Turtle Hero Worship

By Gerrie, David | Marketing, June 14, 1990 | Go to article overview

Turtle Hero Worship


Gerrie, David, Marketing


TURTLE HERO WORSHIP

It's another humid day in Los Angeles, and in deepest Mall-land the hunt is on for that most elusive of prizes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Only one of these heroes has been sighted, and with credit cards akimbo, we steel ourselves for the kill.

In the fashionable Farmer's Market store there is nothing remotely lean, mean or green, but the assistant is body-blocking a small creature in a locked cabinet behind her. She winces and negotiations begin.

With the purchase of $150's worth of extraneous Turtles merchandise, a deal is cut with the manager and Donatello is released to our safekeeping. He was being held for a Beverly Hills mother who was paying $4000 to have the Turtles movie screened privately for her son's birthday.

This Turtle hunt is no myth. It's common occurrence around the US and has inevitably spread to the UK as we witness the first manifestations of a multi-million pound marketing tidal wave fuelled by the four eponymous creatures who, grounded in a television cartoon series, have spawned the hottest merchandising spin-off since Star Wars.

In the UK we've only seen the tip of the iceberg, with the current BBC1 airing of what we know here as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. But already mayhem has broken out at Portsmouth where 250 models on sale were set upon by 2000 determined parents. Fists flew and children had to be pulled out of the crush. Demand far outstrips supply. The firm that distributes them to UK stores has sold 500,000 since January.

The line-up of Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo and Michaelangelo, aided by such playtime delights as Muckman, Scumbug, Joe Eyeball and Rat King, and not forgetting such essential add-ons as Brain-Sucking Sewer, Machines, Airbone Ooze Retrocatapults, Flushomatics and Retromutagen Ooze, has stormed a jaded toy merchandising and licensing market with nothing less than the Midas Touch.

Having already barnstormed the US with a hugely successful comicbook (which only cultists remember as a black-and-white mildy pornographic product aimed at a Viz-like market) and the TV strip, which thrashes even the morning news ratings on many stations, the Turtles' movie quickly beat all box office opposition with the third-largest opening ever, behind Batman and Ghostbusters II, to become the most successful independent film in an industry studded with superlatives - all the more staggering when you consider half that audience is only paying children's admission prices.

The brainchildren of two Massachusetts students, the pizza-eating quartet was quickly netted by Long Island-based Surge Licensing who teamed up with the creators; comic book manufacturers Archie; and Playmate Toy Co., of HongKong/China.

But the Turtle saga shows how difficult it is to maximise the huge potential returns on character licensing.

In Christmas 1987 the TV cartoon series targeted a mind-boggling demographic age span from three to 30 years, yet Playmate still didn't have a single toy to offer until April 1988 - odd for a company pledged to crack the lucrative action figure market. And as mentioned, there are similar problems in the UK.

In that first year the toys earned less than $50m in the US, not bad, but not great considering the total US market potential for Turtles toys in 1990 is being touted as $350m-$400m. And that's without the more than 200 items ranging from software and sunglasses to yoghurt and underwear which are licensed to use the Turtles name.

Michael Loveland, European director of marketing for Japanese toy giant Bandai, which has landed the Euro-distribution rights for Turtles toys, is the man at the centre of the Turtles coup this side of the pond. Keeping product supply short is part offad management, he says.

"The US and pan-European potential for this range is staggering if Playmate can supply it, but it can't. It could go mad and lay on an extra production capacity, but the clever idea is to deliver only enough product to keep the public happy, but keep supplies short enough to maintain the hunger. …

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