copyright 2003, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 46

Free market, branded imagination —
Harry Potter and the commercialization of
children’s culture

by Jyotsna Kapur

I don’t know how the Muggles manage without magic.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone[1]

Just when it seemed that magic had become passé even in its last home, i.e., children’s culture, along came J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (Chris Columbus, 2001).[2]After all, children’s mass culture in the late twentieth century had derived a great deal of merriment ridiculing the idea of magic as the old fashioned ingredient of nineteenth century children’s tales. They were now simply too tame and, should we say, childish, for a generation that had cut its teeth on video games and marketing campaigns designed to address them as a niche market.

Now mainstream films made for general consumption, like Toy Story (1995) mocked the idea that stories of toys coming to life had to be imbued with mystery. When the toys came to life in this film they asked: “Are you from Mattel?” “Were you made in Hong Kong?” Or there are toothpaste commercials that deconstruct the tooth fairy by casting a man in drag as the tooth fairy. In a commercial for Disney Land and a Visa credit card, the child cajoles its parents to use the credit card, putting on an “innocent” face so as to win a trip to Disney Land, which had earlier cast itself as a magical place.

In contrast, Harry Potter, an orphan who is left to the mercy of his upwardly mobile, suburban aunt, uncle and cousin finds out one day that he is a wizard. He also finds out that there is an entire world, a way of life with its own language and culture that lives by magic. This world coexists parallel to the world of the “muggles,” the wizards’ term for the “normal,” routine bound, monotonous, magic-less, everyday world. Did Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone then indicate a return of the utopian imagination in children’s literature and film? Not quite. Instead, Harry Potter is an excellent lesson about the limits of fantasy. Here that fantasy is produced as a commodity, driven by an industry that continuously raises the stakes for a film’s survival in terms of expected returns.

The film’s aesthetics make obvious the limits of the utopian imagination. The way the film was scripted and how it looks stem from the “mugglish” political economic realities of the film business at the end of the twentieth century. Ultimately we must ask a question as old as capitalism itself: What is the nature of magic that the market serves to its consumers? The cornerstone of free market ideology, as espoused by Hollywood, rests on a notion that consumer demand and not production relations determine product. In other words, it is not the producers who shape the film but those who consume it. What kind of magic wand could create such a vision? To unravel this riddle, we need to trace the historical trajectory of the selling of Harry Potter, that is, the transformation it underwent from a book that was not written as a film-to-be into a franchise, a pretext for selling other market-produced commodities.

In a rave review in Variety, Todd McCarthy reiterates the magic mantra that makes us responsible for the films we get:

For tens of millions of fans the world over who have taken J.K. Rowling’s marvelously imaginative novel (and its three sequels thus far) to their hearts, Warner Bros. smartly produced and elaborately manufactured $125 million-plus visualization will essentially make their dreams come true...[3]

McCarthy then goes on to enumerate the efforts made by the producers to give the audience exactly what it wanted. According to him the producers adhered as closely as possible to the text, hiring a director who would “obediently serve the material” without any danger of “idiosyncratic flights of fancy” that a more “high-powered and personal filmmaker (such as Steven Spielberg or Terry Gilliam)” would indulge in. The result in McCarthy’s own assessment is a film that “never takes on a life or soul of its own” but that still “will have no bearing on how many times youngsters and even adults will return to this high flying entertainment that looks poised to become one of the biggest-grossing films of all time.”

This review was published in Variety, a trade journal, but evaluating a film according to its box office returns has now also become a regular aspect of journalistic reviews. The phenomenon started in 1976, as Frederick Wasser reports, with a small company called Entertainment Data, Inc (EDI) which started to report box office returns from participating theaters.[4] By the 1980s, EDI reports included about 80% of the nation’s theaters. Quick, accurate reporting fed the growing trend in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times to report box office figures as a news item. That means that reviewers assume a critical review should consider costs and revenue. This discursive practice exemplifies writers’ blurring of commerce and culture.

Children’s film as a genre has led the commercialization of culture. It plays a central role in the construction of “consumption webs,” such that media, including film, and other commodities constantly advertise each other. Film launches become “events” designed to sell not only a movie, but toys, clothes, videos, record albums, computer games. A film’s release attracts so much attention that one would have to live in another world to escape it. A glance at the most successful high-concept or event films in the last decade shows the overwhelming importance of the children’s or family film in this category: Home Alone and Ghost (1990), Aladdin (1992), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1993), The Lion King (1994), and Titanic (1997).

