BUSINESS

WHO’S BUGS BUNNY, DAD?

Selling old cartoons these days calls for creative new marketing

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 27 2007
BUSINESS

WHO’S BUGS BUNNY, DAD?

Selling old cartoons these days calls for creative new marketing

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 27 2007

WHO’S BUGS BUNNY, DAD?

BUSINESS

Selling old cartoons these days calls for creative new marketing

JAIME J. WEINMAN

How do you market cartoon characters to children when they don’t know who those characters are? That’s the problem big studios are facing when it comes to Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker. They’ve tried and failed to introduce these funny-talking drawings to a new generation of children. And now that it’s finally becoming clear that kids would rather watch SpongeBob Squarepants than Popeye the Sailor, the studios have to do the unthinkable: market classic cartoons to adults.

This year alone has brought a flood of DVD releases and other products that basically present cartoon characters as classic movie icons for adults, like Humphrey Bogart or some other dead star. Recently released were a mammoth Popeye collection (from Warner Brothers, which aquired the rights to these cartoons a few years ago) and a 75-cartoon collection from Universal focusing on Woody Woodpecker as well as lesser-known cartoon stars like Chilly Willy, who’s mostly remembered for being mentioned one time on The Simpsons. These collections include things only grown-ups would be interested in, such as verbose audio commentaries; they also restore scenes that are usually banned from kids’ TV for offensive content.

George Feltenstein, head of classic DVD releases for Warner Home Video, fought to get permission to release Looney Tunes and Popeye cartoons through his department instead of the “family entertainment” (i.e. kids’ entertainment) division. He told Maclean’s that this approach maximizes the audience for these sets, in a way that couldn’t happen with traditional, kids-only marketing: “There is a viable market out there for just plain cartoons, which young parents buy for their children. So we market these great films two different ways.”

But even if the adults-first approach didn’t work, companies like Warner Brothers and Universal would have little choice but to try it: there’s no more kids’ market for old cartoons. For decades, these companies had a kid-oriented marketing strategy that benefited from TV stations’ need for affordable children’s programming. Jerry Beck, an animation historian and consultant on these DVD sets, says that the cartoons were on TV

THE MALE CARTOON CHARACTER TWEETY SELLS DRESSES AND PURSES

for decades mostly because the broadcast rights were so cheap: “The only reason we grew up with the classic cartoon characters is that TV programmers were too lazy to start a campaign to create new cartoons.” When TV companies realized that they could make more money from new cartoons, it was the end of the classics on TV: “It’s more lucrative,” Beck says, “to create something that might become SpongeBob Squarepants or Rugrats than to revive Mighty Mouse or Sidney the Elephant or something like that.”

But the disappearance of TV reruns as a market for old cartoons meant that a company like Warner Brothers—which makes an estimated $4 billion a year from Looney Tunes merchandise—had no way of keeping the brand going with a new generation of children, particularly after the WB-owned Cartoon Network dumped old cartoons from its schedule. Four years ago, Warner Brothers attempted to counter the TV bust with a “reinvigoration” of its cartoon franchises, inviting more than 500 marketing and licensing executives to a presentation and telling Joyceann Cooney, editor-in-chief of License! magazine, that it would re-popularize Bugs and Daffy with “new theatrical shorts, a feature film, and a new animated series.” But the feature film (Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and animated series (Baby Looney Tunes) flopped, and the new shorts were so bad they weren’t released to theatres.

And so, having finally realized that the kiddie market can’t be revived, corporate executives are identifying new target audiences. While home video departments market to adults who grew up with classic cartoons, the

marketing and licensing departments have taken a different tack: going after people who may never have seen their cartoons at all. Karen McTier, Warner Brothers’ executive vice-president for domestic licensing and worldwide marketing, told Maclean’s that being constantly on TV isn’t as important as it used to be, because today, character brands are sold by “identifying and capitalizing on new lifestyle trends to reach consumers.”

What this means is that cartoon characters are being marketed separately from their actual films and characterizations. Take Tweety, the little yellow bird character. Though the original Tweety and Sylvester cartoons are loud and violent, the character looks kind of cute when removed from the films and placed on a T-shirt. Tweety is now the most popular Warner Brothers character in licensing, because, McTier says, girls love him: “Tweety is our No. 1 character brand and true Looney Tunes breakout star with females of all ages.” It doesn’t matter that Tweety, like most classic cartoon characters, is a male; Warner Brothers’s marketing campaigns never mention Tweety’s actual gender, and so the company has managed to take him out of context and turn him into a distaff marketing phenomenon: “Our fashion platform for Tweety has created a huge buzz in the apparel and accessories categories,” McTier explains.

So in the absence of the TV market, there are two outlets for cartoon characters: lifestyle marketing like Tweety dresses and purses, and “classic” DVD sets aimed at hard-core collectors. The problem companies face, though, is that these two markets aren’t always compatible. To protect the marketing viability of the characters, Warner Brothers has put some restrictions on what can be said or shown on the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, even to the point of including a widely reviled disclaimer from Whoopi Goldberg (apologizing for any racially insensitive content) on one of the sets. And meanwhile, the licensing department has to scramble to hide the fact that these products are based on old cartoons; their licensing campaigns might be hurt if too many people watch the DVDs and discover that Tweety is a guy, or that he hasn’t made a major cartoon since 1964.

But overall, both home video and licensing executives seem confident they can still make plenty of money from these characters. And as Feltenstein points out, Popeye and Woody Woodpecker were never really intended for the children’s market anyway: they were made for movie theatres and enjoyed “decades of theatrical success” before they were turned into kids’ TV entertainment.

Ironically, the new way to market these characters is just the way they were marketed in the first place. M