Dr. Carolyn Jong
March 31, 2017
For any profit-oriented enterprise, it is vital to create a recognizable brand through solid marketing in the hopes of making their products a household name. Products of cultural efforts, such as movies and literature, traditionally occupied a single medium; books were stories on paper and movies were presented in theaters. With the advent of digital storytelling through video games, a new frontier opened up which has made it possible for a story to be told in one form, such as interactive fiction, and then be brought to cinema or literature and vice-versa. Although the success of transmedia storytelling is highly variable, one particular franchise has lucratively developed its main brand into a multi-medium franchise. Since its inception by creator Satoshi Tajiri in 1995, Pokémon has grown from being an inauspicious release on the original Game Boy handheld console to one of the world’s most recognizable and profitable franchises (Chua-Eoan, Larimer), with over 4.8 trillion yen in cumulative sales as of 2016 (The Pokémon Company). Yet such numbers would not be possible if the Pokémon franchise did not expand from the electronic entertainment industry and thrive in other mediums such as trading card games, several seasons of an animated television show, multiple movies, toys, and even mobile gaming. The wide range of products offered and mediums in which it is represented is what made Pokémon the global phenomenon it is today. The Pokémon Company, which is a consortium between video game industry giant Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures Inc., has done so by creating a dependence on their products through multiplatform storytelling, with help from unauthorized Pokémon products, and through localization of its products.
Pokémon’s success on the global market was accomplished by creating a dependence on their products through the use of multiplatform storytelling. In revisiting Globalization Through the Movie and Digital Games Industries, Kerr and Flynn explain that audiences are attracted to products of pre-sold properties “…even though they have not consumed it in its adapted form.”(Kerr and Flynn, 103) This, paired with the multitude of products and mediums to consume, ensured that there would always be new experiences to attract consumers to their brand. Furthermore, the iconic slogan “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, used to challenge players to catch every Pokémon they encounter in the games, also challenges consumers to purchase as much merchandise as they can in order to become a Pokémon master, reaching wider and wider demographics with every product they put out. With the theme of collecting and trading featuring so prominently within the game, releasing a trading card game would be a logical step to reach a new demographic. People who care more for a cinematic experience can enjoy the anime and movies. However, while each of these mediums are unrelated to each other in terms of story, each taking place within alternate universes, they have ways of affecting and interacting with each other as well as enhance one’s experience of the Pokémon universe as a whole. The anime and manga, for instance, give insight on the lives and personalities of characters in the games, while also giving information on the strengths and weaknesses of Pokémon who appear on screen, and showing you new Pokémon to try to find in the wild for yourself. Researcher Julian Sefton-Green described a case he studied in which a boy became fascinated with Pokémon and devoted great time and energy to learning everything about Pokémon through the consumption of various forms of media.(Graham) This idea of searching for information through other forms of media is how Henry Jenkins describes the participatory audience in convergence culture.(Apperley, 1) Marsha Kinder expands this view by stating that the empowerment of these participants comes from the consumption of videogames which “help prepare young players for full participation in this new age of interactive multimedia –specifically, by linking interactivity with consumerism.”(Apperley, 1) This idea of consumerism can be applied to Pokémon itself. The philosophy behind the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” slogan is intrinsically consumerist, the way to get the most out of the franchise is to consume as much of it as possible. Fiona Graham writes of the polarized view of Nintendo as either a “sinister and powerful body, relentlessly pursuing its global agenda of influencing powerless child consumers” or as a company that simply understands the wants of their audience. (Graham) She concludes by stating that perhaps both consumer and producers each have their own aims, and that “Nintendo’s marketing mishaps, sometime lack of direction, and misjudgment of the value of Pokémon—…indicate that Nintendo was not an all-powerful corporation with a clear strategy. On the other hand, we are presented with evidence that many children’s adoption of popular culture goods is not at all always in line with the manufacturer’s intentions and often subvert those very intentions.” (Graham)
While highly illegal, the presence of unauthorized Pokémon products is beneficial to Nintendo’s marketing of their product to foreign consumers who would otherwise be unaware or unfamiliar with it. There was a two-year gap in between the releases of Pokémon Red & Blue in Japan and North America. By the time North American audiences had received the games Japanese fans already had a manga (1997), trading card game, (1996) and an anime adaptation (1997) at their disposal. The series was exploding in its native country and would soon share similar success in other countries worldwide. However before any official localization measures were taken, audiences in certain countries were already being exposed to the series through “informal dissemination networks” (Tobin, 62) which created awareness of the product long before any real effort was made on Nintendo’s part to market it to an international audience. “Just months after the television series was first aired in Japan, pirated versions were being sold and otherwise exchanged hand to hand, by mail, and over the Internet by anime otaku (Japanese animation fans) in various locations outside Japan. By the autumn of 1998, as the TV series was first being broadcast in English in the United States, the Japanese versions of Pokémon videos and trading cards were already on shelves in anime, role playing, and Japanese import stores around the world and pirated copies of the TV programs, dubbed into Mandarin and Cantonese, were available in small shops in Chinatowns worldwide” (Tobin, 62). This illegal solicitation of various Pokémon-related goods creates a new dynamic between consumer and producer in which the consumer is no longer confined by their role as emptor, and thus takes on more of a distributive role. “One of the ways that audience production impacts on global power dynamics is by challenging corporate ownership of the product through fan production” (Apperley, 4). However, while this is exploited in less financially stable countries such as Venezuela, larger markets such as North America and the United Kingdom offer a more stable market for publishers which makes these aforementioned pirated copies more of a gateway to the series rather than a stand-in. “We can see children as tacticians who use the means at hand to extract pleasure where and when they can find it. If all that is available to them is stickers, they will create pleasurable forms of Pokémon play around stickers. Children wealthy enough to have their own Game Boys will spend many hours engaged in solitary Game Boy play, which has its own pleasures to offer” (Tobin, 64). So long as a product is available, the consumer – in this case children – will find ways to obtain or interact with it. “These informal and in some cases illegal routes of introducing Pokémon and other Japanese cultural products abroad do more to facilitate than to interfere with Nintendo’s global marketing mission” (Tobin, 63). Though unfavorable to producers, this fan made distribution through the various informal dissemination networks formed at the time served as a sort of precursor to Nintendo’s eventual distribution of the product in a foreign market that was in some circles already familiar with what they were purchasing despite any official exposure up to that point.