As Justin Wyatt has argued, since the high-concept film is a marketing concept, it is designed to maximize returns by eliminating ambiguity. Productions depend on easy recognizability that can be translated across a wide range of commodities. They get recognizability through dependence on stars or genre and by having scripts based on simple narratives with stock situations and simplification of character and plot.[5] Janet Wasko has characterized this phenomenon as “cultural synergy.” Accordingly, in the preproduction stage, a film is conceived of as a brand. That is, companies promote their activities across a growing number of outlets. The activities and products related to a film can then be cross-promoted and distributed through media conglomerates across a range of media.[6]

Clearly this process places bounds on the utopian imagination in children’s culture. Thus, exploring the production and marketing of Harry Potter will aid us in understanding how the role of the consumer is drastically confined within this cultural environment. In terms of film, this cultural environment in which films are scripted and promoted is dominated by centralized media ownership and the convergence of media culture and other forms of commodity culture.

Of movies and “Muggles”:
political economy and the event film

In many ways the basic logic of commercial filmmaking has remained the same, i.e., to minimize production costs and maximize profits. However, the nature of the business has changed because of media mergers in the late twentieth century and new technologies, such as television, VCR, and the Internet. Janet Staiger and Justin Wyatt have shown how ownership shifts in the industry have increased costs and, therefore, risks in the movies business.

According to Janet Staiger, the studio system has given way to the package unit system of film production. In the newer form of production, a producer organizes a film project, secures finance and combines the necessary workers (actors, director, music composer) and physical elements (screenplay, sets, cameras, costumes, lighting). Package unit production has increased economic risk because making film as a commercial venture does not have the safety cushion provided by studios in the past.[7] Moreover, since studios now function as distributors rather than producers, they are more likely to pick up projects with the minimum of risk.

Further, studios no longer exist as independent entities but are part of media conglomerates that have interests in television, the Internet, journalism, the recording industry, and cable. These media conglomerates seek balance among their various subsidiaries and thus seek projects that can cross over these various media and ancillary markets.

Wyatt has also highlighted media conglomerates’ dependence on market research, particularly of the quantitative and empirical kind, before making decisions about which film projects to undertake. These marketing executives tend to come primarily from advertising. Thus they rely on market research models developed for the sale of packaged goods and merchandise. Their reliance on quantifiable data makes it hard for them see the value in prospective undertakings that are more innovative, complex and emphasize the visual or aural (rather than narrative) aspects of cinema.

Producers now tend to look more favorably at script treatments for blockbusters. This preference for blockbusters derives from an innovation in distribution that began in the 70s with the initiation of “four walling,” a system ironically pioneered by a low budget film, Billy Jack (1971). Four walling depends on intensely promoting the film in all possible channels and saturating the market to create the highest possible public awareness in a film’s opening weekend. This includes leasing all the theaters in a particular region and extensively using TV advertising.

The logic is that if distributors can pack in audiences in the first week, they will reduce the risks of losing future audiences on account of poor word-of-mouth. As Dan Ackerman writes, this economic goal also depends on the fact that studios take 70% of their box-office receipts in the first week of a film’s release.[8] In succeeding weeks, the studio’s percentage is generally reduced to about 30%. Fredrick Wasser cites MPAA figures to show that while U.S. spending on advertising increased significantly in the years 1981-94 movie advertising grew at nearly twice the general advertising rate (167). Increased costs like this further diminish the economic risks that producers are willing to take.

According to studio estimates Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone set a box office record in the first three days of its release, earning $93.5 million in tickets (Dan Ackman). This surpassed the three-day record set in 1997 by The Lost World: Jurassic Park of $72.1 million. Harry Potter’s success derives from its marketing strategy and saturating theaters the first week of a film’s release. The movie opened in 3,672 theaters with 8,200 screens, about one out of every four screens in the U.S. Most theaters played Harry Potter on more than one screen. In contrast Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace had played only on about 5000 screens in its opening weekend, for which it raked in $65 million (Dan Ackman).

