Feature: Creating a monster - By the time these cute little creatures entered our shores the agency that had overseen their arrival already knew it was on a sure thing

If the value of PR was still only measured as an advertising value equivalent, you would have to measure the success of the Pokemon campaign in cost per kilogram - not per column inch. The press cuttings on Pokemon from last year alone form an A3 book, several centimetres thick.

If the value of PR was still only measured as an advertising value

equivalent, you would have to measure the success of the Pokemon

campaign in cost per kilogram - not per column inch. The press cuttings

on Pokemon from last year alone form an A3 book, several centimetres

thick.



And yet when Cake was appointed to handle Nintendo’s UK PR in April last

year, the brief was to ’launch software, and promote the consoles for

Gameboy. We were going to talk about Pokemon later,’ says Jim Dowling,

account director at Cake, of the Nintendo brief.



For those readers who have been living in a vacuum for the past 12

months, Pokemon is an abbreviation for Pocket Monsters, of which there

are 150 to collect and ’train’. It started life as a computer game

originally made for Nintendo’s hand-held Gameboy console, and launched

in Japan in 1996.



Nintendo now has a brand which also manifests itself as a top-rating

cartoon, shown here on Sky One and ITV; a best-selling range of toys

made by Hasbro; a number one movie produced by Warner Bros; and trading

cards which have completely resurrected interest in the medium, licensed

to Wizards of the Coast. Pokemon, in short, dominates the thoughts of

British children in a way that mystifies anyone roughly over the age of

12.



But how has this phenomenon come to take its place in the minds and

schoolyards of a nation? And what role has PR had in its all-conquering

invasion?



Jeremy Dale, former marketing director at Nintendo, says PR was the

’lead weapon’ in the launch of Pokemon. ’It started out as a seeding

campaign,’ he says, ’using PR to get the Pokemon name mentioned.’



The objectives were simple: to gain that all-important ’big brother

approval’, and to educate adults about the whole concept. While

outstanding Christmas 1999 sales were obviously a sign of success, the

strategy was to avoid the media focusing on the ’biggest toy this

Christmas’ angle. Instead, the emphasis was to be that Pokemon was not

merely this year’s Buzz Lightyear.



It was the next decade’s conkers.



Realising the attention spans of children wouldn’t stand up to months of

build-up, the initial media campaign targeted the so-called

opinion-forming press, then moved on to the mainstream when enough

interest had been aroused.



Dowling sold in his first Pokemon piece to The Face in July last

year.



By the time it had been launched three months later, the game had been

featured in every national newspaper, with unsuspecting parents being

warned what was coming their way.



Although the original plan had been to create a ’big noise’, Dale says

fear of media overkill meant the team ’actually tried to dampen it down

in the end’. Cynics may argue that with the impact the game has had in

Japan, Australia and the US, where it has been available for much

longer, there was little doubt that the game would also be a huge

success in the UK. But Dowling says there was the problem of the UK

media’s scepticism.



And while children may be the same across the world, markets are

different.



Using the success overseas to their advantage, the team at Cake prepared

a list of astounding facts and figures, explaining the impact Pokemon

had had in those countries for the initial stages of the campaign. It

was oft-quoted by the media, and added credibility to the story.



’That idea came from compiling statistics for music festival PR. The

media loves the ’how many burgers were sold’ angle,’ says Mike

Mathieson, managing director, Cake.



One of the ideas was to educate the public on what Pokemon is. In the

initial stages, the toys - possibly because they were so easy for the

media to show and explain - dominated press coverage, as the media

focused on the element of collecting the full range of toys (which,

incidentally, isn’t available in the UK). ’We didn’t mean to confuse the

press, but they started thinking the toys were Pokemon,’ says Rupert

Mathias, of Talk Loud, which handles PR for Hasbro.



