CARTOON characters once restricted to the kid’s department now festoon adult apparel. Walk into any H&M or Sokos in Finland and you are bombarded with Snoopy, Tweety and Hello Kitty on anything from lingerie to lip gloss, all unmistakeably marketed to adults. Is this a vain attempt to reclaim childhood innocence or another marketing ploy embraced by a consumer society?

Merchandising turns any object into a commodity. Children’s merchandising has been strongly connected to children’s films and TV shows, while adult merchandising, previously based mostly on sports team items for fans, has also begun to exploit adult love for music, film and TV. Cartoons have long appealed to adults for their humour, so adults might also want to wear Spongebob or Shrek T-shirts.

This phenomenon actually originates not from US corporations like Disney but from Japan’s youth culture of “cute”. Through anime and J-pop, this cute culture is insinuating itself across the globe, branding practically every kind of product with some or other children’s character.

Among the biggest offenders is Hello Kitty. The fictional character was first developed in Japan by Sanrio in 1974. After the TV series aired in 1991, Hello Kitty became a global brand. In 2004 Hello Kitty received the exclusive title of “UNICEF Special Friend of Children” due to large donations by Sanrio to the girl’s education programme, which focuses on gender-based discrimination. Well, now you can even buy Hello Kitty sex toys. Whether it’s a case of adulthood being infantilised or vice versa, mixing elements of sex and childhood is just icky to say the least.

Suzanne van Rooyen
Kristin Ay