What's the deal with Strawberry Shortcake? She's pudgy and wears bloomers and Wallabies. Also, she's named after, obsessed with, lives in and smells like a sickeningly sweet dessert.
Who wants to hang out with her? No one. That's why Shortcake franchise owner American Greetings Co. has given her an extreme makeover. She's come out of her cake and eats only the strawberries now. She's slimmed down and replaced her cat, Custard, with a cell phone. Her face, hair, clothes and accessories have been glamorized. She's grown into a ripe and sexy little 21st-century confection. Sure, it took plenty of focus-group research to make her hot, but she's been a worthwhile investment, having paid off $2.5 billion since 2003.
And Shorty's not the only old-skool youth-brand icon getting a revamping. Brooks Barnes' lead story in the June 11 New York Times business section reports that an “unusually large number of classic characters for children are being freshened up and reintroduced” because their corporate owners consider the face-lifted familiar a safer bet than the unknown in this dreary economy.
By tapping parents' nostalgia and kids' “YouTube sensibilities,” companies like Warner Bros. can cash in on “reinvigorating” and “reimagining” Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo as interactive web buddies. (“You want a dark, goth version of Tweety Bird? Have at it,” says Lisa Gregorian, executive vice president of marketing for Warner Bros.)
Under pressure from TV networks and toy merchandisers to deliver a sure thing, these companies are reviving the most parent-safe of the nation's dormant characters, mainly from the '80s, to reanimate as sexed-up zombies for today's savvier character-consuming pre-adults:
• 4Kids Entertainment has reinvented Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with “more muscles and less attitude.”
• American Greetings' Care Bears are back with “less belly fat and longer eyelashes,” and their wholesome girl-in-the-bonnet-and-rag-dress, Holly Hobbie, has let her blonde locks down under a denim cap and removed her dress to reveal boho-chic designer jeans.
• Even today's more ratings-hungry PBS is forcing its two-dimensional cash cows to go Hollywood, redesigning Angelina Ballerina, the ambitious mouse in pointe shoes, as a shapelier, sleeker rodent, with delicately arched eyebrows replacing her long, protruding whiskers (so not hot!).
But big investments in beloved cartoon-character makeovers can backfire. Barnes and others, like Lori Fradkin in New York magazine, warn that the trend can go too far and divide consumers—as it already has with Mattel's 1992 sexually ambiguous Earring Magic Ken and Warner Bros.' much-maligned 2005 “Loonatics” series that replaced Bugs and pals with extreme, dark, sleek, futuristic action-hero derivatives.
But here's a safe bet: Mine the '80s-character celebrity D-list. How come big shots like the Care Bears get all the action? Why can't hopelessly un-iconic characters like the Wuzzles and Biskitts be born again? Does nobody remember them? Who cares? Those losers will do anything to get back on a lunchbox. Let's dig up the cartoon has-beens, revive them, and present them as they've become—they're a cheap get, bound to make the corporations a few bucks. Fortunately, Presently Tense has managed to locate a few:
The Wuzzles—Half one animal and half another (bee/lion, rabbit/hippo, etc.), the Wuzzles were aware of their plight (“livin' with a split personality,” went the theme song). Today, the Wuzzles still suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder, only it's no longer cute. It is now just sad. The Wuzzles survive on an American Psychiatric Association stipend for aiding experimental pharmaceutical research. In 2004, Butterbear, the butterfly/bear Wuzzle, committed suicide; the other Wuzzles considered suing, but Crawttorney, the Wuzzle who is half crawfish and half lawyer, mysteriously vanished before the suit could be filed.
Rubik, the Amazing Cube—Grooving to Menudo, Rubik flew through the air and used magic powers to fight the evil magician from whom he'd escaped (probably the inventor of the abominable toy). In the wake of 9/11, Rubik was rounded up along with his pals, the Rodriguez family, and deported to Mexico, where he's now holding up the short leg of a rickety table in a roadside cantina in Punta Prieta.
The Herculoids—Years of anabolic-steroid abuse have left the Herculoid family in critical care. Hanna-Barbera refuses to pay their medical bills, arguing breach of contract for the Hercs having sold freaky creatures Zok, Igoo, Tundro, Gloop & Gleep to Ringling Bros.
Jem and the Holograms—One-hit wonders Jem and the Holograms faded into obscurity after arch rivals The Misfits broke up after losing a legal battle with musician Glen Danzig's New York-based Misfits over who had rights to the name. Without competition, Jem lost her will, sold her father's equipment to buy crystal and is now a lounge singer at the Embassy Suites in Tuscon.
Biskitts—Hanna-Barbera's “smallest dogs in the world” guarded a treasure in a castle in a swamp on a tiny island. The island was swallowed up by Hurricane Katrina, and most of the Biskitts drowned. The only remaining Biskitt, Mooch, lives on the streets of New Orleans, mooching biscuits and mumbling to himself about the “goddamn Smurfs.”Rainbow Brite—Alienated from her friends, disillusioned by the power of The Dark Princess and Sgt. Zombo to keep the world in the dark, Rainbow has become just plain old Wisp again, sitting night after night in the Starlite cocktail lounge on India Street, addicted to Starlite Mules, drowning her sorrows over the death of Starlite, her magnificent white horse. Also, she's chasing the white horse. If owner Hallmark could just get Rainbow into rehab and hire a good sellout surgeon to do her boobs, I think she has the best chance of any washed-up '80s character at a big comeback with minimal investment.
In the words of Alfred R. Kahn, chairman of 4Kids Entertainment, “it's a terrible world, and modern parents are trying to cocoon their kids as much as possible, [and] what better way to protect them than wrapping them in nostalgic brands?”
Only one way, Al. Wrap the brats in sexified nostalgia that doesn't blemish your bottom line.