When Harry™ Met Selling

Can Harry Potter survive a multi-million-dollar marketing blitz and the pressure to save the Christmas retail season and still keep his innocence?

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the Express train to Hogwart’s wizardry school leaves from platform 9 ¾—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 ¾. 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 movie, 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. I read the first two Harry Potter novels back-to-back on a 14-hour plane ride, in those innocent days when author J. K. Rowling had captured millions of imaginations but no corporate sponsorships. The books gave me a taste of that childhood sense of possibility and wonder, something I needed a reminder of at the time. But as we steel ourselves for the movie and merchandising mania, I’m just hoping that we’ll all still remember how to get to Platform 9 ¾ 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 multimillion-dollar marketing campaign. The conglomerate behind the little magician with the lightning-shaped scar is, remarkably, 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 in projected revenue in everything from box office returns to product tie-ins. 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 licensees versus 150 for Batman, often cited as a comparable “event movie.” Press about the movie has been under tight control—very few interviews with actors, a tightly controlled number of images released from the movie. Coca-Cola is the only official sponsor.

Rowling and Coca-Cola are both taking every opportunity to tout Coca-Cola’s $18 million literacy campaign for kindergarten through third-graders. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? The marketing for a movie, which 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 independent magazine The Baffler and 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. There can’t be any perception of commercialization or sell-out.”

Harry Potter has fans of all ages, and as Frank points out, 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 as well 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 Harry Mania. Spin-off books already range from What’s a Christian to do with Harry Potter? to biographies of Rowling, from Harry Potter numerology to how a young boy named Ben Buchanan overcame dyslexia, published a book, and wrote a trivial-pursuit game, all somehow thanks to Harry Potter.

And who needs a marketing budget, when Harry Potter fans already have the Web? From auctions to fan-fiction, Harry Potter has an online world usually generated only by cult science fiction. And the sites are by adults as well as children (like the quite thorough Harry Potter Lexicon, at http://www.i2k.com/~svderark/lexicon) to the X-rated. A pornographic fan fiction chain email has already criss-crossed the nation (A fan called only C-ko described Harry and his enemy Draco getting … carried away). 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.

Questionably tasteful Web sites 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.

Harry’s first real whiff of scandal came from an author named N. K. Stouffer, in the guise of a plagiarism suit. Stouffer says J. K. Rowling stole the name “Potter” and the word “Muggles” from her series of children’s books. In Stouffer’s world, “Muggles” are humans, too—but they are mutated nuclear holocaust survivors. (Does Stouffer also claim credit for the disheartening idea of using only her initials so that young male readers wouldn’t be turned off?) Stouffer’s suit, filed in New York by a lawyer who has since dropped her, won’t be decided for months—the original hearing was scheduled for Sept. 11 but, obviously, has been postponed.

In schools and libraries, Harry Potter has been battling efforts to ban it since it hit the stands. As a children’s author, you know you’ve arrived when the religious right goes after you, and J. K. Rowling is no exception. From Santa Fe, Texas, to Chatham, Kent, in the UK, 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 Web site.

These kinds of attacks are as old as “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” and are to be expected. But now that Coke has signed on as an AOL Time Warner 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 (http://www.saveharry.com), where it petitions J. K. 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, including obesity, and lack of calcium 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 under-nourishment in the Third World. But 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. The talking portrait of the fat lady will be on sale as a Fat Lady Talking Portrait alarm clock, boxed and shrink-wrapped next to a Snapes Potion Glass ($39.95). And just as the movie will replace the images we all had in our heads, the $9.94 version of the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Bean will replace the fictional beans. I bet they don’t even include a tripe flavor.

Real actors will now edge out the characters we had in our mind’s eye. And this is only the beginning. There are seven books in Rowling’s original vision, and a tentative plan for seven corresponding movies. The leading young actors have signed on for the second. Already concerned about how his stars might age, the movie’s director, Chris Columbus, told Time magazine, “If they suddenly discover cheeseburgers, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

A lot can happen in seven years. 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 see Hermione looking Calista Flockhart skinny, or 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-flying-hero Harry. And the pressure is on to stop grouching and help boost a sagging Christmas retail season.

So as we all troop off to see the gorgeous visuals—the rich sparkling detail that only $125 million can buy—let’s just 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.

Michelle Chihara is a staff writer at AlterNet.org.