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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Rodimus Effect

In an effort to retire old Japanese Diaclone molds in 1986, Hasbro toys launched Transformers: The Movie. In the first 10 minutes of the film, popular characters like Brawn, Ratchet, Ironhide, Wheeljack, and Prowl were killed off and and it all climaxed with the death of Optimus Prime.

Hasbro thought that by killing off all the popular characters they’d be able to introduce new characters like Kup, Arcee, and Rodimus Prime in the film and that viewers would embrace them when they went to the toy store.

It was one of the biggest marketing disasters of all time.

Transformers: The Movie was a box-office failure. Most kids back then were horrified watching characters they grew up with die in numerous disturbing ways. Worse, many kids HATED the new characters, especially the new autobot leader Rodimus Prime.

What Hasbro didn’t bank on back then was that kids had formed relationships with the first generation of Transformers characters. To many of those kids Optimus Prime and his Autobot crew were like their friends. Someone who they could come home to every afternoon and spend time with while mom and dad were out at work. Someone who made a hard day of school that much easier when they came home to them.

Now I have a theory to why the Transformers brand collapsed after the 1986 Movie. I call it The Rodimus Effect. Others will call this the New Coke effect (New Coke came out two years earlier) because Coca-cola also alienated its customers by introducing a new formula in 1984, but by 1986 the Coca-Cola company was smart enough to see the error of their ways and return to the original formula after a public backlash and get back to good customer relations by 1987.

But when it comes to comic book/fantasy/sci-fi characters it can take much longer to repair the damage to a brand. Hasbro felt the impact of Rodimus Prime for nine years. Even after they brought back Optimus Prime in 1987, the damage was still felt throughout the transformers brand for years. Products such as headmasters, targetmasters, actionmasters, powermasters and Generation 2 all struggled at retail, and The Transformers cartoon went into reruns after 1990. It wasn’t until the 1996 Beast Wars reboot that the Transformers brand returned to popularity with consumers.

My theory is when a company tries to replace a kill off an iconic or popular character and replace it with another character in the same role, the audience immediately rejects said character and demands a return of the original.

After the establishment of Rodimus Prime and his Autobot crew as the main characters in the Transformers TV show, many kids were turned off. Rodimus was quickly seen in a negative light by many who perceived his indecisiveness and insecurity as being weak. Others saw him as cowardly. A few kids even saw him as a tool.

But in comparison to Optimus Prime he just didn’t measure up. Rodimus was mocked, ridiculed and reviled. Even to this day Rodimus Prime/Hot Rod toys struggle to sell at retail because of the way he was introduced to viewers.

Even in the face of the disaster that almost destroyed the Transformers brand, some companies still try to force permanent changes onto customers without taking into consideration the relationships they’ve formed with said characters.

In 2006 DC Comics killed the popular character Blue Beetle. Ted Kord, the character who readers had grown fond of over 20 years was graphically and violently murdered by Max Lord in the panels of a DC Comic.

A few months later, DC Comics tried to introduce Jamie Reyes, a Latino kid in the role of Blue Beetle. While the character was very fun and had his charms, and has been pushed heavily in merchandise by DC in TV shows like Batman: Brave and the Bold and Young Justice, unfortunately he never gained any traction with fans who never warmed to him.

Why? Because like many of the Transformers fans who mourned Optimus Prime, many of those DC Comics fans were mourning the loss of Kord, who represented the everyman character that readers identified with. Someone who they considered a friend.

What most in the entertainment business don’t understand that people form a bond with these fictional characters. For many fantasy is an escape from reality. For others it becomes their reality. But in both cases, the characters readers and viewers meet are like friends and family. People grow close to these characters. They form connections with them.

When these fictional characters are killed off in an abrupt, violent fashion it can lead to a public backlash from fans and casual customers. People need to deal with their feelings regarding these fictional characters. In the eyes of many, especially young children seeing someone like Optimus Prime or Ted Kord die is like watching a real close friend or loved one die.

The adverse effects of a prolonged Rodimus Effect can cripple a brand long-term. Indifference by a publisher or producer by forcing changes onto customers can lead to their alienation. Because people aren’t allowed to deal with their feelings regarding those characters and aren’t given closure, they may stop buying products.

Worse, they may not share said characters with their children as their fond memories are tainted by bitterness. As they accept the fact that their favorite characters may never return It may prove next to impossible to reach the next generation and show them how great said characters are.

If a character isn’t working, there is a natural and organic way to introduce new character designs or new characters with the same name. For example, in 1986, the second Flash Barry Allen was in the middle of a creative slump. Three years of bad writing had stalled the title creatively and led to a sales slump.

DC Comics had no choice but to kill Barry Allen to save the Flash Brand. So in the maxi-series Crisis of Infinite Earths the character was sacrificed in a noble effort to save the DC Universe.

It was considered one of the defining moments of comic book history. A symbolic passing of the Silver Age (which Barry Allen ushered in with his first appearance) and the start of the Modern age for DC Comics.

But creatively, it saved the Flash brand. Because readers saw an organic series of reasons for Barry Allen’s death, they were able to accept his loss, mourn and move on.

Moreover, they were able to accept it when Wally West, the sidekick known as Kid Flash adopted his costume and took on the identity of The Flash. Because he had an established relationship with Barry Allen, DC Comics readers were eager to accept him. For some youngsters growing up in that generation, (Generation X) West’s adoption of the Flash mantle was like a son inheriting a parents’ cherished personal effects after they died. Most could relate to his struggles as he tried to live up to the standard established by someone they admired and loved.

West’s mourning of his uncle was documented in the pages of Flash Vol.3 and allowed readers the closure they needed to accept the passing of Barry Allen as permanent fixture in the structure of the Post-Crisis DC Universe. When the grieving process was complete, readers were able to fully accept Wally West as his own iconic Flash in his own iconic costume starting with the 50th issue.

Due to the respect DC Comics editors had for the human grieving process then, Wally West grew to become one of the most beloved characters in the DC Universe. Over the past two decades, West has actually grown more popular than his predecessor, being featured prominently in DC Comics merchandising and licensing.

Other examples of natural, organic character replacement include justice Society member Mr. Terrific. The original Mr. Terrific was a white male. While not a popular character, he did have a following. But his death was handled so tactfully that readers were able to accept an African-American, Michael Holt in the role of Mr.Terrific. Due to the tactful way the death of the original Mr.Terrific was handled, Holt was able to connect with a new generation of readers and become popular with them.

A Rodimus Effect can happen to any fictional character. If a writer doesn’t respect the readers relationship with said characters, the reader has no reason to respect the publisher and continue to buy their products. If a publisher or producer wants to introduce new characters or new characters with the same name they have to execute their stories in such a way that it gives those fans and customers the closure they need to move forward.

In order to prevent a Rodimus effect, where readers turn away from a series and walk away from a brand, fiction writers have to understand that their readers or their viewers do grow a personal and emotional attachment to the characters they create. If they don’t respect that relationship, readers can become alienated, turn away from a series and never return. 

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