Harry Potter and the Great Big Hoopla

This week a tsunami of marketing and merchandise will wash over bookstores, billboards, baseball stadiums and every possible form of media -- a tsunami by the name of Harry Potter.

On June 21, at 12:01am, the much-anticipated fifth book in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular series goes on sale. And when it does, its cover will be beamed from a billboard in Times Square while Harry Potter lookalikes hand out a million stickers and badges. The international jet set will attend a $500,000 release party in London. And all this for a book -- not for a movie, nor for anything having to do with J-Lo. But of course, Harry Potter is officially no longer simply a character in a book. He is a one-boy, multi-million dollar, international brand and media property.

The book itself has been kept under tight security, held under a strict embargo until the moment of release. Reviewers don't get copies; bookstores face harsh penalties if they disobey. The boxes of the precious tomes have been arriving at stores sealed in opaque black plastic wrap, labeled with a 1-800 number to call if the seal has been broken.

Reportedly only five people in the world have read the story, plus maybe one fork lift operator in the UK who found a couple of copies that fell off a truck. Evidently he offered pages to The Sun newspaper for £25,000. He was promptly nabbed and sentenced to 180 hours community service. That incident seems to be the lone breach. Headmaster Dumbledore would be proud. Heck, the Department of Homeland Security must be green with envy.

The tight security comes from orders on high; the author herself supposedly wanted to make sure no one spoiled the surprise for her young readers. Of course, the tactic is also a brilliant marketing ploy, like creating a line outside a club. The suspense is building. What will it matter what the critics say, once the tension breaks and everyone is awash in all things Potter?

A Critic-Proof Potion

Critics? Does anyone really read book reviews anymore? Certainly as far as sales are concerned, it may not matter much at all what's between the covers of this fifth Potter installment. The book has already turned the publishing world on its head and entered a mass market that books rarely reach. The usual book world sales tactics simply don't apply. Rowling is more famous than any other author who could possibly write her a cover blurb, and it seems safe to assume that most Harry Potter fans don't give a damn what the New York Review of Books has to say about Hogwarts. As long as Rowling hands us some reasonable facsimile of the previous four books -- Harry must be endearing, Hermione clever and Voldemort evil and defeated -- the record 8.5 million copies printed in the first run will probably find homes. Orders on Amazon.com have already topped a million. Brand loyalty is high.

No matter what goes on inside Potter's delightful world, out here in the land of the dollar, Harry Potter the brand is en route to ever more massive "mindshare," as they say. The question is, what does brand loyalty do to the imagination? Are mass market brands and creative storylines really compatible? The millions of dollars being spent on Potter marketing and merchandise are intended to create loyalty to a happy symbol of magic and innocence. Will that enormous financial pressure jibe with character development? Any criticism of the Harry Potter phenomenon is inevitably dismissed as cranky or snobbish. "At least they're reading," goes the comeback, and it's true. But what they're reading still matters, and a brand is by definition reductive and oversimplified, a single note, while a character is a melody, complex and multilayered. It would be a shame if the real world pressure to sell Cokes were to creep into Harry Potter's world, if the pressure to be a brand kept Harry from taking risks as a character.

The proof will be between the covers of "The Order of the Phoenix." Within the world of Hogwarts and without, Harry Potter is facing challenges at least as serious as his evil nemesis. First of all, as a character, the boy with floppy bangs is facing adolescence. This is no easy task for any boy, never mind a boy with a mean, unloving family and a magical school, never mind a boy whose basic approach to the world is pretty naive. More on that later. But first, as a brand, Potter may be facing what they call overexposure.

A Household Name

Executives at Warner Bros, which is gearing up for the next Harry Potter movie, don't sound worried. Diane Nelson, senior vice-president of marketing, has been quoted in the London Observer saying that Harry Potter "is a bigger property than anything else we at Warner Bros have seen." From Britain to the US to Germany to China, Harry Potter has become a household name. "It's astonishing," Nelson says smugly, "and we're nowhere near saturation point. The appetite is not a trend; it is a real evergreen property."

