In keeping with the old adage of ‘The grass is always greener on the other side,’ indigenous licensed characters in the German entertainment industry have always tended to be tossed aside by local audiences in favor of their more exotic American counterparts.
However, the circumstances surrounding the fictitious birth of children’s author Walter Moers’ Das Kleine Arschloch (The Little Asshole), should have alerted people immediately to the fact that this was a different kind of German entity altogether-the newborn baby boy opened his eyes and stuck his tongue out at the delivery-room doctor. When his mother asked, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?,’ the chagrined physican replied, ‘It’s an asshole.’
He was right. In his eight-year lifespan, The Little Asshole has developed a nasty little chip on his shoulder. An uncivilized and odious little boy, Das Kleine Arschloch shares many of his reprehensible character traits with kid faves Bart Simpson and Beavis and Butthead. His main aim is to disturb, annoy and frustrate, and he seems to hate everybody he encounters. It’s precisely this anti-social behavior that attracts German fans, a significant number of which are boys, ages 13 to 20.
Horst Preuss, merchandising director of Eichborn Verlag (the Frankfurt-based publisher of Arschloch books), estimates that when the film version of Moers’ books (Kleines Arschloch – der Film) was released last year, 40% of the 3 million loyal Little Asshole followers that flocked to theaters nationwide were teenage boys. Only two German movies were more successful in 1997: Rossin, a real-life comedy and the animated Werner – das kesselt. The recently released VHS version of The Little Asshole film is one of the top-ten best-selling videos on the German market.
Arschloch merchandising has also turned out to be quite a lucrative property branch. Before the cinematic release of Das Kleine Arschloch, merchandising comprised less than 18% of the Eichborn Verlag’s yearly sales. Now, it makes up more than 25% and is still growing. Eichborn made US$16.7 million in gross sales last year.
The publisher decided not to sell licenses to merchandisers and successfully manages business by itself. Eichborn began merchandising in the summer of 1992, and has sold more than two million Arschloch articles since, a significant number on the German market, where merchandising is still a developing industry.
Like in any other country, offering a verboten array of offensively disgusting gag products is the best way to attract Germany’s adolescent kids to novelty shops and book stores. Says Preuss, ‘You can’t reach teenagers with [just] the book trade, but cartoons and merchandising ease the [way].’
Arschloch merchandise is just as gross and bizarre as the character that spawned them. Classic products like T-shirts and posters are not that important for Eichborn. The hottest sellers are joke items like the hideaway for drugs shaped like a cigarette box (US$7.19), or the asshole-shaped bathtub plug (US$11.08). The only normal product, per se, is a cup for espresso – but then, it’s name pushes the P.C. envelope: Arschpresso (asspresso).
‘Eichborn concentrates on low-priced articles with high intrinsic value,’ Horst Preuss explains. The prices range from US$5.53 for a tin box to US$32.77 for a candlestick. Arschloch books and comics carry advertising showing the entire line of merchandise, a fairly wide-reaching marketing strategy considering Eichborn has sold more than 2.5 million Little Asshole comic books, with 10,000 of them printed in the foreign languages of Italian, French and English. Future plans for the Arschloch property center around rejuvenating the audience by releasing more movies, and possibly a TV series.