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North American Pokemon penetration imminent

Pokémon, Nintendo's prodigious pocket monster phenomenon, is poised to eat into U.S. pocketbooks in the not-so-distant future. The jointly owned property, which has become a lucrative licensing success in Japan, is expected to see some major business in the North American...
January 1, 1999

Pokémon, Nintendo’s prodigious pocket monster phenomenon, is poised to eat into U.S. pocketbooks in the not-so-distant future. The jointly owned property, which has become a lucrative licensing success in Japan, is expected to see some major business in the North American market.

First things first: what exactly is Pokémon? Well, Pokémon, which translates roughly into English as Pocket Monsters, is not an it, it’s a they. Comprised of a group of over 150 tiny monsters born in a Nintendo video game, the idea for which was originally conceived by Game Freak, co-owner of the property with Shopro (the Japanese licensor) and Nintendo. The popularity of the Pokémon trend soared with the February 1996 release of the handheld Game boy version of the game, which has since sold over 8 million copies. Now available in North America, the game sold 200,000 copies in its first month on the U.S. market.

Having already scored a hit as the number one kids show in Japan, Pokémon the TV series has struck a chord with American kids as well. Since its Stateside launch in September 1998 Pokémon has become the highest-rated kid-targeted strip (Monday to Friday) airing in U.S. syndication, once even beating out NBC’s Today Show in the overall morning ratings.

According to Brian Lacey, international sales consultant for Pokémon’s distributor, 4 Kids Entertainment, the show is already gearing up for new invasions. As of 1999, the Pokémon series will be seen in Mexico, Latin America, Brazil, South Africa and Italy, in addition to the Japanese and North American markets. ‘When we first introduced the program at MIP-TV in April, a lot of broadcasters said `Well, maybe, but it’s Japanese animation, we’ll wait and see,” says Lacey. ‘Now they have waited, now they have seen, and now broadcasters around the world are coming to me and saying `Would you please send me a tape? I’d like to talk with you about Pokémon.”

Fifty-two half hours of the show are currently available, but one is conspicuously absent. A December 1997 episode was yanked when 700 Japanese children suffered seizures after watching a three-second strobe light sequence contained in the show.

Despite the mishap, Japanese children still swoon over Pokémon merchandise a full two year’s since the property’s birth. A quick report reveals the scope of the fad’s pop culture coup:

* over 1 million copies of the Pokémon CD (which features the show’s theme song) have sold;

* approximately 100 million vending machine toys based on Pokémon characters have been bought;

* more than 400 million Pokémon trading cards have been sold;

* Pokémon is featured in Korokoro comics, as well as five other publications.

A month after the U.S. TV launch, Leisure Concepts, Pokémon’s worldwide licensor, had signed 14 licensees, including Pioneer Entertainment for home video rights, American Greetings for party products and stickers, Tiger Toys for electronic toys and Monterey Canyon for boys and girls activewear and apparel that’s available at most J.C. Penny outlets.

Hasbro is the master toy licensee for all territories except Asia, with rights for plush, action figures, collectibles and non-video games. Carlin West, VP of marketing at Leisure Concepts, was in attendance for the November 17 debut of the first line of Hasbro’s Pokémon products at FAO Schwarz. ‘The store didn’t open until 10 a.m., but the first mother showed up at 7:30 a.m. to wait in line for the exclusive Surfer Pikachu.’

Pikachu, the friendliest Pokémon, is featured in Nintendo’s virtual pet toy, Pocket Pikachu, which includes a device that monitors and displays how far its owner has walked. According to West, it’s enjoying strong sales.

On the premium front, Nintendo and 5,000 U.S. Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets partnered up for a holiday season promo featuring four different Pokémon beanie plush toys that began November 15.

Already, 600 products featuring the Pokémon name or characters are available around the world, and with talk of a feature film making the rounds of the rumor mill, a full-fledged Pokémon invasion of North America seems to loom on the horizon.

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