Characters as Reimagined for the 21st Century
New York Times
June 11, 2008
LOS ANGELES —
Strawberry Shortcake was having an identity crisis. The
“it” doll and cartoon star of the 1980s was just not
connecting with modern girls. Too candy-obsessed. Too
ditzy. Too fond of wearing bloomers.
So her owner, American Greetings Properties, worked for
a year on what it calls a “fruit-forward” makeover.
Strawberry Shortcake, part of a line of scented dolls,
now prefers fresh fruit to gumdrops, appears to wear
just a dab of lipstick (but no rouge), and spends her
time chatting on a cellphone instead of brushing her
calico cat, Custard. Her new look was unveiled Tuesday,
along with plans for a new line of toys from Hasbro.
She is not the only aging fictional star to get a
facelift. An unusually large number of classic
characters for children are being freshened up and
reintroduced — on store shelves, on the Internet and on
television screens — as their corporate owners try to
cater to parents’ nostalgia and children’s YouTube-era
sensibilities. Adding momentum is a retail sector hoping
to find refuge from a rough economy in the tried and
Warner Brothers hopes to “reinvigorate and reimagine”
Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo through a new virtual world on
the Internet, where people will be able to dress up the
characters pretty much any way they want. American
Greetings is dusting off another of its lines, the Care
Bears, which will return with a fresh look this fall
(less belly fat, longer eyelashes).
And 4Kids Entertainment, which licenses the Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles, will revive them next year in new
video games, where they will have more muscles and less
Even Mickey Mouse is getting an update, although the
Walt Disney Company is still mulling what tweaks to
“I love classic Mickey, but he needs to evolve to be
relevant to new generations of kids,” Robert A. Iger,
Disney’s chief executive, said in an interview.
Reinventing these beloved characters without inflicting
indelible damage is one of the entertainment industry’s
trickiest maneuvers. Go too far, as Mattel did in 1993
when it gave Ken a purple mesh T-shirt, a pierced ear
and the name “Earring Magic Ken,” and it can set off a
brand crisis on a global scale.
Done correctly, it can be incredibly lucrative. Mickey
Mouse produces an estimated $5 billion in merchandise
sales every year. Strawberry Shortcake, even in her
diminished state, has generated $2.5 billion in revenue
since 2003, according to American Greetings.
If the classic characters look less stodgy, the
companies hope, they will appeal not only to parents who
remember them fondly, but also to children who might
automatically be suspicious of toys their parents played
with. For parents, nostalgia is considered a bigger
sales hook than ever because of the increasingly violent
and hyper-sexualized media landscape.
“It’s a terrible world, and modern parents are trying to
cocoon their kids as much as possible,” said Alfred R.
Kahn, chairman of 4Kids Entertainment, which also
manages franchises like Pokémon and the Cabbage Patch
Kids. “What better way to protect them than wrapping
them in nostalgic brands?”
Mr. Iger talks about the need to balance “heritage and
innovation.” For Mickey and other Disney characters, one
method is to keep the core attributes of the characters
the same, but to update the world in which they live.
For instance, Disney is updating Toontown, the section
of Disneyland that Mickey calls home. One plan features
an old-fashioned trolley, but Mr. Iger is not sure that
is a smart idea. Will modern children know what an
old-fashioned trolley is?
Warner Brothers, by contrast, is leaving the styling
decisions up to the customers, some of whom were weaned
on virtual worlds like Disney’s Club Penguin (where they
can, say, dress a virtual penguin in a pirate costume
and make it dance). At KidsWB.com, which is rolling out
a revised site over the summer, the studio will let
people customize Looney Tunes characters as they see
“You want a dark, Goth version of Tweety Bird? Have at
it,” said Lisa Gregorian, executive vice president for
worldwide marketing at Warner Brothers Television.
New media applications have created opportunities that
companies did not have before, Ms. Gregorian said. And
one reason the characters bring in so much money is that
their owners have pumped them out all over the place: on
direct-to-DVD movies, television programs, toys,
clothing, video games, furniture and even live stage
There have been some noteworthy misfires. Warner
Brothers has struggled to make the Looney Tunes crowd
relevant to modern children, introducing
futuristic-looking versions of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck
in a new television series in 2005. But many parents
hated the “Loonatics,” which had mohawks and menacing
Earring Magic Ken is the industry’s nightmare. The
character, who had blond highlights in his hair and a
leather vest, drew howls from consumers, who did not see
him as a realistic boyfriend for Barbie. Ken was already
coping with arched eyebrows over his sexual orientation,
and he seemed to have come out of the closet — something
that Mattel most definitely did not intend.
Most of the brands getting a makeover are from the
1980s. Licensing experts say they perceive a subtle
psychological game at play, an attempt to hit the
nostalgia button on a generation of young parents just
as they start to feel their first twinges of middle age.
Playing up nostalgia, of course, has long been one of
this industry’s favorite gimmicks. But this time,
companies have an added incentive from the sour economy.
Chains from Wal-Mart to Toys “R” Us are less likely to
take a shot on untested product lines during weak
economic times — especially because efforts to create
new characters have had mixed results in recent years,
said Christopher Byrne, an independent toy consultant.
The same for TV networks. As new cartoon series flop,
familiar names start to look like a good bet. Witness
“Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps,” a new animated
show based on the popular children’s books, which will
begin this fall on PBS Kids.
For American Greetings, updating Strawberry Shortcake
was about leaving the troubles of the modern world
behind and playing up a fantasy angle, said Jeffrey
Conrad, the company’s head creative designer.
Artists produced nearly 400 drawings depicting new
looks, then American Greetings asked licensing partners
for feedback. With the drawings hanging in a single
room, he told focus group members to put Post-it notes
on the 20 that they liked. “We refined it from there,”
On top of her new toy line, Strawberry Shortcake is
getting a new computer-animated movie and a new TV
series, starting next year. This time, in keeping with
contemporary nutritional concerns, the franchise will
downplay the sugary dessert theme and move, as Mr.
Conrad put it, “fruit-forward.”
“It’s also about creating a cohesive line,” Mr. Conrad
said. “We’re downplaying characters that were part of
Strawberry’s world but who didn’t immediately shout out
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