in­ter­na­tion­alised, more lu­cra­tive and more ma­nip­u­la­tive — or, if you pre­fer, more so­phis­ti­cated — than be­fore. From films to books, live mu­sic to li­censed toys, chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ment is no longer merely some­thing to dis­tract the lit­tle ones while mum or dad cooks din­ner; it’s big busi­ness.

Thirty years ago, li­censed mer­chan­dise spawned by Hol­ly­wood films ex­isted, but wasn’t crit­i­cal to the bot­tom line. That changed dra­mat­i­cally in the late 1970s, once the Star Wars films showed how spin- offs could cre­ate more rev­enue than cin­ema tick­ets. US- based Forbes mag­a­zine es­ti­mated that Star Wars - re­lated prod­ucts have since gen­er­ated $ US20 bil­lion ($ 23 bil­lion) in re­tail sales.

US film jour­nal Variety re­ported that Dis­ney made a $ US1 bil­lion profit from sell­ing The Lion King soft toys, while a more re­cent Dis­ney- Pixar an­i­ma­tion, Cars , gen­er­ated more than $ US900 mil­lion in world­wide mer­chan­dise sales, dou­ble the film’s box- of­fice take.

Hol­ly­wood has now started to ex­ploit this trend in re­verse, cre­at­ing chil­dren’s movies around ex­ist­ing prod­ucts. Re­cent ex­am­ples of this are the Trans­form­ers and Bratz films, ef­fec­tively 90- minute ads for the orig­i­nal toys.

Even the Wig­gles, that im­pos­si­bly whole­some Aus­tralian out­fit who sing about hot pota­toes and fruit salad, sell an as­ton­ish­ing 550 spin- off prod­ucts world­wide. The skivvied fab four are a global force reach­ing 67 coun­tries ( they’re big in North and South Amer­ica and Asia, and are poised to take on Africa).

They are also Aus­tralia’s wealth­i­est en­ter­tain­ers, top­ping BRW’s en­ter­tain­ers’ rich list for three con­sec­u­tive years. Last year, the Wig­gles’ gross earn­ings were $ 50 mil­lion, far more than those of Ni­cole Kid­man and Kylie Minogue.

An­other lead­ing Aus­tralian kids’ group, Hi- 5, has also gone global: their television show is broad­cast in 118 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries, and their re­cent world tour drew 250,000 fans to the mini mosh pits. Like the Wig­gles, Hi- 5 por­tray them­selves as high qual­ity chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ment, cre­ated with early ed­u­ca­tion prin­ci­ples in mind. The all- singing, all- smil­ing quin­tet also bill them­selves as ‘‘ Aus­tralia’s pre­mier chil­dren’s li­censed brand’’.

Since the troupe was founded in 1999, it has sold more than three mil­lion DVDs and videos in Aus­tralia, along with con­tainer- loads of li­censed un­der­wear, py­ja­mas and con­fec­tionery.

Peo­ple may as­sume that preschool­ers’ pro­grams such as Bob the Builder , Thomas the Tank En­gine , Pingu and An­gelina Bal­le­rina — all broad­cast by the ABC — are the hand­i­work of a small cot­tage in­dus­try, dom­i­nated by geeky com­puter an­i­ma­tors and model- mak­ers. In fact, th­ese pro­grams are man­aged, wholly or in part, by HIT En­ter­tain­ment, a $ 1 bil­lion Bri­tish com­pany that sells chil­dren’s shows and ne­go­ti­ates li­cens­ing and mer­chan­dis­ing deals in more than 120 coun­tries.

The Harry Pot­ter phe­nom­e­non demon­strated to pub­lish­ers that chil­dren could be lead­ing play­ers in the mar­ket­place. J. K. Rowl­ing’s nov­els about the be­spec­ta­cled boy wizard have sold more than 300 mil­lion copies and mor­phed into his­tory’s top- gross­ing film fran­chise, out­per­form­ing Star Wars and Bond films at the box of­fice. With the re­lease in July of the fi­nal Pot­ter novel, Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows , pub­lish­ers are clearly des­per­ate for a re­place­ment. Dur­ing the past four months, at least three fan­tasy nov­els aimed at young read­ers ( and one Nick­elodeon car­toon char­ac­ter) have been pro­moted as the next Harry.

