Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has named Hello Kitty, the famous feline character mass-produced by Sanrio Co., as its goodwill ambassador to China and Hong Kong. This move is part of the ministry’s “Visit Japan” campaign which aims to attract 10 million visitors each year. AP reports that tourists from China and Hong Kong accounted for 16.5% of visitors to Japan last year and are poised to become the second largest group of tourists after South Koreans. The billion-dollar Hello Kitty brand is wildly popular among these groups and Kitty-mania is being pushed throughout China. A multi-million dollar musical, “Hello Kitty’s Dream Light Fantasy” opened in Beijing in March and is scheduled to travel to Malaysia, Singapore, and the U.S. as part of a 3-year run.
The use of a cartoon franchise to market and cross-sell is not new. Snoopy speaks for MetLife, while Yogi Bear hustles family campsites and Shrek peddles cereal. A stuffed animal or an animated cartoon does evoke warm and cuddly feelings. What IS specifically different about Hello Kitty is its employment by Japan to communicate with China, a country it invaded 70 years ago as part of an imperialist policy to take over China’s vast resources. Today, the takeover is not being accomplished with the military. It is done with merchandising, wherein consumer goods (serial, mass-produced, inexpensive and therefore attainable objects) are endowed with human qualities and ambassadorial charm. Hello Kitty’s pitch is the dream of world peace, harmony, and abundance through mass entertainment, consumption of spectacle, and tourist spending.
And this pitch IS trademarked. Artist Tom Sachs, who just installed his Hello Kitty sculptures at Lever House earlier this month (and famously substituted Hello Kitty for the Baby Jesus at Barney’s holiday windows back in 1994), never got permission to use the ambassador’s likeness and could face legal action. In New York Magazine, Sachs proclaims, “Hello Kitty is so much a part of our popular culture, I don’t think anyone really owns it. It’s something licensed by Sanrio, but I think her spirit and love and purity belong to all of us.” He could have been speaking for the Japanese Ministry. Maybe Sanrio will let this one slide: it does elevate Hello Kitty into a cultural icon, which is great for business.