Significantly Harry Potter had become a household name by the time of the film’s release, giving distributors a major pre-sold component to rely on: the book. Time Warner optioned the book shortly after its British publication in 1997 but before it became a smash hit. Since then Harry Potter has been planned as a franchise. Subsequently, the literary sequels have had success, and the original novel continues to perform as number one on Amazon. At this point, it is hard to separate literary success from the marketing campaigns that surround the whole project. Publishers released the books, especially the sequels, with elaborate marketing campaigns designed as hide-and-go-seek games between consumers and book retailers.

For instance, the fourth book’s release, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, relied on a highly publicized secret (an oxymoron) campaign. Publishing records were noisily broadcast: 3.8 million first copies were printed in the U.S. and a million more in Britain. Warehouses were bristling with security. Booksellers were forbidden from unpacking books before midnight while at the same time promised online buyers a Saturday delivery of the first 50,000 book orders. Even the business contract with the Fed Ex Corporation became part of the advertising campaign with the shipping company calling the order for the Harry Potter book the “largest single day distribution event in the history of business to consumer e-commerce.”[9] Not to be outdone, Barnes and Noble’s Internet site also promised Saturday delivery to orders placed before Friday 11 A.M. the preceding day.

Bookstores planned Harry Potter parties and other gimmicks to lure customers, including opening their doors at midnight. On the morning of the book’s release, media lined up to interview those waiting to buy the books, with reporters and TV crews sometimes equaling or outnumbering the latter. The release also included photo opportunities for adults and children to pose in Harry Potter garb. This last promotional strategy continued with the release of the film. In Carbondale, Illinois, where I live, both children and adults could don Harry Potter costume and have their photos taken at the entrance of the theater.

The time in between the release of the fourth and fifth book saw two quick spinoffs of the book itself: Rowling’s Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Reviews on Amazon already claimed that these thin books, marketed to look like Hogwart’s textbooks annotated with Harry’s comments, would become collectors items. Written in the dull style of school textbooks, the two books’ appeal can only be explained as a result of advertising. Promoters could now rely on self-selection of Harry Potter fans into a marketable subculture among. Among these fans, a history of Quidditch has become a lingua franca. However,’s promote also indicates the widespread acknowledgement of the commodification of childhood nostalgia. That is, here children were encouraged to buy with a future collectible market in mind.

Besides the book, promotion relied on other aspects of commodity culture to prepare the audience for the film‘s release. Development and advertising campaigns for computer and video games were afoot in July 2000, almost sixteen months prior to the film’s release. As Electronic Arts Inc. acquired the license to develop these games, it claimed in its publicity to be working closely with Christopher Columbus and J.K. Rowling. Previously in 1999 Electronic Arts had signed a five-year agreement with AOL to deliver online games and interactive entertainment for AOL’s nineteen million users. The subsequent merger of AOL and Time Warner provided Electronic Arts a good opportunity to piggyback on Potter’s name already in circulation.

The film accordingly gained widespread advertisement on the media subsidiaries held by AOL Time Warner, such as its television channels, WB, Cartoon Network, and CNN. The conglomerate’s magazines including Time, Entertainment Weekly, and People carried articles on the movie and on Rowling. Rowling’s personal story, a single mom struggling on welfare when she wrote the book, is exactly the kind of rags to riches stories so favored by capitalism. Time magazine, including its children’s section, carried articles on Harry Potter, including a cover story titled “Wild about Harry” way back in September 20, 1999, shortly after the book was optioned.

Typical of other commercial children’s films, Harry Potter found its way into other forms of children’s commodity culture. Mattel has held the license for Harry Potter toys. It sells action figures ranging from $9.99 for the smaller plastic figures to $119 for the larger ones, such as, Harry Potter battling the mountain troll. Tiger Electronics, also under license, produced alarm clocks with talking portraits (inspired by the moving portraits in the film) and a book of spells. Other paraphernalia include a Harry Potter Trivia game, a board game, costumes, and puzzles. Scholastic Paperbacks, publishers of the Harry Potter series, has come out with Harry Potter journals, stationery kit, and even Hogwarts crests. By the time of the film’s release, the marketing muggles had ensured that only those in a comatose state had not heard of Harry Potter.

