Cartoons - Art, or Ads?



I’m in the right age group (& gender) for this to send chills down my spine every time:

I adored Transformers, and managed to amass a reasonable collection of the toys during my primary school days (many of which remain just metres away from me as I type this).

The idea however that the show was simply a “30 minute advertisement for a toy-line” always felt offensive to my sensitive ears. How could one say that about my beloved Optimus?

The truth of course was - that statement was absolutely and entirely correct. Hasbro collected the rights to an army of shape-shifting toys, and then pitted them against one another in a cartoon designed purely to sell toys to the kids that tuned in - and tune in - and buy the toys - they did.

Hasbro was not alone.

He-Man, Defender of the Universe! Ever wondered why Battle Cat was the size of a freakin horse? Because they ran out of development money to sculpt a toy the right size for the action figures, and had to use something off the plans instead - all before the first cell of the cartoon had been drawn.

Voltron? Marketed to the English speaking world using a mish-mash of footage from at least 2 different Japanese shows - designed to sell toys.

Pokemon even goes as far as to tell the audience:
Gotta Catch 'em all!
Gotta Catch 'em all!
That’s not even subliminal advertising…

So… Was every cartoon I grew up watching merely created to convince me to buy a toy? (And - if you saw my bedroom - you’d know they succeeded in spades.) Indeed - are they now continuing this capitalistic model of mortgaging our kids’ souls? Or do these shows deserve the right to be recognised as actual entertainment; worthy of Sophocles himself?

As a former student of film/tv, I know for example that when planning a project, you bank on 10% of your budget coming from the sale of the DVD rights (err, maybe now selling to Netflix). So already some degree of merchandising has come into play. You only have to visit a shop like Pop Cultcha or Zing however to see just how far beyond DVDs the merchandising of film/tv goes.

Another of my childhood faves - now reborn - Doctor Who, reportedly has/had to ensure that each new season featured storylines that could specifically cash in on an array of merchandising - Indeed for at least the first 5 years of the revival, Doctor Who was a massive cash-cow for the BBC through not only international tv rights, or the DVDs, but action figures, books, novels, magazines, tshirts and other clothing, even dust bins.

However… Does selling your artistic soul to help raise funds mean that you can’t also create a meaningful, artistic and thought provoking, entertaining story? Does meeting a quota of new, easy to mould in plastic bad guys make the content of your craft less than if you purely followed your heart?

I don’t know.

Since about 2002 I’ve been working on a story - the very reason I quit finance (ha) and went to study. It was recently suggested that I change the main character’s gender, as “strong female leads” are becoming very popular - could help get an edge in the market. But will that compromise be a step too far?

Think I’ve lost cohesion here now so I’ll leave it at that… :}




I’m a woman, but I am also the same age as you, and I loved Transformers/GI Joe/He-Man/Voltron/Robotech (with plenty of the toys). And your thesis here applies equally to animated works directed at girls as well (which I also liked). I’m thinking things like Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, the original My Little Pony, and later on, Sailor Moon (of which I am still a fan). I used to have cavalry charges where my GI Joes would ride my ponies into battle. Yeah, I was a strange kid.

In Japan, it goes without saying that anime and merchandising go hand-in-hand, and this isn’t simply for children’s shows (since animation is a medium, not a genre). The largest demographic for animation in Japan is young adults (teens to twenty somethings), and while there’s plenty of Pokemon, Doraeman, Pretty Cure, etc stuff for kids, if you go into Akihabara or Otome Road in Ikebukuro, you will find entire department stores dedicated to merchandise for works with older viewers. This is especially true for school-life based anime (which is a large section of anime, and it can exist in any genre: comedy, drama, slice of life, alternate universe, fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc… all with the common thread of being about students in a Japanese (ish) style school setting).

As for your particular issue, “strong female lead,” I really have an issue with that whole concept. This isn’t a new concept (think Ophelia in Shakespeare, or plenty of other examples even older), and it doesn’t address the issue of the fact that the problem with many female “leads” or female characters in general in other works is that they are peripheral at best. Some of the most interesting derivative works (and yes, that includes fan fiction I’ve read) simply retells the same events from the female character’s perspective, focusing on the importance of their contributions. You don’t need your primary character to be female, you just need to make sure that you, as the narrator, are treating your female characters like full and equal participants. It’s perfectly okay for your primary male character to not be doing this (after all, that’s the world we live in), but as a third person omniscient narrator (one which we considered “reliable”), you should be making it clear to the reader that his behavior is problematic.


This deserves a longer response, but for right now, what has to be said is…

Murky Dismal resides just as close to my desk as my Transformers… :slight_smile:


There is a very entertaining documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us that ties in quite well with this thread.


I think Western culture is finally starting to catch up to the idea that “cartoons” can be for more than just kids. But it took Futurama to do it. (For me at least :slight_smile: ) Where before stores where you could buy merchandise that weren’t “just toys” for film/tv were very much specialty shops tucked away somewhere (ie Minotaur in Melbourne), we’re now getting these products represented in large shopping centres, and even in department stores.

Regarding my story… I like to think that I have written some strong female characters surrounding the main male character. When I recreated an old Aussie sci-fi classic back at Uni, my lecturer commented on the strength of the female characters. With 5 nieces, I’d certainly hate to write something that painted females in a poor light. Equally, with 3 sons, I wouldn’t want to encourage them to treat women poorly. I think after such a long time living with this character in my head, changing his gender would never sit right for me. (Hence my concern over a certain sci-fi hero turned heroine debuting in a few months…)