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[whitespace] 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'
Hogwarts Wash: Once a creature of the reader's imagination, Harry Potter is poised to be the next corporate marketing coup.

When Harry™ Met Selling

Coke and AOL Time Warner hope to spin gold out of cult following

By Michelle Chihara

In Harry Potter's world, the express train to Hogwarts wizardry school leaves from platform 9 3/4--a platform that exists invisibly between platforms 9 and 10 at Kings Cross Station. To find it, you have to rush headlong at a wrought iron barrier and trust that you'll pop out onto 9 and 3/4. In other words, you have to close your eyes for a moment, ignore our messy Muggle world and believe in Harry's.

"Muggle" means normal, or without wizard blood, without magic. This week, Harry Potter's magical world meets Muggle reality. On Nov. 16, the wave of Pottermania crests with the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and the Lego sets hit Kmarts everywhere. To the corporate colossus behind the film, Friday is the true dawning of the age of Harry Potter.

We all knew this was coming, those of us who have grown to love Harry Potter through the printed word alone. I read the first two Harry Potter novels on a 14-hour plane ride, in those innocent days when author J.K. Rowling had captured millions of imaginations, but no corporate sponsorships. But as we steel ourselves for the movie and merchandising mania, will any of us still remember how to get to Platform 9 3/4 by ourselves, without the brand-name gimmicks?

Ironically, Harry Potter fans have been promised a movie faithful to the books, tasteful merchandise and a kinder, gentler marketing campaign. The conglomerate behind the little magician with the lightning-shaped scar is trying to tread lightly. AOL Time Warner knows how much fans love J.K. Rowling's creation. They know that Harry is the goose that lays the golden egg--to the tune, they're hoping, of $2 billion projected revenue.

So they have held back, riding the tide of Harry-love, in a "less is more," $30 million to $40 million marketing campaign. The idea is not to drown Harry Potter fans with too much gaudy hype.

So what does a $40 million, "less is more" campaign look like, in the real world? The number of licensees on Harry Potter merchandise is comparatively small--a mere 85 vs. 150 for Batman. Press about the movie has been under tight control. Coca-Cola is the only official sponsor. Rowling and Coca-Cola are both taking every opportunity to tout the beverage behemoth's $18 million literacy campaign for kindergarten through third-graders. It's a nice thought, isn't it? The marketing for a movie that will inevitably replace a book in the imagination of millions sponsors a literacy campaign? Kind of like tobacco taxes sponsoring rehab programs.

All publicity campaigns aimed at kids have an added pressure, paradoxically, to appear as if they're not interested in profiting off their customers--as if they were spending all the millions purely out of a love of youth and Harry.

"Authenticity, that's what they all want," says Tom Frank, editor of The Baffler and a long-time critic of corporate and advertising excess. "The idea is to make it seem like some sort of authentic experience, not a sold-out commercial thing." As Frank points out, Harry Potter has fans of all ages, and some of them will see through this anti-marketing marketing campaign. But his biggest fans are quite young. "It always seems so monstrous when ads are aimed at children," says Frank, "because their critical faculties aren't as well developed ... but this has happened so many times before, we might be used to it by now."

In this case, the only reason studio executives can claim any measure of marketing reserve is that Harry Potter has already spawned a self-perpetuating universe of Harrymania. Spinoff books already range from What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter? to biographies of Rowling.

And who needs a marketing budget, when Harry already has the web? From auctions to fan-fiction, Harry Potter has an online world usually generated only by cult science fiction. Harry's life on the Internet ranges from childishly amusing--like the quite thorough Harry Potter Lexicon, at www.i2k.com/~svderark/lexicon--to X-rated. A pornographic fan-fiction chain email has already crisscrossed the nation.

Rumor has it that the new corporate folk want to clamp down on the more erotically inclined Harry Potter fans online. But surely they'll never be so foolish as to threaten the vast, self-perpetuating viral marketing machine that is their online fan culture.

[line]

Good Wizard: Uneven 'Harry Potter' casts reasonably enjoyable spell.

Something About Harry: One adult reader first fell under the sorcerer's spell thanks to the richness of the accents in the Harry Potter series--can the movie live up to the imagination?

Boy's World: Fantasy author Lemony Snicket says girls deserve better than 'Harry Potter.'

[line]

Questionably tasteful websites are only the beginning of Harry's troubles. With fame comes controversy, and Harry Potter has already seen his share. Is he a shill for Christian parables? Or an anti-Christian Satan worshipper? Feminist? Anti-feminist? All of these accusations have hit the tabloids.

In schools and libraries, Harry Potter has been battling book-banning efforts since it hit the stands. As a children's author, you know you've arrived when the religious right goes after you, and Rowling is no exception. From Santa Fe, Texas, to Chatham, Kent, in the U.K., the Christian right has tried to ban Harry for polluting young minds with paganism, Satanism, fantasy worlds and other sinful propaganda. Harry Potter is part of the "manipulative consensus process," that the "international program for multicultural education" is inflicting on children worldwide, according to one website.

These kinds of attacks are to be expected. But now that Coke has signed on as AOL Time Warner's global partner, the attacks are coming from the other side.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has launched a nice-looking "Save Harry!" campaign (www.saveharry.com), where it petitions Rowling to give up her millions from the Coca-Cola licensing deal. The publishers of the Nutrition Action Health newsletter point to health risks posed by too much sugar when Coke replaces milk. "Save Harry" has nutrition experts on its side (although this campaign is also supported by the less-than-objective dairy industry). Their rallying cry? Harry Potter should not be associated with Coca-Cola because it produces "Liquid Candy!"

There's a certain irony here, not that Harry encourages undernourishment in the Third World, but that the hero and his friends regularly binge out on Drooble's Best Blowing Gum and Chocolate Frogs. Using "liquid candy" as an insult in the name of Harry Potter lacks a certain grasp of nuance.

But "Save Harry" is appealing because it's hard to swallow having the entire Harry Potter universe up for sale. No matter how subtle the hype, in order to "Live the Magic," you now have to buy a Coke. Just as the movie will replace the images we all had in heads, the $9.94 version of the Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Bean will replace the fictional beans. Real actors will now edge out the characters we had in our mind's eye. Coke has promised to spare us the image of Harry drinking the soda. But who knows what the future holds? Let's just hope we don't ever have to hear Harry give an "I got clean thanks to my fans" speech.

In the end, watching Harry Potter go from beloved novel to "event movie" is like watching your favorite underground punk band hit the mainstream--of course, they're selling, but it hurts to watch them go. It hurts, but it's hard not to root for single-mom-turned-millionaire Rowling and her floppy-haired, underdog-turned-hero Harry. And the pressure is on to stop grumbling and help boost a sagging Christmas retail season.

So as we all troop off to see the gorgeous visuals, let's pause to mourn the loss of Peeves the naughty ghost (he didn't make the cut in the movie), our imaginary Bertie Bott's beans, and the last piece of Harry's innocence.

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From the November 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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