Pokémon has been an enduring media phenomenon for nearly two decades now, starting originally as a video game and reaching out into anime, manga, trading card games, and a host of other media. Theme parks and stores for the property are not uncommon. One of the iconic characters of the show, Pikachu, has even appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as two separate balloons. It is the second-most successful media franchise based on a video game, behind only Mario. (Both of which, coincidentally, are owned by Nintendo.)
This month, Nintendo will be celebrating a new Pikachu distribution event by having 1000 Pikachu appear in Yokohama Minatomirai. Not 1000 actual Pickachu, but there will boats and Ferris wheels wrapped with Pikachu, Pikachu-themed cottages, and the like. Area visitors will be able to download the new version of the character to Pokémon X or Y, and will vary slightly depending on what part of the park it was downloaded in. Not to mention loads of giveaways. It sounds like an enormous marketing effort on the part of Ninendo, but one they can easily afford, given the property’s longevity and success.
This event will no doubt draw hundreds of thousands of fans, and Nintendo will almost certainly be able to run some press releases later touting how many people attended events in person, and how many downloaded which Pikachu, and generally try to show just how many people are still interested in Pokémon these days. It’s all boils down to marketing. It’s a very expensive and elaborate campaign reminscent of the old “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too” commercials.
So if this is just a big ad campaign, why is it relevant to a discussion about fans and fandom?
If you think about it, most modern fandoms are commercial at their base level. The people producing the things you enjoy—whether that’s video games, sports, movies, comics, music, whatever—are doing so in order to make a living. Even if their product is free to you, the consumer, they’re trying to earn money in what they do. Maybe it’s by selling advertising space, maybe they’re giving away one product to entice you to spend money on another, maybe they’re giving away their wares and simply asking for donations, maybe they’re providing you with free materials now in the hopes that they’ll find a way to earn money later. Regardless of their specific approach, part of that includes interacting with fans. Both in terms of strategy as well as tactics.
And from the other side of the fence, that’s why it’s critical to look at who fans are. To find out precisely who they are and why they respond the way they do. It’s a bit cynical, but it also serves to allow someone creating this content to tailor it to their audience and make it a better experience for them. Will Nintendo sell more games because someone saw Pikachu on the side of a bus the same day they saw him on a water fountain or plastered on the side of a building? I expect that would be an almost impossible number to quantify, since there will be so many outlets promoting the brand simultaneously, but it’s certainly drawn a fair amount of attention to the property already. I can’t imagine that Ninendo was willing to drop so much money on an idea that hadn’t studied beforehand, and I suspect that a good number of fans (new, old and lapsed) will turn out to share in this so-called Pikachu Outbreak!