How the Muggles stole fantasy

Todd McCarthy’s review in Variety , cited earlier, saw no relation between Harry Potter’s blockbuster character and what he considers a text that “lacks a soul.” This soul-lessness, or homogenization to be more accurate, is grounded in the political economic realities of branding, a further development of the idea of the high concept or event film. As Fredrick Wasser indicates, Barry Diller at ABC thought up the high concept idea. He demanded film projects that could be easily summarized in both an abbreviated 30-second television commercial and in a sentence synopsis for TV Guide.[10] Logically, this commercialized cultural form came out of television, since TV from its inception had to grab viewer attention in brief attention-stealing fragments in order to sell products.

At the core of branding strategy is the need for an easy summary. Any degree of complexity creates confusion and therefore difficulty in sustaining a brand image. As Naomi Klein explains, the success of a branding strategy, driven by synergy, depends upon repetition and visibility.[11] The correct way to imagine a brand, as Janet Wasko, has suggested, is to think of it as the hub of a wheel; it branches out into various products all designed to repeat the brand image. Harry Potter as a gay icon, for example, would be problematic since it would introduce conflicts. But reducing magic to a series of special effects is entirely compatible with today’s marketing strategy, aimed towards reducing any complexity.[12] The whole film built around a branding strategy, therefore, will have the textual complexity of a commercial or a movie trailer.

In fact, as in commercials one, of the most exciting human activities Harry Potter presents is shopping. Aspiring wizards and witches press their noses into a show window, eyeing with longing the latest branded broomstick, Nimbus 2000, on display. Accompanied by a sigh from desiring children, the camera pans in the style of TV commercials to reveal the broomstick’s brand name in the show window, and it does the same kind of pan later when Harry receives the broomstick as a gift for Christmas. Like other children’s candy on store shelves today, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans comes in a “variety of disgusting flavors” and like the promotional toys that make children eat at McDonalds, chocolate frogs in the wizard world are bought to get the holographic cards they come with.

How the utopian imagination in fantasy gets tamed when it is produced for mass marketing is most obvious in how the book was transformed into a franchise. Frederic Jameson has argued that narratives covertly contain repressed desires of the political unconscious. That is, narratives bear traces of class struggle and the desire to “move from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.[13] Rowling’s first Harry Potter book develops a parody of the privatized bourgeois family wrapped up in consumer culture. But the book’s critical element is totally pulled out of the film. I am not suggesting that the entire book offered an unmitigated critique of consumer society. Rather, it had some critical elements elided by the simplistic film script.

The book developed its magical element, the aspect so appealing to its readers, by setting up a contrast between the wizards’s magic world and the privatized, routinized life of the Dursleys, the muggles. The film quickly and efficiently dismisses Harry’s stay with the Dursleys as a poor stepchild. In contrast, Rowling’s account dwells on the contrast between Harry and Dursley’s pampered and greedy son, Dudley. Rowling describes Mr. Dursley as a “large beefy man with hardly any neck” who is the director of a big firm that makes drills. His wife, thin and blond,

had the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.(1)

As extensively treated in the novel, the family is marked by an intense desire to be “normal,” fearful of any diversity, and obsessed with maintaining their own “business”, which for Mrs. Dursely is keeping her home and for Mr. Dursley, selling drills. The Dursleys’ biggest fear is that their neighbors would come to know that Mrs. Dursley’s sister, Harry’s mother, was a witch. That information if it got around would make them stand out in a typical suburban neighborhood whose neat rows of houses have nothing out of place.

In Rowling’s text the “normalcy” that the Dursleys desire is the exact opposite of imagination. In writing of Mr. Dursley’s plight upon encountering the wizards on the streets, including being hugged by a complete stranger, Rowling writes,

He hurried to his car and set off for home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn’t approve of imagination (5).

The Dursleys spend all their energies on their son Dudley, lavishing him with gifts. On Dudley’s birthday such gifts include a racing bike, a video camera, a remote control, sixteen new computer games, and a VCR. Moreover, they are all wrapped! To exaggerate the social satire, Dudley, the consumer, assigns value to commodities based on their market price rather than valuing them as gifts from his parents. When Dudley objects that he just got thirty six presents, one short of what he got last year Mr. Dursley responds,

Little tyke wants his money’s worth, just like his father (22).

