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
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originally made for Nintendo’s hand-held Gameboy console, and launched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
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
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
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
And while children may be the same across the world, markets are
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
She talks about the concerted effort the company is making to push
children towards playing with the cards, rather than simply collecting
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
’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
’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.