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  • Is There a Text in This Advertising Campaign?:Literature, Marketing, and Harry Potter
  • Philip Nel (bio)

In July 2000, The Boston Globe's Dan Wasserman drew a cartoon that predicted what would become the most prominent threat to Harry Potter's literary legacy. Several months ahead of the beginning of the Harry Potter marketing bonanza and more than a year before the release of the first Potter film, Wasserman's cartoon shows two children walking down a city street. One child holds a Harry Potter novel; and everywhere they look, advertisements announce all variety of Harry merchandise. A shop's sign offers "Harry Wares." A restaurant offers "Potter Pies," "Wizard Fries," and "Happy Harry Meals!" An eyeglass store proclaims "Just In—Harry Frames." A poster (located, perhaps appropriately, on a trash can) invites them to "Visit the Harry Potter Theme Park." And a store's display window reminds passers-by that "We carry a full line of Harry schlock!", including robes, wands, and "muggle mugs." One child says to the other, "I can already see how it ends—the dark forces win." (Wasserman). In July 2000, such a cartoon was a satirical comment on the culture industry. Less than two years later, it became merely descriptive.

The aggressive marketing predicted by this cartoon also describes a critical problem: the novels and the hype become intertwined, resulting in analyses that fail to take into account the full complexity of either. Because Harry Potter is both a marketing phenomenon and a literary phenomenon, critical conflation of the two does not really advance the understanding of the marketing apparatus or the books themselves. Author J. K. Rowling herself appears to be aware of this problem, as June Cummins has observed. Citing Rowling's charitable work and critical comments about Potter merchandise, Cummins notes that the Harry [End Page 236] Potter author "seems determined to separate the books from the aggressive marketing pursued by Scholastic, Warner Brothers, and Mattel." Cummins then asks, "But is her goal realistic? I say it is not" (20). I, however, would argue that it is both realistic and necessary to separate the books from the marketing. First of all, conflating the books with the marketing fails to produce a sufficiently sophisticated analysis of the latter. Second, such critical conflation leads some critics to overlook the novels' considerable literary achievements.

Consider the marketing side of the question first. Jack Zipes, Andrew Blake, and John Pennington correctly underscore Harry Potter as a contemporary capitalist phenomenon. In his essay "From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter," John Pennington provides the most succinct version of this idea: "So what are the Potter books really about, then? Well, monetary success primarily" (92). Pennington has a point. It is difficult to talk about Harry Potter and to ignore the marketing. You can see the movies, you can buy the movies, you can buy Legos, action figures, stickers, notebooks, a card game, a board game, puzzles, address books, calendars, Band Aids®, toothbrushes, toothpaste, t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, trading cards, greeting cards, Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, a Nimbus 2000 broomstick, a Harry Potter wallet, wizarding-world money, and even piña colada–flavored "Dementor's Kisses." Much of the Harry Potter merchandising must make even the most ardent fan cringe just a little bit. And it is difficult to applaud the ways in which these Potter spin-off products encourage consumption for its own sake.

However, to say that the books are only about monetary success ignores the late capitalist conditions of their production. Zipes and Blake offer more nuanced versions of Pennington's claim. As the reason for Harry Potter's success, Zipes cites:

the conditions under which literature for the young have been transformed through institutional corporate conglomerates controlling the mass media, and market demands. Phenomena such as the Harry Potter books are driven by commodity consumption that at the same time sets the parameters of reading and aesthetic taste. Today the experience of reading for the young is mediated through the mass media and marketing so that the pleasure and meaning of a book will often be prescripted or dictated by convention.


Judiciously placing his comments in...