Dudley, a bully and always greedy for more is seen “kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets.(13)” In fact, the book can be read like a modern day socializing tale from a mother to a child, warning of the impossibility of finding happiness in market-produced commodities. By painting a picture of the consuming child as whiny, fat, and unlikable, Rowling caricatures the child consumer as a spoiled brat who has lost all imagination.

The film sidesteps Rowling’s social satire about the privatized bourgeois family by making Hogwarts, the wizard school, the story’s center. What the script then sells through Hogwarts is Englishness. This trait of Englishness is evoked in the film as a class symbol, following a tradition in children’s literature, particularly in North America and India. No alternative school, Hogwarts is in every way constructed to uphold the elitism of the British private school where the usual stereotypes of race and gender prevail. The power of money stays intact in the school.

Before the children can enter this elite institution, as befitting their class backgrounds, their families have to put out a rather large sum of money for their children acquire books, uniforms and supplies, in this case wands. Harry Potter’s parents leave him a locker filled with gold, and he shares his wealth with Ron Weasley, one of five children whom everyone in the school understands to be poor. Teachers at the school are authoritative, and relations among students marked by hierarchy and competition. The children are in awe and fear of Albus Dumbledore, Prof. McGonagall, and Snape, all of whom are referred to as professors, wear cloaks when teaching, and sit at the high table.

The choice of locations and stars rely on selling Englishness as a commodity. A twelfth century castle, Alnwick on the Scottish border was cast as Hogwarts. A tenth century Anglican cathedral located in Gloucestershire was used as the entrance to Gryffindor Hall, Harry’s dormitory. And the elaborate banquet scenes were staged on a sound set made to replicate the dining hall of Oxford University’s largest college. In this era of spinoffs, British Tourist Authority has issued a Harry Potter movie map (available at detailing sites open to visitors. The 150 year old London Rail station has been marked with signs such as “No spells on platforms,” Owls must be caged at all times,” and “No Broom Parking” to direct visitors to platform “9 and 3/4.”

The special effects, location or casting is not an integral part of the narrative. In this highly commercial film these visual aspects are the narrative itself. The plot is little more than a series of events strung together like movie trailers. From the quidditch match to adventures with the troll to the final confrontation with Voldemort, the narrative at best offers a mystery story. It has no mythic qualities of transformation.

The mise en scene tries so hard to render magic in the most realistic way possible that it plays no role in developing or revealing the inner states of the film’s characters and becomes an end in itself. This literal rendering of magic trivializes fantasy. It reduces fantasy to spectacles that look like video games. For instance, at Hogwarts school, pictures talk, ghosts roam freely, and staircases move by themselves. While these features may simply exist within a wizards’ school, these phenomena can also express children’s anxieties.

For example, a narrative could express children’s fears about finding their way around in the overpowering environs of institutions where traditions seem to have a life of their own, where elite schools are founded upon making the child feel small enough to want to conform. However, by presenting these phenomena simply as aspects of the school and not a children’s perceptions, the film turns the ghostly details into mechanical devices that a child seemingly can master, not unlike elevators or doors that children must learn to traverse. The film’s fetishization of technology comes to stand in for its absence of content. Such vacuousness was amply seen in the film’s self promotion. David Heyman boasted in the September 20th, 1999 issue of Time that the primary costs of the film would be in the special effects:

We want to make all of that as believable and fantastical as possible. Technology is now incredible.

In terms of race and gender the status quo remains ideologically intact, even in this magical school. The darker characters arouse suspicion. Snape and Quirrell are both darker while Quirrell even sports a turban. While in the book an Indian girl, Parvati Patel, goes to the wizards’ school, the film’s only noticeable student of color is the young commentator during the Quidditch match. The wise and ancient centaur, half man, half horse is cast distinctly as a black man. The gringotts who guard the bank are barely disguised Jewish stereotypes. Hermione Granger, Harry and Ron’s girl pal, is presented as irritatingly smart and well read.

