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