Born to Buy

© Disney/Pixar

In a memory from when I was 4 or 5-years-old, I am in my car seat, behind my dad, who navigates the family van through plodding traffic. I don’t remember where we were headed, or where my mother and two siblings were, but I do remember that I was bored out of my skull. I reach across the seat, as far as my twiggy arms can stretch, fingers splayed toward my Woody doll, which my parents had given me the Christmas after taking me to Toy Story. For a good deal of my childhood, the stuffed sheriff ranked among the top tier of my toys, which also included a Buzz Lightyear, and—of course—a Game Boy Color that almost exclusively projected Pokémon.

Now, some 20 years later, I can close my eyes and still hear Tom Hanks in the doll’s tin-toned speaker, informing me that I’m his favorite deputy. The Buzz doll’s gaudy laser SFX and Tim Allen’s “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!” stuck in my ear. I can still direct you through the darkened cave to Lavender Town in Pokémon Blue, can hum its theme song and hear its 8-bit instrumentation in my head, can recall the B-button’s crunch, from the time I spilled apple juice on my Game Boy and never cleaned it. These things stay with a person. They become sensory data; they spring back effortlessly, even after decades.

I can’t remember a time in my life when this information was not in my brain. These bits are among the oldest data on my mental hard drive.

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In the spring of 1992, shortly before I was born, there was a dust-up over Fox Broadcasting’s plans to air a Saturday morning cartoon starring Chester Cheetah, a sun-glassed cheese glutton designed by Frito-Lay to hawk Cheetos to young viewers. Parental advocacy groups were not happy; according to a New York Times story on the issue, a coalition that included Action for Children’s Television swiftly condemned airing what would essentially be a 21-minute commercial for junk food. Chester Cheetah got caught in the middle of a boiling conflict: Concerned parents and opportunistic politicians versus broadcasting and snack food corporations.

Speaking to the Times, Margaret Loesch, then-president of Fox Children’s Network, said it was not the broadcasting giant’s intention to sell Cheetos with the new cartoon. They simply wanted to capitalize on the popular character to create a similarly popular television program.

Although this claim was dubious at best, Loesch made an interesting counterargument about Mickey Mouse. She posited that the cartoon rodent, like the amphetaminic cheetah, had evolved to serve both as the central character of beloved children’s media and as a spokesman. The myriad toys, snacks, books, CDs, school supplies, clothing, etc. that one could buy with Mickey’s mug on them corroborate this idea, as do the widely attended Disney theme parks.

Sure, Chester Cheetah began as an advertisement. But should his origin have precluded him from becoming hero of his own misadventures, because he started on the opposite side than the Mouse of a dual-purpose that all cartoon characters have come to occupy?

Ultimately, the show, Yo! It’s the Chester Cheetah Show!, never made it to air. But Chester starred in two video games for the NES and continues to this day to appear as a plush toy, on t-shirts, and, of course, in virtually all of Cheetos’ advertising, for one simple reason: he is effective. He is effective for the same reasons that The California Raisins and Ronald McDonald are effective. Children respond to bright colors, funny voices, and silly personalities. They respond to Chester Cheetah’s gruff cheese lust, to Ronald’s clowning, and to the Raisins’ jazzy routines imploring young minds to eat cheese-dusted corn puffs, soggy burgers, and dried grapes.

Further, though: in 2017, cartoon characters don’t really lead a double life anymore. We are, at all times, surrounded by images and narratives, to the point that fictional beings have integrated into our worldviews as deeply as close friends and family. Before media became so omnipresent, the divide between consuming and not consuming appeared to be as simple as flipping the television switch or abstaining from the movies. As a child of the ‘90s, my entire life, since birth, has paralleled the rapid proliferation of screens and moving images. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a cartoon character whose purpose wasn’t to sell me something. Reflecting on the media I consumed as a kid, a shockingly effective cycle emerges:

Films/TV: The narrative storytelling that introduces us to characters to make us care about them, to identify with their virtues, flaws, and struggles, and to satisfy us with neatly packaged Aristotelian plots that:

1) with films, send us home feeling good, humming songs, shouting quotes, running around the living room reenacting our favorite scenes, or…

2) with TV, like with snack food, satisfy us just enough to seed desire, to file the next episode under can’t-miss-or-will-die, or…

3) with the most successful franchises, leverage our brand loyalties to sell us films and TV shows, and use each as a commercial for the other.

