So far, we’ve survived more than a year of Pokemania. Now get ready for Poke-backlash.
For those of you just emerging from the woods of western Maryland, Pokemon — derived from ”pocket monsters” — is the be-all and end-all of kiddie crazes (at least for today). Combine the ‘toon-based hipness of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the collectible frenzy of Beanie Babies, and the must-buy cachet of Furbys, and you’ve got an idea of what Pokemon is all about. What began in Japan with a Nintendo videogame has morphed into a national phenomenon that includes a top-rated kids cartoon on The WB, a mammoth licensing program encompassing 1,000-plus products, and now a Warner Bros. feature, Pokemon the First Movie, which opens Nov. 10 and is already a preordained smash. Estimated worldwide earnings for all things Pokemon to date: $6 billion. As Jim Silver, publisher of the trade journal Toy Book, says, ”This is definitely a Pokemon season.”
But on the heels of this eye-popping success comes controversy. Witness: One of the most popular aspects of the Pokemon empire has been the trading-card game. This year alone, the cards have racked up about $300 million in sales; that’s more than twice last year’s album sales for the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync — combined. But now schools around the nation are banning the cards for the disruptive influence they’re having on students. ”Shirts and lunch boxes are fine, but the cards are so absorbing. I just thought, ‘Enough!”’ says Gabrielle Howard, who oversees kindergarten through third grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. ”There are more interesting things to do in school.”
Meanwhile, some retailers are experiencing the dark side of runaway success. Counterfeit Pokemon merchandise is a widespread problem. In July, customs officials seized $250,000 worth of ersatz Pokemon-abilia in Elizabeth, N.J. Wayne Kneeland, who owns The Toy Shop, Ltd., in Bristol, R.I., stopped carrying the trading cards after he received nearly 300 counterfeit packs from a shady distributor. ”I was all for selling Pokemon, but that just really turned me off,” he says, noting that since he stopped, ”parents are grateful. They’re loving me.”
More seriously, a group of parents in New York and California banded together to file a class-action suit in September against Nintendo, its licensing agency, 4 Kids Entertainment, and card maker Wizards of the Coast, alleging this Poke-mob was creating an activity that amounts to ”an illegal gambling enterprise.” Richard Auletta, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, says the suit was filed in federal court in San Diego under the RICO statute, the racketeering law commonly used against suspected gangsters. The problem, say the parents, is that since some cards are rarer than others, kids are encouraged to keep buying them in hopes of landing the valuable ones. ”It’s like a lottery,” says Neil Moritt, a lawyer for the parents. Adds Auletta: ”[We] want the cards to be printed in equal numbers. That would take out the element of gambling.”