In order for Pokémon to make its way into North America, the product was required to go through localization, which is a process where a product is put through a transitional phase from its original state and developed into something, more approachable or relatable for different audiences (Katsuno, Maret, 82). This process includes, and is not limited to, translation, a change to verbal and non-verbal signs, music, etc (Katsuno, Maret, 82). Localization of a foreign product must be done with the utmost scrutiny in order to succeed and become relevant in other countries, while remaining similar enough to its original counterpart so as to not undermine its integrity. Katsuno and Maret, express how political, economic, and historical discourse played a key role in how Pokémon transitioned into America, suggesting how these aspects were just as crucial to the localization process as sociolinguistic and cultural differences between the two countries were (82). Katsuno and Maret go on to say how Japan and America essentially share many televisual and discursive codes, due to an increase in global circulation of pop culture and media, which ultimately resulted in many scenes or narratives to remain unchanged within the Pokémon localization process (82). This international flow of communication is due to the expansion in various telecommunication and technological advances within society whereby companies are able to expand their reach and operate globally (Kerr, Flynn, 92-93). This phenomenon can be described as a multi-dimensional globalization process where societies grow to become more interconnected and dependent with one another, resulting in similarities between cultures (Kerr, Flynn, 93). Various types of media flow between societies as a result of globalization such as newspaper, magazines, film, etc. This can be due to a corporation’s need to expand, establishment of new international agencies, global competition and international law (Kerr, Flynn, 92-93). The impact that Pokémon had made when it finally reached America in 1998 was unimaginable, it wasn’t soon after that the beloved franchise had created a permanent mark in American culture (Finnegan, 1). Pokémon’s early success in America was especially noted when it appeared on various television shows, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and even on the cover of Times magazine in 1999 (Finnegan, 1). Not only did Pokémon succeed and gain popularity in America, but it also transmitted ideas, values and cultures (Finnegan, 1).
In conclusion, the success of the Pokémon franchise was not accidental. Simply by the use of the franchise’s slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, the Pokémon Company created a subtle psychological requirement to effectively compel players to persist in their quest to obtain every species of pocket monster in the game. Noticeably, one could not do so without procuring the different versions of each game’s iteration, or generation, and trading the Pokémon exclusive to each one. The use of multiple mediums, such as a television show and movies, exacerbated the dependence by providing an expanded universe which filled in many story points. Moreover, the rise in unauthorized Pokémon products, while illegal, made the franchise even more recognizable, by expanding the Pokémon brand into various countries which may not have had any contact with it before. In other words, The Pokémon Company was pre-empted in its distribution of its franchise by various unauthorized sources which served only to cement Pokémon’s popularity in the minds of consumers. Finally, extensive localization of the product for the myriad different markets it would be offered in adjusted the franchise’s sociolinguistic and economic transitions into other countries. By providing translated version of the television show, for example, the franchise became more approachable and understandable for consumers in regions with differing languages, cultures, and values. For those reasons combined, The Pokémon Company strategically placed its main product, Pokémon, as a dominant force in video games, television, movies, toys, and collectibles to the point where it has become an intergenerational and transmedia phenomenon.
Apperley, Thomas. “Citizenship and Consumption: Convergence Culture, Transmedia Narratives and the Digital Divide.” IE ’07 Proceedings of the 4th Australasian conference on Interactive entertainment. Eds. Martin Gibbs and Yusuf Pisan. RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.
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“Pokémon in Figures”. Pokémon Company, http://www.pokemon.co.jp/corporate/en/data/
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