Move over Santa Claus.
Buzz Lightyear and Rugrats, you're history. Hello Kitty - there's a new tom on the block.
This Christmas belongs to a pointy-eared rosy-cheeked yellow ball of fluff called Pikachu
- who has conquered the world by stealth and cuteness. John Paul Catton
gets lost in Pokedom.
Those who have lived in Japan over the past few years will be familiar with the fuzzy
little icon who resides in the Nintendo game and anime show called Pocket Monster
(or Pokemon). What's been surprising, though, is the speed with which it has
become popular abroad - in the US, Europe, Australia and much of Southeast Asia - and the
frenzy of consumerism the Pokephenom has unleashed.
beginning, it was uncertain as to whether Pokemon would be available in the US at all.
"Quite honestly, role-playing games, particularly for the Game Boy system, were never
popular in the US," remembers Gale Tilden, vice-president of Nintendo product
development and acquisition. "We had a real concern that [Pokemon] would be a hard
sell for us."
discussions between Nintendo executives, Pokemon was introduced through the animated TV
show, which aired in September 1998, followed by the introduction of the hand-held games,
then trading cards, and finally the movie, opening to scenes eclipsing this summer's Star
Wars extravaganza. The film (titled, in a stunning display of imagination Pokemon; The
First Movie) took in $25 million in its first two days. Thousands of children across
the US skipped school to attend the premiere (because it was on a Wednesday - doh!).
Pokemon game is based on a staple children's obsession - monsters, 151 of them. The object
is to collect as many as you can and engage them in battle with other
"trainers," but the unique marketing angle here is that it's a variation on the
Tamagochi boom of several years ago. Each cartridge contains a slightly different number
of inhabitants, so to play the game, you have to physically hook up your cartridge with
another player's by buying a special lead. The trading cards have also proved to be
crucial to the sales campaign, as they have become one of the most highly collectible
products worldwide, with rare sets being auctioned on the Internet for figures in excess
of $100. A deluge of Pokemon-related products has since followed - dolls, watches,
sleeping bags, etc. You name it - if it's got Pikachu on it, it'll make a buck.
Interestingly enough, the most sought-after items in the US right now are the original
most crowded time I've ever seen was summer 1998, during the screening of the first
Pokemon movie. That's what we called the Pokemon bakuhatsu (explosion)."
Fun and games
When Pikachu graced the November cover of The New Yorker, it was a sign that the
phenomenon was being taken very seriously indeed. The scale of the marketing and
merchandising involved was without precedent. A flood of counterfeit trading cards into
the US early this summer was referred to the FBI. The TV show is now the top-rated
children's show in the world, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Pokemon buzz
contributed to the 250% jump in Game Boy sales in the first quarter of 1999, as well as
the near-doubling of Nintendo stock since March. Retail sales of Pokemon products
worldwide are expected to pass the billion dollar mark at the end of this year.
A taste of the hysteria to come was seen on November 1, when Warner Bros. announced over
an LA-based radio station a contest with free tickets to the movie premiere as the prize.
Calls came through at the rate of 70,000 a minute, forcing the company to close down its
voice mail system.
The fever then spread to
Burger King stores across the US, as their largest marketing campaign ever got under way -
an expenditure of $22 million. The special meal sets almost resulted in riots, with Burger
King outlets crammed with crying children, desperate parents, and avaricious toy
collectors all fighting for a piece of the action (how many burgers went uneaten remains
unknown). Meanwhile, the boardrooms of rival McDonald's have been resounding with the
sound of senior executives kicking themselves. A rock-solid $30 million deal with Disney
to promote Toy Story 2 seemed the ultimate dream, but like everybody else, they hadn't
figured on the pulling power of pesky little Pikachu.
been largely bemused by the reaction across the Pacific, as here they have known for
decades that it's cuteness that really sells. The global success has been a relief to the
previously troubled Nintendo, and also a dream come true to the game's creators, Tajiri
Satoshi and Ishihara Tsunekazu, founders of the company Game Freak. They spent six years
developing the product, before the deal they made with Nintendo allowed the finished
product to go on sale in February 1996. "When I finished Pokemon," confesses
Tajiri, "I thought Nintendo would reject it. I was like a baseball player sliding
into second base, knowing he's going to be out. But somehow I was safe."
So began the meteoric rise to fame - marred only by the "Pokemon Shock" incident
of December 1997. The TV show was suddenly pulled when almost 700 children had fits and
convulsions after watching an episode featuring strobe-like computer graphics. After
numerous apologies, and new guidelines for TV producers, the bandwagon was allowed to roll
your cards right
In Japan, the focus of Nintendo's retail operation is the Pokemon Center in the heart of
Nihonbashi. During the week, 1500 people on average pass through its gates, going up to
4000 a day on weekends. "The most crowded time I've ever seen," recalls manager
Makiko Osada, "was summer 1998, during the screening of the first Pokemon movie.
