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A Pop Culture Overload

by Henry Branham Jr.

Back in January 2007, I remember being dumbfounded while walking through a grocery store and seeing Johnny Depp wearing his Jack Sparrow drag on the front of a cereal box.  The newest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie was not even scheduled to be released for another six months.  A teaser trailer in the theater at this time would have been appropriate and plenty sufficient, but Disney was in overdrive and cramming this film down my throat – almost literally!  It was then that I realized how ridiculous the selling of pop culture has become.

Pop culture as a profitable commodity was a very small business prior to the internet.  Most merchandise reflecting Hollywood movies and television shows were aimed towards children.  In the 1930’s, Ovaltine, the company responsible for making milk more tasty, began selling de-coder rings to help young readers solve mysteries with Little Orphan Annie.  The practice continued in the 1950’s with the television serial “Captain Midnight” and for the 1960’s cartoon “Johnny Quest”.   Iconic favorites like “The Wizard of Oz”, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley always had a fair share of items on the market, but these examples were few and far between.

The entire realization of pop culture having its own identity did not even exist until the legendary artist Andy Warhol unveiled his “Soup Can” paintings in 1964.  It was the first time that a slice of everyday life was turned into art and commerce.  Not only could a person have a can of Campbell’s Soup in their kitchen cupboards, but now they were able to hang it on their wall!  It was new and exciting and Warhol wasted no time in churning out paintings of other famous products like Brillo pads, dead celebrities, and even dollar bills.  It was obvious to hucksters everywhere that selling pop culture could be big business.

Historically speaking, there is a distinct moment when pop culture exploded to a new extreme.  Upon the release of the 1977 film “Star Wars”, a marketing blitz like no other moved into retail stores like a hurricane.  It may have started with kids wanting the action figures and accompanying vehicles, but even adults clamored for “Star Wars” merchandise.  Aside from the obvious posters, board games, badges, and toy light sabers, fans of all ages bought up “Star Wars” jewelry, Kleenex boxes, cookie jars, disco records and even disco shirts!  One catalog ad even depicted an entire family clad in “Star Wars” pajamas! The space opera merchandising juggernaut lasted from 1977 to 1985 and resumed again in the early 1990’s and continues even today.

Although it did not happen instantly, the explosion of “Star Wars” merchandise gave way to the current boom in the selling of pop culture.  Seeing the wonder in their children’s eyes while playing with pop culture toys, adults began yearning for items from their youth as well.  Vintage board games, Barbie dolls, lunch boxes, baseball cards, and comic books began to fetch big money through trading magazines, toy and comic book conventions, as well as flea markets and swap shops.  Prior to the internet, these were the tools that fans used to communicate with each other and share their love of pop culture.  By the mid-1990’s, all new merchandise featuring iconic films and TV shows began hitting the shelves.  At a regular retail store, fans could easily find new lines of “KISS” action figures, a “King Kong” play set (that was more a work of art than an actual toy), a metal “Lassie” lunchbox, and so much more.  Regulated to specialty catalogs and nostalgia stores were more obscure and expensive items like “I Love Lucy” tea pots, “Scarface” action figures, and “Star Trek” statues which targeted hardcore fan bases.  With the internet boom, these items are more widely available than ever these days.

One drastic extreme of pop culture mania in the 1990’s was the existence of two major chain stores born right out of the Hollywood movie studios!  The Disney Store and The Warner Brothers Store boasted exclusive items to the masses, right in your own local mall.  Sure, that Batman & Robin bubblegum machine was outrageously priced, but if you were a fan, you had to have it.  And those endless mountains of plush Disney characters were enough to send any Mickey Mouse fan into a complete tizzy.  Between the film cells, baby clothes, and life sized statues it was pop culture overload.  Both stores died out eventually, most likely due to cheaper avenues like Ebay and Amazon!

Collecting pop culture items may be fun and exciting, but have things gone too far?  Months before a movie hits the theaters there is an entire toy line beaming off the shelves of every major department store.  Children do not even get a chance to like a movie before they are inundated with products of this unseen film.  The “Star Wars” movies clearly have a built in audience, but imagine the poor kid who got a Jar Jar Binks bicycle a full month before “Episode One: The Phantom Menace” hit the screens in 1999 and Jar Jar proved to be one of the most unpopular characters in the history of pop culture!

At this stage of the game, nearly every new film and television show has its own merchandising blitz.  “Mad Men” has only been on the air a few years, but Barbie and Ken have already been immortalized as main characters.  Never mind the fact that I’m still waiting on a Barbie & Ken version of Fonzie & Pinky Tuscadero from “Happy Days”, which is more than thirty years overdue!

As a pop culture enthusiast I love that many of these products exist.  But as a free thinking human being I do not thrill to the idea of marketing strategists and publicity departments telling me in advance what will be cool and what I should buy to be in on the next big thing.  In lieu of all the bad film re-makes, reprehensible versions of our favorite television shows, and the lame attempts to turn vintage toys and board games into mindless movies, one thing is very clear – Hollywood and its merchandisers are clearly out of new ideas, but they are very certain that we as a society are so desperate to relive our youth that they continue to dip into our pop culture pool.  It is OK to want artifacts from your favorite movie or such, but buy something because you really want it.  Not because someone tells you it is “cool” or that it might be worth “a lot of money one day”!  Own your own memories and display them proudly.

 For extra fun, you can view vintage merchandise at www.plaidstallions.com and an outrageous blitz of new pop culture items at www.entertainmentearth.com !