In October, the arrival of the game on our shores was heralded by a

massive stunt, organised by Cake. It featured cars, bikes, a Channel

crossing by four Pokemon-branded articulated lorries and 120 actors,

and, according to Dowling, ’could have all be wrecked by the weather had

it not decided to co-operate’.



The PR team’s number one fear of the media portraying the Pokemon story

as simply the latest ’Christmas number one toy’ angle was to a large

extent avoided. So important was it to avoid this perception that

according to Cake managing director Mike Mathieson, bumper stickers were

produced saying ’A Pokemon is for life, not just for Christmas’. ’It

became a mantra,’ jokes Mathieson.



Inevitably, as with any massive success story, the media backlash has

started, ’almost to the date we predicted’, claims Dowling. Stories

about violence over theft of the trading cards, and of kids spending

huge amounts of money - in one memorable incident, a boy offered to

trade his baby sister for a rare card - are fast becoming staples of the

national and regional press.



In response to the issue of financial pressures, Mathieson points out

that all the Pokemon-related events Cake organises, such as tours and

the up-coming Pokemon championships, are free. Maneeze Chowdhuri of

Wizards of the Coast’s retained agency CMT says ’issues management’ has

been underway since February this year, after stories started coming out

of the States.



Wizards of the Coast has launched the Pokemon League, where kids can

play Pokemon in a supervised environment, watched over by adults who

know the game and can ensure that no cards get stolen, and that any

swaps are fair.



Samantha Ward, Pokemon marketing manager for Wizards of the Coast, has

had to face the media on the daunting subject of card-related

violence.



She talks about the concerted effort the company is making to push

children towards playing with the cards, rather than simply collecting

them.



To this end, the PR for the cards is now focusing on getting the media

to understand and write about how the card game works and that there is

a lot more fun for kids to have playing.



But those who aren’t working on the cards are keen to point out that

there have always been bullying and playground fights. ’It was conkers

and football cards in my day,’ says Mathias.



Despite recent negative coverage, there is still real enthusiasm from

those still working for the pocket-sized clients.



Mathieson and Dowling, involved since the beginning, confess to having a

low point after Christmas 1999, when they had to sit down and plan the

whole next year’s activity. But Dowling says: ’It’s been incredibly

exciting to see the way it’s grown out of this building. It’s something

I’m really proud of.’ Cake still receives calls from kids every day

wanting to know where the next Pokemon story will be, or pictures of new

Pokemon dreamt up by fans.



’It’s the most successful campaign I’ve ever worked on,’ agrees

Mathias.



’It was nice when people who wouldn’t want to listen at the start of the

campaign were ringing back a week later demanding the toys.’



While a future without Pikachu probably has its attractions after a year

of solid Pokemania, those involved have relished the experience.



Pikachu and his best friends show no sign of letting Romeike and Curtice

let up on the relentless press cuttings. At an event last month promoted

only locally, where Bluewater shopping mall was renamed Mew-water for a

day, 10,000 children turned up to download the 151st pocket monster.



They came from as far away as Scotland and Belgium.



While PR is undoubtedly behind the phenomenon of the pocket monsters, it

seems it has spawned a monster that is now almost out of the control of

the most masterly of the public relations experts who watched it being

born.





MEDIA VERDICTS



’Bigger than Furbies. Cuter than Tamagotchis. More annoying than

Teletubbies. The Pokemon phenomenon is about to eclipse everything that

has come before,’ The Face, July 1999





’With its team-building and performance-related rewards, Pokemon could

be re-marketed as My First Management Training Video,’ the Guardian,

(The Guide), 17-23 July 1999





’pounds 375.18 - That’s how much the new toy craze from Japan may cost

you,’ the Sun, 30 July 1999





’Believe the hype as this game has it all. It’s not just a role-player,

it’s a swapping game and a fighter. Definitely five poke stars out of

five,’ the Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1999





’These little bug-eyed video monsters are addictive, exploitative and

lurking in every playground. Why parents must beware the invasion of the

Pokemon,’ Daily Mail, 29 November 1999.



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