Monday, February 25, 2008

Disney Fairies, On and Offline Play

So this year's American International Toy Fair has now come and gone, with plenty of noteworthy announcements to keep kids' media researchers busy for the next few months (at least!)...Including a number of new developments within the emerging virtual-to-real (or real-to-virtual) toy market, and some interesting news from Disney regarding its Disney Fairies franchise. As covered by Business Wire, Disney has partnered up with Techno Source to produce a line of "Clickables" toys that will tie-in to the Fairies website...soon to become a full-fledged "virtual world". As with other initiatives of this kind (BarbieGirls, Webkinz, be-bratz, etc.), the (stated) goal is "to extend" kids online play into offline playtime, and vice-versa. As Chris Heatherly, VP of Technology and Innovation at Disney Consumer Products, states (as quoted in the Business Wire article):
"The future of toys is about connecting online and offline play. Kids and tweens are quickly embracing virtual worlds and, while there are several Internet-related toys in the market today, the play ends when the computer gets shut down. With our new line of Disney Fairies toys featuring Clickables technology, we're bringing the fun of social networking, collecting, and trading into the real world so that girls can extend the fun of the enchanting online world of Pixie Hollow to school, the park, or wherever they may be."

And how do they plan to achieve this most holy of the holy grails of the children's industries (i.e. branded play)? By embedding, or "naturally aligning," the property within children's "existing play patterns"...and of course by offering "exclusive content" within the virtual world that kids won't be able to access without purchasing one (or all) of the associated products. According to the article, Disney also "hopes that by offering these Internet-connected toys that it will teach girls to share their Fairies and create friendships" - which we can also read as a hope that the "friendship bracelet" theme promoted by the toys will enhance viral marketing within peer groups. Thus, like BarbieGirls, Disney appears to be creating games and toys that more or less depend upon (or one could say exploit) real-life relationships by encouraging word-of-mouth marketing (by requiring that kids find a real-life friend to sign up if they want to access all the site's features, communicate more freely, etc.).

Here's a full list of the tie-in products released to date, courtesy of Gearlog (which you should definitely check out if you want to see some pics of the products themselves):
* Pixie Dust eJewelry Collection: a jewelry box, charm necklace, and three exclusive Disney Fairies charms powered by Clickables technology. When a girl touches a charm to the Clickables center of her jewelry box, it unlocks a unique fairy gift at www.PixieHollow.com, including exclusive clothing and décor.

* Tink Friendship eBracelets: a Fairy Friendship Kit where a girl can select her fairy avatar, a special message, and a gift on the virtual world, and then save it onto her eBracelet to be shared offline with friends. When a girl touches her band to her friend's and presses a button, her band will glow to confirm that a Fairy Friendship has been made!

* Tink's eCharm Bracelet: a customizable charm bracelet and three themed charms. Each charm unlocks a unique, exclusive fairy gift at www.PixieHollow.com.

* Fairy eCharms accessory packs: Each pack contains three themed Disney Fairies eCharms powered with Clickables technology.

* Tink and Friends Fly with Me eLCD: an electronic handheld with five games, letting girls play as their favorite Disney Fairies characters Tinker Bell, Fawn, Iridessa, Silvermist, or Rosetta no matter where they are. Best of all, points earned during gameplay are turned into exclusive Tink Points in the virtual world to use toward clothes or décor.

The toys will be launched to coincide with the release of the upcoming direct-to-DVD animated film based on the franchise, Tinker Bell (so...summer 2008?) and probably with the planned MMO expansion of the site (which will see Disney Fairies transform into Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow). With all this news, we've also been given some new stats on the Disney Fairies franchise, which is by all accounts mushrooming in popularity. According to corporate communication:

* The Disney Fairies site contains just under 5 million unique fairy avatars;

* It attracts 1 million unique visitors every month;

* In 2007 alone, the franchise generated more than $800 million in global retail sales from an array of "merchandise and lifestyle" products, including apparel, toys, electronics, home décor and stationery;

* The over 385 Disney Fairies books that have been published worldwide (in 51 countries) have sold nearly 9.5 million copies;

* Disney Fairies magazines have sold 6 million copies in 40 countries.

From what I've seen and read so far, the site (and/or its planned expansion) reproduces many of the same issues as other branded kids' games, including privacy/safety/freedom of expression trade-offs, cross-media (and cross-product) promotion (fostered through problematic strategies such as collectibles and viral marketing), and potential IP issues as well (depending on the levels of UGC enabled within the upcoming MMOG). That said, the site is a total blast to play and I'm really hoping (with fingers crossed) that the MMOG will maintain the playability and limited commercialization of Disney's Toontown. I'm not too convinced that this is likely, however, as the cross-promotional machine is already in full swing with this one...and even follows a pretty eerily accurate industry prediction made a couple of years ago.

In trying to describe the Disney Fairies franchise to a colleague earlier today, I found myself somewhat trapped in the very intertextuality upon which the brand was launched...the books, the website, now the toys and film, all part of a carefully rolled-out strategy, with no real originating text other than the minimally-defined Tinker Bell character (from Peter Pan and subsequent Disney usage) and some good ideas about character differentiation...mixed in with a few tried-and-true 'fantasy genre' motifs (e.g. elemental magic, etc.) and drawing upon a number of popular digital play forms (virtual paper dolls, MMOGs, etc.). Yet, although the brand is obviously completely embedded in its own cross-promotional synergy, it is this very dynamic that makes it more difficult to analyze than other games/media that start off as one thing, and then become more overtly commercialized through the insertion of third-party advertising or other marketing schemes. Sites/brands like Disney Fairies are tricky because they are -- from the get-go -- primarily promoting themselves...the brand's characters and themes, and consumption of the brand through a myriad of interconnected products, media, and play forms.

As a bit of an aside, I'm really starting to feel that we need a shared term to describe games and toys that converge on and offline play in this way. Suggestions?

For more coverage, check out Izzy Neis' post here, and keep an eye on her excellent and ongoing list of upcoming virtual worlds for kids.

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