The Simpsons Folder

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The Simpsons Folder

The Simpsons Folder
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Here is a a beginner’s guide to collecting Simpsons by Bill LaRue, Simpsons collectibles expert. Bill LaRue was kind enough to give us permission to use article from his book.

A History: Boom, bust and Bart Bart, Bart everywhere

At state fairs across the United States in the summer of 1990, nothing was hotter than Bart Simpson. Fairgoers couldn’t step on the midway without seeing row upon row of Bart dolls hanging from one booth after another like so many pieces of yellow meat. These 24-inch furry arcade dolls from Acme were soon followed in America by Simpsons dolls that Burger King restaurants distributed in a hugely popular promotion.

Simpsons merchandise also took a big bite of retail shelf space. Shoppers were enticed at the mall, supermarket and drug store with shelves and racks that nearly sagged with Simpsons dolls, figures, bumper stickers, automobile window hangers, posters, water bottles, hats, buttons, towels and T-shirts.

In fact, more than any other product, T-shirts defined the early Simpsons merchandising boom. Buyers snapped up shirts featuring “The Simpsons” so fast that some merchants hawked them right out of packing boxes. One report estimated that the shirts were selling for a while at the stunning rate of 1 million a week.

“There was a public demand, practically an outcry, for Simpsons products,” wrote Steve Dale and Shane Tritsch in their unofficial 1990 book, “Simpson Mania,” from Publications International Ltd.

Schoolchildren returned to classes in fall 1990 with Simpsons backpacks, notebooks, pencils and lunch boxes.

But many kids learned a lesson in political correctness when they dared wear a favorite Bart shirt that announced: “Underachiever … and proud of it!” Many principals and school boards banned this shirt and other Simpsons clothing, arguing that Bart was a poor role model. Because of the outcry, J.C. Penney even halted sales of the “Underachiever” shirt.

Christmas 1990 was huge for Simpsons merchandise. Stores sold almost everything imaginable in the Simpsons line, from Jesco’s bendable action figures to Cardinal Industries’ “The Mystery of Life” board game. Playthings, a toy-trade magazine, summed up the early holiday retail season of 1990 this way: “Anything in the Simpsons line rated well ….”

$ 750 Million Sales in 1990
Retail sales of Simpsons merchandise in 1990 chalked up an estimated $750 million. Products from the show placed third in U.S. sales, right behind “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” according to Licensing Letter, an industry newsletter.

In the first full season of “The Simpsons,” Twentieth Century Fox reportedly signed more than 100 U.S. licensing agreements for the show. In other countries, the availability of Simpsons merchandise was also widespread. In Japan alone, Fox was said to have sold $30 million in licensed Simpsons merchandise in 1991 — and that’s before the show went on the air there.

Certainly not every hit TV show spawns so many goods. So why was there so much Simpsons merchandise?

Credit the unusual, ugly-but-cute appearance of the Simpsons for fueling much of the sales. Unlike lovable cartoon characters of the past, the Simpsons taunted mainstream public sensibilities with their spiked hair, bright-yellow skin, bulging eyeballs and bad overbites.

Kids loved the merchandise’s wacky appearance; teens wallowed in the rebellious spirit it represented; Baby Boomers thought the stuff was a great novelty.

One other factor led to so much merchandise: Fox saw “The Simpsons” as a huge cash cow. Rather than limit Simpsons merchandise to a few high-quality items, the studio sold merchandise licenses to just about any manufacturer who could pay the fees.


A Telephone and Talking Doll
Simpsons creator Matt Groening once explained his role in the huge success of Simpsons merchandise by joking, “I don’t control the tidal wave of ‘Simpsons’ success, but I try to surf on it as best I can.”

That deep ocean of Simpsons merchandise turned out to be home to some pretty fine catches. Among the best was a series of action figures from Mattel with their own attachable word balloons. Mattel also made a great set of Simpsons dolls, including a “Really Rude” Bart that makes flatulence noises.

Also popular with fans is Dan Dee’s Pull-String Talking Bart doll, which features six “smart-aleck” sayings including, “Kids in TV land, you’re being duped!”

On the other hand, too many companies capitalized on the popularity of “The Simpsons” by producing some cheaply made goods, such as trading cards from Topps that feature uninspired, blurry images.

Other manufacturers also turned out products that were little more than cheap generic goods with slapped-on likenesses of Bart Simpson and other characters spouting tired catch phrases, such as Bart’s “Don’t have a cow, man!” or “Aye, carumba!”

