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Page 2 / NEWS, TRENDS, STYLE AND BUZZ

The Fading of a Fad

Though the products keep coming, the once-invincible Pokemon may no longer rule the playground. Blame it on the big kids, who've already moved on.

May 26, 2000|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is the Grim Reaper stalking Pokemon?

Maybe. Although the fad hasn't been officially pronounced dead, signs of trouble abound.

On the East Coast, retailers are discounting the newest set of collectible Pokemon trading cards in an attempt to jump-start sales.

In Southern California, many parents say their children have lost interest in the cartoon series and the torrent of merchandise unleashed since the Japanese "pocket monsters" invaded America in 1998.

And at Syracuse University, pop culture expert Robert Thompson is already drafting Pikachu's obituary.

"The magic is over," Thompson told the Hartford Courant. "The death knell of any children's fad is when the 8- to 10-year-olds no longer think it's cool. The quickest way to turn off an 8- to 10-year-old is when their 3- to 5-year-old siblings discover their secret. Pokemon thrived on the fourth-grade playground as a subculture and sub-economy all its own. When toddlers began to carry around Pikachu blankies, however, no self-respecting 10-year-old could keep from jumping off the bandwagon."

Maybe so, but a spokeswoman for Wizards of the Coast, the Renton, Wash., company that distributes Pokemon cards, said rumors of the fad's death are greatly exaggerated.

"Enthusiasm for Pokemon trading cards is as strong as ever," said Wizards publicist Jenny Bendel. Droves of kids are still signing up for trading-card game leagues, she said, and sales remain high, although the company doesn't release figures.

Cathi Douglas, a Santa Ana mother of three (ages 9, 5 and 2), agrees: "If there's a decline in the popularity of Pokemon, my kids don't know about it."

But other parents, many of them gleeful, report that the fad is all but dead.

"At the beginning of the school year, it was still a big deal," said Heidi Frey Greenwald of Marina del Rey. "Whenever my 7-year-old son, Noah, got his allowance, he would immediately ask to go to Sav-on to buy new cards. Now it's virtually off his radar screen."

Another mom, Candice Hartung of Santa Monica, said she raced out to buy the new Team Rocket cards when they debuted a few weeks ago, but when she later gave them to her son and daughter, neither seemed thrilled. The fever pitch is gone, Hartung said.

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If such sentiments are widespread, as anecdotal evidence suggests, corporate America could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

For example, Warner Bros. is scheduled to release a summer sequel to its blockbuster "Pokemon: The First Movie." And dozens of companies have invested in Pokemon tie-ins.

On Wednesday, Kellogg introduced Pokemon Pop-Tarts, with "yellow Pikachu frosting topped by Pokemon sprinkles," as well as Pokemon Toasted Oat Cereal with marshmallow bits shaped like Pokemon characters.

Some say the market is saturated. Wizards churned out so many cards, said one retailer, that "everybody had them--gas stations, Sears, Toys R Us, Borders." Burnout seemed inevitable.

At Anime Crash, a New York City shop specializing in Japanese merchandise, Pokemon sales have stumbled but not precipitously. "People are still coming in for cards and plush toys," said a clerk. "It's down but definitely not out."

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Indeed, Pokemon has survived much worse. Late last year, Burger King was forced to recall promotional Pokemon toys after a Sonora, Calif., 13-month-old suffocated to death on one. And news accounts reported the phenomenon of underage "Pokemon card sharks," who stole from other kids and in one case even stabbed a child.

But even if Poke-mania goes the way of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, new fads are poised to take its place.

One is Digimon, which is similar to Pokemon, except the TV version airs on a different network and Digimon characters can speak in entire sentences, whereas most of the Pokemon characters can only say their own names--repeatedly.

But other observers say even Digimon is passe.

At Anime Crash, the hottest thing is Gundam, a robot cartoon (also from Japan) that airs on the Cartoon Network. "People are going nuts over it," said a salesman.

At least for now.

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Roy Rivenburg can be reached at roy.rivenburg@latimes.com.

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