That's what we called the Pokemon bakuhatsu (explosion)."
non-Japanese parents living in Tokyo, the range of English-language products is limited.
They don't sell the English versions of the animated videos or the board-game developed
with TOMY. They do sell the trading cards in English, but the waiting list to place an
order is frightening to think about. "What I would say is just come down to the
Pokemon Center and see what we do have on offer," counseled Osada. "The range is
so vast, you are sure to find something you like. The highlight of our campaign this
Christmas is the new Gold and Silver game cartridges, which contain new maps, a new story,
and 100 new monsters. The 'secret path' of the new game involves finding Pokemon eggs...
which nobody has ever seen before." Alternative ways of acquiring the trading cards
worth investigating are Tokyo Oroshuri Center, an exhibition and wholesale retail outlet
in Gotanda (03-3494-2200). There is also Narita airport - this writer got a sneaky tip
saying there were some in the duty free shopping area, although that may well have changed
by the time you read this.
foreign appeal is not just limited to the US. The movie opened in Australia on the same
day and to similar scenes of adulation. The TV show has been screened in Germany and
Italy, with other European countries to follow suit - along with the games and other
merchandise, of course. The Nintendo toys have been part of a wider craze in Southeast
Asia, with all the facets of Japanese pop culture - from Hello Kitty to Mononoke Hime,
from Sailor Moon to the gory "Ring" - inspired psycho-horror movies - suddenly
acquiring a legion of young fans from Singapore to South Korea. The attraction there
being, as some observers have pointed out, the protagonists are recognizably Asian, and
share a visible heritage and cultural link.
bakuhatsu "What makes this marketing campaign is its emphasis on sheer
acquisitiveness. That tag line 'you gotta catch em all' means 'you gotta buy them
can play this game
In teen fads of this kind before, this is when parents across the world start wringing
their hands and wailing about how the craze is "corrupting" their children and
distracting them from what they "should be" doing. A surprising number of
parents, however, have been coming out in favor of the ubiquitous Pokemon. Unlike the
previous Game Boy games, the red and blue handsets actually encourage interaction, rather
than let the preteen sink into a solitary game world.
claim that the game, and by extension the shows and the movie, emphasizes traditional
Japanese values, such as teamwork, compassion, and value judgment. The interactive nature
means that children must also cooperate and negotiate, and along the way they learn
reading and mathematics skills. "That's pure bunkum," says James Hudson of the
LA-based Society of Consumer Concerns. "What makes this marketing campaign is its
emphasis on sheer acquisitiveness. That tag line 'you gotta catch 'em all' means 'you
gotta buy them all'."
Indeed, many schools have banned the trading cards from their playgrounds and hallways
because they are seen to promote the more aggressive aspects of competitive behavior. A
lawsuit has recently been filed against Nintendo by a group of parents, claiming that the
cards deliberately encourage gambling. Britain's Early Learning Center has refused to
stock the entire range of goods because it considers them too violent, and in a recent
surprise move, Puerto Rican politician Roberto Cruz called for an inquest into their
influence on children's behavior, because he finds the appearance of the monsters
realistic terms, however, Pokemon may well be a victim of its own success. Parents around
the world have consistently been disappointed by the failure of supply to keep up with
demand (the damage caused by the recent earthquake in Taiwan didn't help matters - that's
where computer chips used in the Game Boys were manufactured). It also faces an
increasingly tough rival in the form of Bandai Corporation and its hand-held Wonderswan
game set. Bandai is now on the attack with Wonderswan and its "DigiMon" software
(no prizes for guessing DigiMon means Digital Monster). There's also the rank outsider
Konami Corp, who is behind the Yugi-Oh Duel Monsters game and collectible card sets. Japan
was taken totally unawares by the chaotic scenes at Tokyo Dome in August, where Konami had
arranged a Yugi-Oh tournament and swap meet. Failing to cope with the 55,000 fans who
turned up, the organizers decided to close the event early - and then had to call riot
police when the angry, hyped-up crowd refused to leave.
In the future, Pokemon is destined to go the way of all toys - the preserve of childhood
memories and the treasure of memorabilia-hunters. In Japan, however, it will join the hall
of fame of nationally recognized icons, along with Ultraman, Sazae-san and Doraemon,
representing pop culture at the end of the millennium... so let the future media pundits
and social historians have a good time puzzling that one out.