Groening — whose office is decorated with mugs, books and other Simpsons goods — has acknowledged that the merchandising overkill was a bit “obnoxious.”

“But I think people tend to reconcile themselves to all the bumper stickers and hanging air fresheners because the show is so clever and so good,” Groening told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1993.
Bootlegs Ride the Simpsons Success

A fan can usually tell if a Simpsons item is licensed by looking for Groening’s stamped-on signature, as well as the 20th Century Fox Film Corp. copyright, sometimes abbreviated TCFFC.

Such markings are important because the “The Simpsons” sparked lots of counterfeit merchandise, especially in the show’s earliest days.

Some bootlegs are so ugly that a few uninformed (or unscrupulous) sellers have claimed they are licensed toys modeled after the crudely drawn Simpsons that first appeared in the 1980s as shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Another popular claim is that these sour-faced bootlegs are “evil” versions of the Simpsons characters.

Because some bootlegs have a certain brazen charm, Simpsons fans often sneak a few into their collections. Some knockoffs are cool enough to impress even Groening, who has made room in his office for a bootleg plaster bust of Bart wearing a sombrero. “I’ve always said that copyright infringement is the ultimate compliment,” he once said.

Even so, Twentieth Century Fox attorneys continue to target flagrant bootleggers in order to protect the company’s rights to the characters.

Not long ago, Fox successfully sued an Australian firm that briefly distributed its own Duff Beer, which featured a packaging clearly inspired by Homer’s fictitious favorite brand. Since then, some industrious Australians who bought up cases of the stuff are selling unlicensed Duff for about $45 a can on the Internet.

No Licensed Beer or Cereal

Long before this beer case in Australia, Groening and Fox turned down a pitch for a licensed Duff. “We had some legitimate requests to put out the beer, but that’s something I said we absolutely shouldn’t do. I wasn’t going to have `The Simpsons’ encouraging kids to drink alcohol,” Groening told The Los Angeles Times.

Sometimes, though, rejection works the other way. Groening revealed that food makers turned down his proposal for a Simpsons cereal, one that would be a parody of highly sugared ones. He wanted a vibrantly colored box to attract children — except his cereal actually would have some nutritional value.

“A sugarless cereal — just my idea for a small public service to the kids of America,” Groening said wistfully. “But we couldn’t get one cereal company to go along with the idea of a healthy cereal for kids. I said, `How about a low-sugar cereal?’ Nope, not good enough.”

Oversaturation of Merchandise

Despite the show’s continued popularity, U.S. sales for Simpsons merchandise by 1992 had drooped lower than a Charles Montgomery Burns smile. In 1990, “The Simpsons” recorded about $750 million in domestic sales. Two years later, sales dwindled to a reported $225 million and to a relative trickle after that.

This drop didn’t surprise experts. A swift decline in sales is typical for the character-related licensing business.

However, the decline in sales for Simpsons merchandise is also seen as the result of tremendous overproduction.

“Simpsons characters have just absolutely died,” a spokesman for Cub Foods told Supermarket News in February 1991. “We had a supply of Simpsons dolls left over from the Christmas selling season, and from all indications that license has passed its peak. If we get into it on back-to-school products, we may not go too deeply with the character. It will depend on the item.”
The Sad State of Merchandise

By 1995, Simpsons merchandise had all but disappeared from shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us, Kmart and other retail stores in the U.S. What was left was little more than trading cards, T-shirts, a compact disc, a computer screensaver, comic books and cookie jars.

Efforts by Fox in 1993 and 1994 to revive U.S. interest in Simpsons merchandise with home furnishings mostly failed.

The studio has had more success recently overseas, where in the late 1990s it issued hundreds of licenses for Simpsons dolls, action figures, mugs and other merchandise in the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries.

Fox in 1998 announced plans to revive its U.S. line of Simpsons merchandise. But no one expects a return to past excesses that even inspired a brutal inside joke in the episode “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.” In it Lisa proclaims, “I’d be mortified if someone ever made a lousy product with the Simpson name on it.

Copyright 1999 and reprinted with permission from the new book, “Collecting Simpsons! An Unofficial Guide to Merchandise from The Simpsons,” ($24.95, KML Enterprises Publishers). Informative book is for sale, among places at Bill LaRue is also the creator of the informative Collecting Simpsons! -website. It’s been online since 1996.