The trivialization of fantasy most blatantly permeates the moments in which the narrative succeeds in sentimentalizing the notion of love. In the book, Harry learns through his life-threatening struggle with Voldemort that his mother had died trying to save his life. When a life is touched by a love like that it is indestructible. While Voldemort could now only leave a mark on Harry’s forehead, with his bare hands Harry could turn to ash Quirrel’s body, now occupied by Voldemort. This is a powerful fantasy of mythic proportions. But the film brings that image of power to the ground.

Apparently, the lessons the children learn in the book about friendship, intelligence, and love are not enough in themselves for the film version. Most important for the film’s closure is the victory gaining the house cup. The film ends with the school principal, Albus Dumbledore, announcing Harry’s house’s victory, setting the stage for a sequel. The ending also makes it clear that the film series will be a set of stories about a British boarding school and not a fantasy about another world.

How then are we to understand the enthusiasm that the film generated as a “magical” phenomenon that both adults and children were flocking to pay money to see? Part of the answer lies in the film’s marketing and self-promotion as fantasy. The other part lies in our desire to see magic, particularly in children’s culture. The film attracted crowds in the first days of its release as a result of two years of marketing. Also the events of September 11th and the Afghanistan war made fantasy desirable perhaps as a way to forget and forget but also to find hope.

The film also provided a venue for parents and children to come together and share a cultural experience. There was generally an atmosphere of happy expectation around the film screenings making the film into more of a family event or a collective experience. The photo opportunities outside the cinema contributed to this sense of the film as a community event.

Large numbers of the audience, both children and adults, knew the book before going to the movie. Thus, watching the film became an active exercise as they compared the film to the book or in the very least, followed the book through the course of the film. In our highly industrialized culture, this foreknowledge approximates folklore in that we bring to these mass produced stories our own versions and interact actively with them. Children spoke back at the film, predicting its narrative, and staying around to discuss the film.

Despite the film’s limited imagination about Hogwarts as a private British elite school, the children I talked to had a more active understanding of it. They discussed it as a place which had different adult “muggles” from the teachers and administrators they encountered in their own schools. Hogwarts presents an appealing possibility of growing up with other children, living a life of learning and curiosity with adults who are wise and filled with character and magic tricks up their sleeves.

Children did not entirely “buy into” the film, especially its selling of Harry Potter as a commodity, but they inserted themselves into the story imaginatively. For that reason, shelves filled with Harry Potter merchandise had to be cleared out. There are only so many Harry Potter objects a child would want to buy. Moreover, commodified fantasy is short lived. Differentiated only by look and style, it fosters repetitive and minimal content, easily replaced by another more spectacular object whose release is based on the planned obsolescence of the former. Just two months after the film’s release, the shelves in the local Wal-Mart and Barnes and Nobles had been cleared of any Harry Potter merchandise. What remained had been dumped on the clearance shelves. The film had come and gone with video release planned for May and a sequel the following year. How can the audience be responsible for what it sees, when even its ability to watch is constrained by marketing strategies?

Even more revealing of the restrictions on mass marketed fantasy was the bitter battle launched by AOL-Warner against fan websites. AOL Warner issued letters of warning to Harry Potter fans, most of them teens and preteens, asking them to stop using the Harry Potter name. The first such letter was sent in December 2000 to fifteen-year old, Claire Field, asking her to take the domain name off her site. That letter ended with the threat:

If we do not hear from you by 15 December 2000 we shall put this matter directly into the hands of our solicitors.[14]

In response fans set up sites with wonderfully appropriate names like Other fans similarly threatened by Warner Brothers contacted them. These included, Catherine Chang, a fifteen years old from Singapore who had already relinquished rights to her domain name, ; Sung Yoo, a twelve years old who was threatened for his site; and thirteen year olds Ross McCaw and Peter Walker, regarding their site,

Another site held by the Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) called for a boycott of Potter merchandize except for the books. They demanded that Warner Brothers pay reparations by making substantial donations to UNICEF and giving premiere tickets to fans they had threatened, in order to really, “show how sorry they feel.” In the face of the bad publicity Warner Brothers withdrew their threats of lawsuits in March 2001. Nevertheless, the battle with corporate control over ideas is not yet won. As summarized the withdrawal of legal action against fans is not a victory but victor(-ish). Warner Brothers did not return the domains they had taken. More importantly, Harry Potter policing and resistance is only one battle in what promise to be a continuous war between corporations and fans.

