Read between the lines for a lesson in consumer coercion

December 21, 2001

Harry Potter may be one step ahead of the evil Voldemort, but the marketeers had his number long ago, warns June Cummins.

"How do you achieve global commercial domination and not lose your soul?" - Mimi Avins, in an article about performance artists the Blue Man Group.

In her first interview for 60 Minutes , in the summer of 1999, J. K. Rowling was asked how she came to create her literary "masterpiece", Harry Potter. Rowling related the story of her Cinderella-like rise from poverty and obscurity to fame and fortune. The camera followed her into the Edinburgh restaurant where she had sat for hours at a time while her baby daughter slept, and, nursing one cup of coffee, penned the pages that would comprise the first volume of the Harry Potter series.

It doesn't take much analysis to see that 60 Minutes had a vested interest in creating a fairy tale out of Rowling's life, one that matches the rags-to-riches story of the series. Rowling gallantly tried to resist this fetishisation and cooption of her own story. During the interview, she scoffed at rumours that she wrote the story on napkins, and at the end of the segment, in a bold and seemingly subversive gesture, she turned to her TV audience and said: "To all parents out there, if the action figures are horrible, just tell your kids that I said don't buy them!" Rowling tried to beat back the culture industry, but she could not succeed. She had no choice but to give in and become a millionaire. To this day, she tries to recuperate her image, writing, for example, two companion volumes to the Harry Potter series and designating the proceeds to the British charity organisation Comic Relief.

She seems determined to separate the books from the aggressive marketing pursued by Scholastic, Warner Brothers and Mattel. But is her goal realistic? I say it is not. Rowling must succumb to "compulsory consumerism", a term I adapted from Adrienne Rich's notion of "compulsory heterosexuality" to explain how children are coerced by the powerful culture industry into particular behaviours and values. Like Rowling, children cannot escape compulsory consumerism - they are its object.

In his book Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter , Jack Zipes argues: "No matter how different and free our children appear to be, their actions, thoughts and sensibilities are governed by an intricate market system that has pervaded, if not invadedI all our cultural institutions."

My concern is that the gigantic success of Harry Potter masks, and therefore can more cunningly promote, the interests of corporations. As cultural critic Theodor Adorno has written: "The culture industryI impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves." In other words, corporations desire passive consumers who believe that they must have the commodities that are for sale. The Harry Potter phenomenon reveals that this compliance is enacted economically and politically. In the interest of raising good consumers, those who will buy and continue to buy, corporate culture must encourage a conformity that spills beyond brand loyalty into social and political passivity. Children are led to believe that they are "empowered" by consumerism when, in fact, it controls and exploits them.

Scholars have looked at Harry Potter from many angles, including the perspective of materialism. Critics such as Karin Westman have examined consumerist culture within the Harry Potter texts. My interest is in the way Harry Potter and the commodities attached to his character operate outside the books, within the corporate global culture, and how children are entrapped by that culture. The real story behind the Harry Potter phenomenon is not found in the texts of the books but in the packaging, marketing and commodification of this child character.

In addition to the countless articles that describe the amazing sales of the books and the marketing practices that promote the sales, the mass media unabashedly uses Harry's image to promote corporate goals. An online version of Entrepreneur magazine included a piece called "Harry Potter and the secrets of better management" that analysed the books, without irony, for the lessons they teach about how to be a business leader and maximise earning potential.

In other articles about the drop in media stocks, companies are portrayed as floundering and Harry is positioned as a saviour. In a Reuters article by Derek Caney titled "Media stocks hit, advertising outlook dims further", the only positive note concerns Harry. "Because of the weaker advertising market, the burden of meeting earnings estimates would rest on (AOL/Time Warner's) film division (Warner Brothers), which is releasing the much-anticipated Harry Potter ."

Harry's worth in adult culture is not his ability to fight evil Voldemort and rescue his friends, but to fight consumer apathy and rescue revenues and huge media conglomerates. The blockbuster story is not Harry's personal triumph within the text, but his huge commercial success outside it.

Over the past year, I have kept a close watch on the continuing commodification of Harry Potter, focusing carefully on the packaging and marketing of the film. AOL/Time Warner's marketing strategy for Harry Potter is unusual. It has opted to limit franchising and licensing of Potter products and seems to be withholding a marketing blizzard; the way it has promoted the movie is not through Happy Meals or Harry's face on Coke cans but by treating it as "news", which it does through its many news outlets, such as CNN.

Toys and other commodities are, however, available everywhere. No child understands Harry Potter as "just a book". The seemingly "tasteful" and "decent" control of Harry Potter images and advertising is actually even more subversively successful because the aim is to extend the phenomenon for as long as possible. Children are the players necessary for this global franchise empire to succeed.

Rowling will have to accept that not only will children and their parents buy the action figures, but that in the global economic culture, children are the action figures manipulated by the giant fingers of corporate, and ultimately social and political, control.

June Cummins is an assistant professor at San Diego State University, California. This is an edited version of her paper for the Politics and Poetics of Harry Potter session, 12 noon on December 29 at the New Orleans Sheraton Hotel.

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