Girls and ponies

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May 14, 2013 by Tamara Piety

As reported in previous posts, one of the problems in regulating advertising is separating advertising from content. The whole idea seems quaint in these days when toy manufacturers produce entire movies about their products and then entwine them in a labyrinth of endorsements, tie-ins and packing that make it impossible not to conclude the story, the plot, the entire film isn’t one big, feature-length commercial.  Today’s news brought word that Hasbro,  “the toy company that brought its Transformers and G.I. Joe properties to movie theaters,” is creating a brand extension from its “My Little Pony” series called “Equestria Girls.”  There is already apparently a TV series called “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” Who knew? I guess if you don’t have children in the target age group you wouldn’t.

Of course it entails enough pink to be mistaken for a Pepto-Bismol ad (check it out and see if you don’t think there is an eerie similarity between the look and feel of Equestria Girls and Pepto-Bismol) and the trailer is perhaps nauseating enough to send you running for some relief. Lots of pink, triumphing over mean girls, worrying about boys, purses, hair and other staples of programming aimed at girls. Apparently being blue or purple is what passes for diversity if the trailer is anything to go by. And all of it presumably aimed at an age group younger than that “portrayed” (if that is the right word) in the movie – by one report children aged 2-11.

Interestingly enough, the product and brand attracted a group of adult male fans (although given the drawings, maybe not that odd) who call themselves “bronies” which is apparently a mash-up of “bro” and “pony.” That just goes to show that even something like “My Little Pony,” which seems about as gender-stereotyped as you can get with its relentless pink and sparkles and princesses – can, in the hands of the public, turn into something else entirely. See this coverage in the Wall St. Journal.

One wonders though whether this enthusiasm from an unexpected quarter actually sells much merchandise. Maybe it doesn’t matter though. Perhaps these unexpected groups serve another important purpose.

The unexpected appeal of “My Little Pony” to a discrete adult fan base, however limited,  highlights one of the difficulties in attempting to regulate marketing to children too young to be considered “rational” or who can be expected to understand that this fun website, TV program, movie, is created to try to sell them (or their parents) a product: even if you segregate out explicitly cartoon-ish elements under the theory that this sort of pitch cannot possibly be calculated to appeal to anyone but young children you encounter these unexpected pockets of adult audiences which then blur the lines. For First Amendment purposes this is problematic for regulators if not for sellers because it is easier to regulate material directed at children on some ground other than truth or falsity (at least in theory) than that directed at adults. (Although, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants which struck down California’s attempt to regulate violent video games sold to children, this idea that we can regulate content directed at children more rigorously than that directed at adults might not apply.)

You almost have to wonder whether these news stories about adult fans for toys like “My Little Pony,” “Hello Kitty,” or Beanie Babies aren’t intended to create just that sort of distraction. I don’t doubt that these groups, as improbable as they seem, exist. I do wonder how organic they are because their existence serves a  useful if non-obvious purpose –to further insulate the advertisers from regulation by being able to claim that any limitations on the ads aimed at children would sweep in adults as well. Would such line blurring be useful enough for the advertisers to actually encourage the development of fan clubs like the bronies? Unclear. It is hard to imagine setting out to get young men interested in “My Little Pony.” And that starts looking sort of paranoid.

On the other hand, as i noted the other day with respect to diamond engagement rings; on the heels of the Great Depression, when most people apparently thought spending money on a diamond ring was like throwing money down the drain, it might have appeared quixotic in the extreme for Debeers to try to sell the American public on the idea that you needed a diamond to get married. But it happened.

The bronies phenomenon may be “the stranger thing” that has happened, but my limited exposure to the industry makes me somewhat cynical. It appears that anything is possible, including trying to create your own anomalous fan group. And there is no way to tell for sure how the Wall St. Journal and Advertising Age found out about this phenomenon unless you are on the inside and get the PR Newswire or something like this.

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