Transformers, Bronies, and Gundams: Media Franchises and Fandom

Johnson’s work Creative License and Collaboration discusses at great length the intricacies of franchising in the context of modern media. His discussion at one point touches upon the role of franchising in 1980s children’s programming, an idea which reminded me of our discussion in class over the role of product placement in entertainment media such as the Transformers films.

Johnson also concerns himself with the Transformers franchise, citing Transformers as one of the 1980s children’s cartoons seen as a “program-length commercial“ by many. In class, we considered the role of product placement in the Transformers films, with Professor Stenger pointing out that product placement for the Transformers toys franchise inevitably lies at the heart of the films. Johnson’s work raises a similar issue with its discussion of the nature of 1980s cartoons GI Joe, Transformers, and My Little Pony. Despite Johnson’s interest in media franchising, he offers somewhat of a contrary opinion on these shows. Johnson puts a voice to a main writer on the 1984 Transformers cartoon and 1986 animated film, Flint Dille. Flint denies the idea that Transformers was created solely as a means of pushing the Transformers brand across industries, suggesting instead that this label was retroactively applied as the industry sought to expand the role of franchising. Unfortunately, Flint does not comment on how he perceived his role as a writer in relation to advertising and product placement, and so his comments are of limited utility in furthering our discussion from last Thursday. Still, Flint’s belief that the original Transformers and subsequent 1986 film were not specifically planned as entries in a larger franchised marketing scheme run contrary to the notion of these works as a prime vehicle for product placement, and may have some relevancy in considering the more recent Michael Bay Transformers films.

Johnson goes on to discuss the ways in which fanbases interact with franchises, citing the backlash against “Bayformers” from fans of the original 1984 Transformers cartoon. The 1984 Transformers enjoys an enduring cult fanbase despite its ostensible nature as a glorified commercial. Fans of Transformers do not seem to mind the thought that the object of their fandom may have been created for marketing gains. Nor is Transformers an isolated phenomenon. Johnson mentions the 1980s My Little Pony cartoon alongside Transformers. The latest iteration of My Little Pony as a media franchise, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is currenly airing and has garnered one of the most ferociously loyal, creative, and vocal Internet fanbases of any modern show. Older male fans of the show self-identify as “bronies”, a term which has become a badge of pride for this unlikely demographic of fans. Read more about bronies here. Despite lying outside the target audience of children, who likely would not be aware of the larger franchising implications of their Saturday morning entertainment, bronies defend My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as a show possessing worth beyond that of a mere franchise commercial.

Other similarly niche fanbases prove willing to accept that shows seemingly created for the purpose of marketing can have entertainment value despite their origins as advertisements for other areas of a multimedia franchise.

Gundam, a Japanese animation franchise, revolves around human-piloted mechanical warriors, or “mechas”, with the titular Gundams usually the center of any particular entry in the franchise. A plethora of mecha models accompanies each new Gundam show, and fans of the show often also involve themselves in the model-making hobby.  Much like Transformers, the Gundam animes can be seen as having significant cross-media franchise marketing ties. The latest entry in the animated Gundam franchise, Gundam Build Fighters, exemplifies the cross-media nature of Gundam.

The show revolves around the amusingly meta concept of Gundam fans buying and assembling mecha models from many different iterations of the franchise,  then competing in a virtual  battle with their chosen model. Check the embedded trailer to the right for a visual example of how Gundam Build Fighters emphasizes the fun and imagination of the Gundam model hobby through the medium of animation. Gundam Build Fighters is far more explicitly a commercial for a line of toys than even a show such as the 1984 Transformers. Fans of the franchise nonetheless watched the show despite being aware of the show’s existence as a means to encourage the purchase of Gundam models.

How can we explain the willingness of fans to look past a work’s ties to a larger marketing franchise? Amidst discussions of the meaning of product placement and the nature of a writer, it’s easy to forget that most of the film and TV we consume is created with the aim of making a profit. Transformers, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and Gundam Build Fighters and the like certainly seek to market other aspects of the franchise, but do these shows have less inherent worth than a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was green-lit under the expectation that it would bring in revenue for the host channel? Millions of Transformers, Friendship is Magic and Gundam fans would likely disagree.

Citations

Johnson, Derek. Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. NYU Press, 2013.
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