Is your lit­tle girl a Rain­bow Magic fan? Th­ese con­cept fairy books are writ­ten by the elu­sive Daisy Mead­ows. Daisy is so elu­sive, she doesn’t ex­ist. Her books are penned by three anony­mous Bri­tish writ­ers who work for a com­pany, Work­ing Part­ners, that maps out chil­dren’s books by com­mit­tee. Ac­cord­ing to The Times , con­tracted writ­ers flesh out char­ac­ters and plots de­vel­oped in meet­ings by an edi­to­rial team.

Th­ese slim novel­las are hardly en­dowed with nar­ra­tive au­dac­ity, but they are a gold­mine: 10 mil­lion Rain­bow Magic books have been sold across the world, two mil­lion of them in Aus­tralia. In May, the Rain­bow Magic fairies were bought by HIT En­ter­tain­ment, which in­tends to turn them into a global brand. Should we worry about the in­creas­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion of our chil­dren’s view­ing, lis­ten­ing and read­ing habits? Is this merely a re­flec­tion of economies of scale that help cover high pro­duc­tion costs, economies that cre­ate a global com­mu­nity of young­sters with com­mon cul­tural ref­er­ence points?

Or are 21st- cen­tury chil­dren — the most ma­te­ri­ally in­dulged in his­tory — be­ing turned into Step­ford kids: pint- sized au­toma­tons ad­dicted to shop­ping, DVDs and com­puter games; brand- con­scious tod­dlers whose imag­i­na­tions are shaped by the rise, fall and rat­ings of bank­able char­ac­ters dreamed up within mar­ket­ing de­part­ments?

Last month, for­mer Play School pre­sen­ter and well- known ac­tor Noni Ha­zle­hurst claimed Aus­tralian chil­dren were be­ing de­nied qual­ity TV pro­gram­ming, caus­ing their imag­i­na­tions to at­ro­phy. ‘‘ In my view it con­sti­tutes noth­ing less than child abuse,’’ Ha­zle­hurst said.

Dun­can Fine, co- au­thor of Why TV is Good for Kids , dis­misses this as ‘‘ hys­ter­i­cal hy­per­bole’’. ‘‘ Real child abuse is hor­rific, but what Noni’s talk­ing about are TV pro­grams she doesn’t like. The same panic has been go­ing on for 30 or 40 years,’’ he says, point­ing out that Se­same Street came un­der at­tack in the ’ 60s for al­legedly pro­mot­ing a hip­pie lifestyle.

‘‘ Television has come to em­body all th­ese fears: that fam­i­lies no longer com­mu­ni­cate; that we fill up our lives and seek in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion through con­sumer things.’’ A for­mer script ed­i­tor for Hi- 5 , Fine ar­gues that if chil­dren’s TVwatch­ing is age- ap­pro­pri­ate and ra­tioned, it can be ed­uca­tive. He also ar­gues that chil­dren aged over eight are not the pas­sive dupes of mer­chan­dis­ers; they of­ten ridicule ad­ver­tise­ments as a play­ground joke, for in­stance.

But Amer­i­can econ­o­mist and au­thor Juliet Schor ar­gues in her book Born to Buy: The Com­mer­cialised Child and the New Con­sumer Cul­ture that chil­dren, un­til re­cently bit play­ers in the mar­ket­place, are now its epi­cen­tre and that mar­ket­ing is ‘‘ fun­da­men­tally al­ter­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of child­hood’’. Her ev­i­dence? That sub­ur­ban streets are empty af­ter school as chil­dren sit in front of TV or com­puter screens; ad­ver­tis­ing is wide­spread in US schools; and elec­tronic me­dia are re­plac­ing con­ven­tional play.

Schor ar­gues that im­mer­sion in con­sumer cul­ture, re­gard­less of a child’s so­cial and eco­nomic back­ground, can cause de­pres­sion, obe­sity and at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der. She says many par­ents shrug off the risks, point­ing out that they grew up watch­ing TV with no ill- ef­fects.

‘‘ But this stance is in­creas­ingly un­ten­able,’’ Schor warns. ‘‘ Day by day, mar­keters are grow­ing bolder. Year by year, the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence about harm­ful ef­fects is mount­ing.’’

Yet TV and film stu­dios have long pro­duced pop­u­lar shows and prof­itable spin- offs aimed at chil­dren. Char­lie Chap­lin cashed in on his pop­u­lar­ity with Lit­tle Tramp sweets, while Mickey Mouse was a global brand for much of the 20th cen­tury. What’s so dif­fer­ent now?