The battle over Harry Potter’s name clearly indicates the limits of fantasy when branded by media corporations. Just as branding was originally a practice where owners stamped cows with their names to mark them as private property, corporations are now engaged in claiming our imaginations. If it were true that we get the films we want, then why this contest over how we interpret these films? That the battle over our imaginations is not yet won is clear by the contradictory relations media corporations have with fans. On the one hand, fans do these corporations’ work, buying their products and thus creating profits. On the other hand, when fans begin to create alternatives, they threaten the iron grip these corporations seek to retain over their brands. The true nature of the relation between media corporations and audiences in revealed when the former’s control is threatened. Then no longer posing as democrats who make what audiences want, these corporations transform into powerful policing agents.

In their letter to fans Warner Brothers stated:

We are concerned that your domain name registration is likely to cause consumer confusion and dilution of the intellectual property rights.[15]

Fantasy, in this view, clearly had one and only one purpose, its translation into consumer behavior. The Defense Against the Dark Arts quite aptly characterized the threat this kind of marketing poses to our imagination:

There are dark forces afoot, darker even than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, because these dark forces are daring to take away something so basic, so human, that it’s close to murder. They are taking away our freedom of speech, our freedom to express our thoughts, feelings and ideas, and they are taking away the fun of a magical book.
In attempting to colonize children’s imaginations corporations reveal a fundamental truth about capitalism: They will leave no aspect of human life unturned in the search for profits. Ordinary people’s desire to find magic in children’s culture, which got us into theaters in the first place, speaks of our need to find an alternative, even utopian imagination. That we think we would find it in children’s culture speaks of a lingering social conception that childhood is distinctly different from adulthood. We hope that from the site of childhood, we can critique the inequities and injustices of this world and imagine a different one. However, aggressive marketing to children to bring them into the market as consumers blurs that boundary.

AOL-Warner Brothers’ battle with fans reveals that victory over the human imagination is not easily won. Bringing children into the market as consumers can also politicize them against the market. We, parents and older friends, can either wring our hands at how corporations have taken our children’s socialization away from us, turning us into facilitators who must buy market produced commodities to keep our kids momentarily from adulthood. But in the long run, they will turn into adults who experience the anxiety, addiction, low self-esteem, and isolation so familiar to us from being consumers. Or we can collaborate with our children in resisting the branding of our imaginations. We can collaborate with them to reject the most fantastic market-produced myth of all: That is the myth of choice, that it is we who determine the products we get in the market.


[1] J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastics Press. First American edition. 1998) p. 67

[2] I wish to thank my daughter Suhaila and her fifth grade class for discussions about Harry Potter and dedicate this paper to their teacher Michelle Kornreich who continues to teach them that critical thinking is immensely pleasurable. Thanks are also due to Nilim for showing me the “muggles” in our own neighborhood, to Sudesh Balan for help with the images, and to Mike Covell for reading the paper with his Harry Potter glasses on.

[3] Todd McCarthy. Wizard of Awes will Conjure Gigantic B.B. Variety, November 12-18, 2001. p. 27.

[4] Fredrick Wasser. Veni, Vidi, Video (Austin, TX: University of Texas, Austin Press. 1998) p. 168

[5] Justin Wyatt. High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin, TX: University of Texas, Austin Press. 1994)

[6] Janet Wasko. The Magical-Market of Disney. Monthly Review. Vol 52, No 11. pp. 56-71.

[7] Janet Staiger. The Package-Unit System: Unit Management after 1955. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kirsten Thompson (eds.) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press. 1985)

[8] Dan Ackman, “Harry Potter is a Fraud,”

[9]“Harry Potter and the Wacky Web,” ZDNET News, July 6, 2000, 5 PM PT.

[10] Fredrick Wasser. Veni Vidi Video. (Austin, TX: University of Texas, Austin Press. 1998)

[11] Naomi Klein. No Logo (Toronto, Canada: Vintage. 2000)

[12] A Google search with “HarryPotter/” turns up adult fan sites interpreting Harry Potter as a gay icon.

[13] Fredric Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1981)

[14] See <>

[15] An excellent article by Mutch Albom, Jewish World Review, March 5, 2001/10 Adar, 5761. Available on

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