Related Media: This includes toys, video games, fruit snacks, soundtracks—you name it. Any sort of object or media with which we can interact to elicit positive sensations: the soft fabric of a doll or the thwack of two colliding figures; the rewarding sound effects we learn to associate with winning a battle, leveling up, gaining a vital prize; pleasant, sugary flavors; an ear-worm melody of triumph or epic march toward battle.

Iconography: T-shirts, backpacks, lunch boxes, binders, folders, pencils and pens, carrying cases for said pencils and pens—any physical object featuring a child’s favorite characters they can bring to school and, unlike a toy or a video game, proudly display in the middle of a classroom in view of their peers; objects that provide children with positive interactions. In the fertile social environment of childhood—where one is just beginning to adopt values, beliefs, and customs and to influence these in others—these icons serve a vital role. They are a marketer’s greatest trick: materials that transform a child into a walking advertisement, one which their parents paid for.

Although the narrative storytelling is the big kahuna, a child’s access to the characters and images can begin at any one of these three stations, as they journey to the others. Truly cyclical, the process feeds off itself.

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Perhaps no other children’s media embodies this idea of a buying cycle better than the Pokémon empire.

The entire franchise derives from a Japanese video game about the eponymous creatures, but when the English dub of the anime debuted, the mania really took off. Ash Ketchum, the ambitious (and very annoying) protagonist, is on a quest to “catch ’em all.” This statement of purpose appears on virtually all Pokémon media, beneath the yellow-and-blue logo. It serves as a tagline for the TV show and battle cry of the devotees. In 1998, Ash and his friends, including the world-famous Pikachu, made their theatrical debut in Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back!, which, despite being a genuinely horrible film whose multi-tiered title confounds, grossed upwards of $160 million worldwide.

The film was the crown jewel of the veritable Pokémania sweeping the planet at the time, where everywhere you turned Pikachu’s face graced the TV, soared above Manhattan at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and glowed upon an endless array of toys and trading cards in his and his pocket-monster cohorts’ likenesses.

In the tangled web of integrated media, finding beginnings and endings in the Pokémon franchise is even harder than a needle in the proverbial hay. Everything fits so snugly into the cycle of influence. After the success of this first film, Ash’s story has continued in various TV incarnations for over 20 years, and in 18 films. As for the video games, over 60 titles have appeared across every platform Nintendo has introduced since 1997.

Critically speaking, the films and anime feature grating characters, formulaic plots, and beyond irritating voice acting. The games are all functionally derivative of the original title, as are the offshoots, like Pokémon GO, which amounts to little more than walking around with your head down and destroying your cell phone battery. They offer practically nothing besides the familiar characters—which, of course, is the point. Pokémon GO, despite its limitations, allegedly received upwards of 500 million downloads. With it, the franchise capitalized on the loyalty they’ve bred in a generation of consumers.

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Like Pokémon, Toy Story has also featured a trio of films (with a fourth incoming), some television, and additonial forays into video games. It spawned a great deal of merchandising, having taken nods for its characters from preexisting toys and then popularizing physical renditions of the same, like my Woody doll.

One thing that Toy Story managed to do that Pokémon has chosen not to is age with its audience. Like Harry Potter, although less ubiquitous, the series grew up alongside the children that, like me, were barely sentient when its first film came out.

In the second film, we were introduced to Jessie, a female counterpart to Woody. We learned that Andy’s favorite sheriff doll originated as a character on a children’s television show. These meta references to the role toys play in children’s lives, as extensions of a young mind’s very identity, endeared the characters to an entire generation of viewers. The second film elevated Toy Story from one-off hit to a franchise. Real-life counterparts to Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and their friends were produced en masse, allowing children to use these tangible objects as vectors for the personalities they’d come to adore onscreen. It’s emotionally resonant, but considering that a major theme of Toy Story is how unique Buzz is from all other Buzz Lightyear toys, it’s also ironic that its product line encouraged such connections with mass produced likenesses.