Beryl Langer, a se­nior lec­turer in the school of so­cial science at La Trobe Univer­sity, says that in the 21st cen­tury chil­dren are be­ing tar­geted by mer­chan­dis­ers and mar­keters on an un­prece­dented scale, and ‘‘ it is now be­com­ing so bla­tant, peo­ple are notic­ing’’.

She quotes Amer­i­can Con­sumers Union fig­ures show­ing that world­wide sales of li­censed prod­ucts grew from $ US10 bil­lion in 1980 to $ US64 bil­lion a decade later.

While mer­chan­dise for Hol­ly­wood films was once an op­tional ex­tra, chil­dren’s films and re­lated prod­ucts are of­ten de­vel­oped in tan­dem now, Langer says. Aus­tralian in­dus­try es­ti­mates sug­gest li­censed toys — those linked to a TV, film or book char­ac­ter — ac­count for be­tween 25 per cent and 50 per cent of the do­mes­tic toy mar­ket.

In a pa­per pub­lished in 2004, Langer wrote: ‘‘ What dis­tin­guished the en­ter­tain­ment prod­uct cy­cle that emerged in the wake of the re­lease of Star Wars in 1978 was its global reach, the ac­cel­er­at­ing speed of the fash­ion cy­cles to which chil­dren’s play was bound ( and) the per­va­sive­ness of the prod­uct uni­verse into which chil­dren were drawn.’’

Langer tells Re­view : ‘‘ I cer­tainly wouldn’t want to be pre­sented as some­one who thinks

par­ents are stupid or duped, or that chil­dren are greedy.’’ She agrees there is a streak of pu­ri­tanism within some crit­ics of con­sumerism: ‘‘ Once you talk about af­flu­ence and peo­ple hav­ing this dis­ease ( af­fluenza), you re­ally are pathol­o­gis­ing peo­ple.’’

Yet she strongly dis­agrees with those who say young chil­dren are so­phis­ti­cated enough to ne­go­ti­ate the on­slaught of elec­tronic me­dia and mer­chan­dis­ing: ‘‘ I think that is a bit of a crock.

‘‘ Chil­dren have enor­mous spend­ing power now,’’ she says, not­ing the huge ex­pec­ta­tions sur­round­ing birth­days. She be­lieves it is im­pos­si­ble for fam­i­lies to re­main im­mune from global mer­chan­dis­ing; that if a par­ent tells a child the latest Hol­ly­wood must- have toy ‘‘ is the prod­uct of cap­i­tal­ist ma­nip­u­la­tion, your kid ends up be­ing an iso­lated weirdo’’.

But Langer also points out the kids cul­ture in­dus­try is riven with con­tra­dic­tions and com­pa­nies that mar­ket to chil­dren are of­ten sub­jected to a high level of scru­tiny, re­flect­ing so­ci­ety’s am­biva­lence about mak­ing money out of chil­dren. ‘‘ This makes cor­po­rate brand­ing in the chil­dren’s mar­ket an in­her­ently tricky busi­ness,’’ she ar­gues.

In an ex­am­ple of this, ear­lier this year, Coles, McDon­ald’s and Kel­logg’s were at­tacked for jump­ing on the brand wagon and sub­scrib­ing to a Shrek the Third mar­ket­ing cam­paign that saw the ami­able ogre pop up on high- sugar break­fast ce­re­als and in take­away food boxes. The sel­f­reg­u­lat­ing Ad­ver­tis­ing Stan­dards Bureau cleared the cam­paign of pro­mot­ing pester power.

Nev­er­the­less, Kel­logg’s this year an­nounced its food prod­ucts would no longer be ad­ver­tised to chil­dren un­less they met spe­cific nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments.

* * * THE Wig­gles are so above- board, their res­i­dent pi­rate bran­dishes a feather rather than a sword ( hence the name Cap­tain Feather­sword). Yet be­neath the band’s hokey char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and laun­dered lyrics is a shrewd mer­chan­dis­ing arm that spans the globe.