Millions of dollars are being wagered on the strength of that property. The publisher has already reportedly distributed some three million bumper stickers, 400,000 buttons, 50,000 window displays and 24,000 stand-up posters with countdown clocks. There are fridge magnets, magic wands and lightning-bolt temporary tattoos. The $3 or $4 million marketing campaign (which doubles the amount spent on the last campaign) includes Harry Potter Days at baseball stadiums nationwide, with scoreboard promotions and costume contests. Bookstores around the globe are being decorated to look like Diagon Alley with owl cages and spider webs, for midnight parties. After the premiere party, Rowling will be participating in a live webcast, a la Madonna, in which 4,000 children in Royal Albert Hall in London will ask questions (what will they do to get attention in the back?). The broadcast is being sponsored by Microsoft and British Telecom, which are investing $2.5 million in the production. Millions upon millions of viewers are expected to log on for a record-breaking web event.

This is not the norm for books. Book release parties usually max out at catered wine and cheese. And already, there are signs that the book alone may not be enough to carry the wave of hype. Reuters reported on June 11 that a J.P. Morgan survey found that a surprising percentage of young Harry Potter fans don't intend to buy the next book. "Based on our research, we do not believe that the release itself will be enough," said analyst Danielle Fox. "To us, the biggest surprise from our survey is the fall-off in the intent to purchase (the new book) among existing Harry Potter fans... In sum, we think heavy promotions will be crucial in making the latest Harry Potter release a success."

Well, thank goodness for the Harry Potter Baseball Days, right? Or could it be that heavy promotions and franchising simply don't make people want to read? Maybe there is such a thing as too many Playstation games and Mattel TM Potions Kits and plush collectibles and fleece throws and battery-operated vibrating brooms (seriously) and Hagrid and Norbert Magical Minis (wave the magic umbrella and Norbert moves!). Maybe once the brand exposure gets to a certain level, once the heavy promotions reach a certain weight, kids start to feel like, what do we need the book for? We'll just collect the cards and stickers and badges and get the next Invisibility Cloak from Toys R Us and wait for the movie to come out.

This fifth book is the first book to have to contend with this level of hoopla, and it remains to be seen how it will compete against its own hype. The fourth book was hyped, but the circus really started with the release of the first Harry Potter movie, that's when Warner Bros got involved and Coca-Cola signed on as official sponsor.

Inside Hogwarts

Meanwhile, inside Hogwarts, Harry Potter the character is also facing a changing world. Rowling has been hinting at various romantic undercurrents that are now coursing between the characters. "The Order of the Phoenix" will be the proving ground for the introduction of a very different kind of magic into Hogwarts. And it's not easy to mix magics.

In the magical worlds of children's books, adolescence, budding romantic feelings and the very adult chemistries that go along with such changes usually spell the end of the fun. Dorothy is not going to fall in love in Oz. It's only the kids who find their through the wardrobe into Narnia. Painted wings and giant's rings make way for other toys. There is something appealing about the idea of Hermione asking, "Are you there G-d?" but it will be a challenge to bring the complexities of adolescence to these characters.

The books are infused with Harry Potter's own wonder and naiveté. It will not be easy to introduce him to girls. We can only hope that Joanne Rowling -- newly married with a new baby and a daughter, still reeling from winning a lawsuit in the States and under enormous pressure to keep producing the books and to keep the brand strong -- will be up to it. The BBC reporter who scored the exclusive interview with the author, yet to be released, has leaked that Rowling said she wanted to break her own arm so that she wouldn't be able to write, when the pressure was on to finish this book.

But Harry has a way of overcoming the odds. A phoenix has saved him before and gives the title to the next, a bird that dies in flames and is reborn from its own ashes. Like his phoenix, Harry Potter is at a time of transformation. He will burn, one way or another, in the flames of over-hype and hormonal change. And he may well go up in smoke and join the ranks of other over-hyped British imports (remember Spice World?). But he may also emerge reborn as a more complex character who has found his place in a more complicated, less innocent world than the one he first entered. And that would even help his brand. Only a brand that summons the depth of emotion we feel for a good, integral character could survive the exposure of two more movies and the sheer overload of the Live-the-Magic-Coca-Cola-Baltimore-Orioles-Harry-Potter-everywhere campaign.

As Rowling writes of her beloved protagonist at the end of "The Goblet of Fire," "What would come, would come... and he would have to meet it."

Michelle Chihara is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

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