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Jem Is Rocking Fashion Doll Industry as She Battles Barbie for Top Spot

December 19, 1986|JOHN SWENSON | United Press International

NEW YORK — Michelle Whyte of Staten Island, 6, dreams of being a hologram. For those of you who don't watch TV cartoons regularly, the Holograms are the support group for the biggest kid-rock star in the business, Jem.

Michelle and her first-grade friends at Notre Dame Academy watch the Jem cartoon every week, then play its characters to act out their own stories after school. "I'm usually Aja," Michelle said.

Michelle and her friends are part of a generation that is making the Jem line of fashion dolls one of the hottest items in the toy business and a definite rival to the longtime favorite, Barbie.

Though Jem has made some 60 music videos, you won't see them on MTV. You can hear the songs only by watching the show or by buying one of seven dolls now on the market. Each of the dolls, with the exception of Jem herself, comes with a cassette tape featuring three different songs.

Creative Collaboration

The story collaboration developed between Hasbro's toy executives and the Sunbow production studio that creates the cartoons is unusually sophisticated.

Jem has a dual identity. In everyday life she's Jerrica Benton, co-owner of Star Light Music Co. and benefactor of Starlight House, a shelter for homeless girls. In classic comic-book tradition, Jerrica is able to take on super powers through the use of a secret device. Jerrica's "Jem Star" earrings connect her to a holographic computer, Synergy, which transforms her into Jem, the "truly outrageous" pop star.

Jem's little sister, Kimber, and their pals, Aja and Shana, form the Holograms. Most of the story lines pitch Jem and the Holograms against the "bad girl" punk rockers, the Misfits, whose leader, Pizzaz, is Jem's arch-rival.

As you might expect, there is also a boyfriend in the picture. Rio, a purple-haired character right out of "Miami Vice," goes out with Jerrica and also happens to be Jem's road manager. According to the story line, he has no idea that Jem and Jerrica are the same person.

The concept was spawned by the music video explosion of the 1980s.

"We wanted to get into the fashion-doll section of the toy industry," said Hasbro Vice President Al Carosi. "We had identified the interest young girls have in rock 'n' roll music. With the advent of MTV, Nickelodeon and 'Miami Vice' a rock 'n' roll feeling has permeated the youth market.

"If the doll was just a rock 'n' roll doll, there wouldn't be enough play pattern; it was one-dimensional. Nobody knew what rock stars did during the day, so we decided to make her a record company executive."

Well-Briefed Buyers

Last year the company began running Jem teaser advertisements. By the time the dolls reached the marketplace this past March, the target audience was already well-briefed.

"It's not too difficult for the advertising to communicate the story," Carosi explained. "We show Jem as Jem, and then through the flashing earrings, explain how she's Jerrica by day. Then we have another 30-second commercial about her adversaries, the Misfits."

It wasn't just the little girls who took notice. Mattel rushed out Rocker Barbie to chase Jem. It was the first head-to-head beating Barbie's seemingly invincible career has sustained.

"We introduced it with the idea that we'd dent the Barbie market," Carosi admitted. "We didn't expect it to happen this way."

Hasbro has blanketed the market with fashion accessories, roadsters, dressing rooms and portable stages for Jem and her cohorts. Rocker Barbie features a similar product line. The key difference is the music created for Jem. The theme song has a gilt-edge pop hook that's hard to get out of your head.

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