Paul Field, the Wig­gles’ man­ager ( and brother of blue Wig­gle An­thony), men­tions sev­eral times dur­ing our in­ter­view that var­i­ous band mem­bers are ter­tiary- trained in early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion; in­tegrity is clearly part of the brand, as is win­ning par­ents’ ap­proval. ( Field’s con­ver­sa­tion is pep­pered with so many ‘‘ boys!’’ and ‘‘ wows!’’, it’s as if he has trou­ble con­tain­ing his in­ner Wig­gle.)

‘‘ We are re­ally proud that the brands we have as­so­ci­ated with do have that in­tegrity,’’ the band man­ager says, point­ing out that the Wig­gles have never en­dorsed junk food or con­fec­tionery.

The Wig­gles have sired a sprawl­ing em­pire of li­censed goods, how­ever, rang­ing from BandAids to Big Red Car beds and Wig­gles Worlds at pricey theme parks, in­clud­ing the Gold Coast’s Dream­world. In the US, they have sold 15 mil­lion DVDs and videos and the Dis­ney chan­nel airs their show four times a day. Field isn’t forth­com­ing about how much of the Wig­gles’ in­come comes from mer­chan­dis­ing. But he ac­knowl­edges that such prod­ucts sold at Wig­gles con­certs — the band still spends much of the year tour­ing — are ‘‘ cer­tainly part of the eco­nomic equa­tion’’. This is partly be­cause Wig­gles con­cert tick­ets ( start­ing at $ 17) are much cheaper than those for adult per­form­ers, while venue and pro­duc­tion costs re­main the same.

Field says the Wig­gles try to keep mer­chan­dise prices rea­son­able. Still, he feels ‘‘ there is a ten­dency to point the fin­ger’’. A fa­ther of four, he knows all about pester power: ‘‘ It’s a healthy thing to say no to your child some­times . . . Un­bri­dled con­sumerism, sure there are prob­lems with that. Un­bri­dled out­put is dan­ger­ous, but par­ents have a pretty good radar about the brands that will put their names on any­thing.’’

Hi- 5 ’ s co- founder and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Helena Har­ris ad­mits that with­out its pro­lific mer­chan­dis­ing, the show would not cover its costs. ‘‘ We couldn’t make it with­out it. There’s no use pre­tend­ing. Of course we couldn’t. Where else would we get the money?’’ Har­ris says.

Hi- 5 was de­signed to run in an ad- free slot, and it does on the Nine Net­work. ‘‘ From our point of view, if chil­dren are go­ing to be watch­ing television for half an hour, it should be a worth­while half hour,’’ says Har­ris, who re­veals that mak­ing money from kids dis­com­fits her: ‘‘ I am re­ally un­com­fort­able about it my­self. It’s not some­thing that drives me or any­body in this com­pany.’’ None­the­less, make money they do. Hi- 5, who kick- off a na­tional tour in Jan­uary, are No 8 on the BRW en­ter­tain­ers’ rich list, gross­ing $ 16 mil­lion last year.

I ask Har­ris about the con­tra­dic­tion in­her­ent in broad­cast­ing a show that en­cour­ages singing, danc­ing and ex­er­cise via a medium that en­cour­ages seden­tary be­hav­iour. She says the show’s re­search shows most young view­ers get up and dance to Hi- 5’ s high- en­ergy rou­tines: ‘‘ I would be stunned, if they’re not in­ca­pac­i­tated, if they didn’t ac­tu­ally get up and join in.’’

Ac­cord­ing to the Hi- 5 web­site, the troupe di­rects its shows at ‘‘ to­day’s me­dia- lit­er­ate chil­dren be­tween two and eight’’. Me­dia- lit­er­ate two- year- olds? Do such tots ex­ist? ‘‘ I think they do, ac­tu­ally,’’ says Har­ris, who pro­duced the wildly suc­cess­ful preschool se­ries Ba­nanas in Py­ja­mas . ‘‘ Don’t ask me how they be­come me­dia lit­er­ate by the age of one, but they do.’’ Is this healthy? Har­ris re­sponds: ‘‘ Re­gard­less of whether it is healthy . . . it is the way it is.’’

Bot­tom line: Hi- 5’ s suc­cess­ful mer­chan­dis­ing line in­cludes this Trav­el­ling Cir­cus prize pack

Whole­some:

Hi- 5, far left, bill them­selves as high qual­ity while the Wig­gles, left, make an ef­fort to be eth­i­cal with their mer­chan­dis­ing and as­so­ci­a­tions, such as Dorothy the Di­nosaur, right

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