In the third film, this emotional resonance peaks. Eleven years after Toy Story 2 came the third installment, where both Andy and the toys deal with the existential crisis of moving away to college, and what this will mean for their relationship. In the film’s narrative structure, this conflict is perhaps merely a framing device, as the meat of the movie consists of the toys’ escape from a shady daycare, but it’s fitting that it concludes with Andy’s decision to give them away to his young neighbor. It’s a reflection of the original audience, who had grown into young adults themselves since the first film—like me, 18-years-old and sitting in a southeastern Ohio movie theater with my parents, 500 miles from home and shortly before I moved to college myself.

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The German playwright Bertolt Brecht resented this kind of Aristotelian storytelling, writing of the need in inter-war Germany to dispel such emotional investments in fictional narratives. He saw popular entertainment, like the theatre and cinema, too easily manipulated to promote nationalistic agendas. He implored his fellow theater makers, and by extension all artists, to radically transform their mediums, in order to combat their exploitative potential.

While it’s easy to shrug off Brecht’s ideas as reactionary, I think his view of the emotionally manipulative potential of Aristotle’s ideas is not too far-fetched. Look at how Hollywood, our country’s standard-bearer of narrative storytelling, uses character, plot, and emotion to influence our wallets, especially with regard to children.

An important distinction to be made here is that these ideas in no way reflect the inherent quality of a piece of media. Toy Story is a delightful and moving series of films, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Pokémon games, and Yo! It’s the Chester Cheetah Show! almost certainly would have been very, very bad TV.

But it should raise eyebrows that a snack food ad transitioning to a series is considered wrong, while the opposite is acceptable. Perhaps all children’s media is an advertisement. After all, what was Steamboat Willie besides a way to compel more children to attend the movies? What is any children’s film but a vehicle to sell them and their guardian’s tickets to see it?

Maybe, when a kid likes something, they have the opportunity to express their fandom in all its innumerable forms. This is a nice idea, but it’s worth noting that integrated media is not as aggressive for other films. There’s no La La Land video game. As far as I know, no such thing exists as a Mahershala Ali plush doll. Children’s psyches are the most fertile soil in which to seed lifelong devotions and buying habits. I can’t help but think that Brecht would shudder.

My own life is wrapped in threads of influence that begin from my earliest memories and, though I’m not much of a gamer or toy-purchaser now, remain with me in adulthood. I was not among those queuing for Pokémon Sun and Moon last November, but I did download Pokémon GO, if only for its ubiquity and a lingering curiosity to see what those familiar characters were up to. Even though part of me doesn’t want to, I will probably go see Toy Story 4, if only to find out if Pixar ruins the series. I have loyalty to these brands. They remain a part of how I have learned to view the world.

*

A few years after the one in the back of the van, I have another memory of my Woody doll. My older sister loved Toy Story too, particularly the sheriff, but for whatever reason my parents never purchased her a Woody doll. Meanwhile, I had both Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the latter of whom I liked better anyway. So one year, for my sister’s birthday, I gave her my doll.

She held onto it for a few years, but neither of us remembers what happened to Woody. Nor do I know what became of Buzz or my Game Boy cartridges, the VHS tapes on our wooden shelf, the DVDs that replaced them, or most of the other pieces of plastic that dot the landscape of my memories. Perhaps—probably—they’re in a landfill somewhere, millions of years away from their half-lives, or maybe another kid inherited them after I lost interest. Wherever they rest, I can still close my eyes and hear them, feel their plastic contours, remember the images they projected onto my family’s screens.


D.R. Baker is a writer of fiction, music, essays, and plays. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Young FolksIndependent Music News, Paragraph Planet, The Open House: Telephone, Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, and on stages in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. Dan also creates instrumental music under the name After Lake Starfish. He lives in New York City.