Pokemon is everywhere.
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You know what Pokemon is. You might not have known what it was 25 years ago, when the world of pocket monsters made its Japanese debut as a pair of red and green Nintendo Game Boy cartridges.
But you know now.
Back then, Pokemon was a rumor in a magazine, or maybe a strange word you overheard. To not know what Pokemon was in 1996 was forgivable and believable, but today? Today, you know what Pokemon is. Everyone does. It’s one of the biggest, most recognizable media brands on the planet.
That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration. According to Statista, humanity has spent an estimated $100 billion on Pokemon since the mid 1990s — making it the most lucrative media franchise in the world by a wide margin. If you’re counting in dollars spent, Pokemon is more popular than Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Star Wars, in that order. Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t even in the same league.
Surprised? That’s understandable. The best selling Pokemon game isn’t even the best selling video game of all time — so how could it possibly outpace Marvel or Star Wars?
The same way all of those franchises became iconic staples of modern pop-culture: merchandising.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Every single one of those top-grossing media franchises won their fortunes predominantly on merchandising, license deals and retail sales. George Lucas made his fortune not on the Star Wars movies, but on the merchandising rights he kept when Fox thought the film would flop.
Mickey Mouse and Winnie The Pooh made millions at the box office — but billions on merch sales.
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And Pokemon is even bigger. Pokemon is an invisible and permanent staple of pop-culture. That’s why Warner Bros could make a Pokemon Detective Pikachu movie without anybody batting an eye. Nobody needed the concept of pocket monsters explained because we already understood it. In 2019 a big-budget, mainstream Pokemon movie felt as nostalgic as The Peanuts Movie.
It all adds up to one, inescapable conclusion: despite having recently announced a new Pokemon Snap game, remakes of Diamond and Pearl, and the open-world Pokemon Legends: Arceus, today, Pokemon is a toy and licensing brand first and a series of Nintendo games second. Maybe it always has been.
Nothing justifies the existence of the 1990’s VW Beetle redesign quite like a PikaBug.
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Merchandising and branding has been a core part of Pokemon from the beginning. Some of the first Pokemon Toys launched in Japan in October 1996 in the form of soft vinyl finger-puppets, packaged with candy. Around the same time, the wildly popular Pokemon Trading Card game hit stores, just months after the first game’s debut. Nintendo, Creatures Inc and Game Freak were learning early just how appealing the pocket monster characters could be.
In the lead-up to the original game’s US launch, Nintendo built a fleet of Pokemon-themed VW bugs to drive around the country and promote the game. Each car was equipped with a TV, a modified N64 and a copy of Pokemon in the trunk. They all looked like a fat Pikachu on wheels, and were an omen of things to come: Pikachu on everything.
By the time Pokemon came to the international market, Japan was already enjoying the Pokemon card game, a Pokemon Anime, Pokemon Manga, candy packaged with Pokemon Toys and more — priming the franchise to be a marketing machine when it hit the US. It didn’t take long for Pokemon to become an international phenomenon.
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Pokemon’s merchandising power grew so huge, The Pokemon Company had to be founded just to manage it all. Today you can find Pikachu on the top of a Pez Dispenser. An Adorable Pikachu coin bank. Pikachu blankets, wearable bath towels and shoes. There are Pokemon on socks, stationary, and even the breakfast table. There was a Pokemon Stage show once, and there are Pokemon-themed x-ray machines. For a while, a sort of Pokemon airline existed, operated by All Nippon Airways called Pokemon Jet.
Pokemon is now such a normal, common part of our collected culture that scientists have literally found that pictures of Pokemon evoke a specific response in the human brain.
Pokemon is everywhere and everything, and it always has been.
And if you didn’t know that, now you do.