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Real knock-outs: Female action heroes flex marketing muscles

Posted 01-12-99

Marketing News
By Page 1
Photos 1-3: "Move over Superman, marketers are promoting a new generation of female action heroes, including warrior princess Xena, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and an all-new-for-the-'7"; Photos 4-5 non-Xena.

Detailed article about the ascendency of female action heroes. IAXS is mentioned as a Xena site.


   Marketers are developing a heroine addiction.

   In movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games, marketers are introducing
an army of take-charge women who are proving they too can kick, hit, run, slam
-- and often do all of it in high heels.

   The hope is that the estrogen injection will attract more female consumers to
the action genre and all that goes with it -- the action figures, the T-shirts,
the fan clubs. The risk is that marketers will alienate core male viewers
accustomed to watching some blonde let out a blood-curdling scream before she's
served up as the sacrificial lamb or rescued by some more-buff dude.

   A recent study by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 19%
of female characters used physical force in films, versus 53% of males.
Traditionally, the only way women got in on the action was by playing the
dreaded villainess.  

   But now it's the women who are kicking butt and saving the day.

   There's The WB Network's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," an hour-long show that
follows the adventures of a miniskirted-and-halter-topped high-schooler who
battles vampires, witches, giant insects, and other icky things. And she does a
lot of it, because the town she recently moved to just happens to be right on
top of a so-called hell mouth, a portal to the netherworld.

   On the big screen, Demi Moore takes on the U.S. Marines in GI Jane and
Sigourney Weaver will team with Winona Ryder to once again whup some
extraterrestrial butt in the fourth installment of the Alien franchise. And Uma
Thurman will step into Diana Rigg's thigh-high boots to play Emma Peel in a new
flick based on the '60s spy series, "The Avengers."

   "You haven't seen women in these kinds of roles before and you're going to be
seeing more and more of it. This is not going to go away," said Anne Marshall,
principal at Woman Trend, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that specializes
in marketing to female consumers. "Hollywood marketers see an opportunity."

   Even in movies with a male lead are getting a dose of chick power. An ad for
the recent Jackie Chan movie, Operation Condor, shows the superstar surrounded
by two very curvaceous women. The headline reads, "On his most dangerous mission
ever, the world's toughest secret agent isn't going in alone." In December,
the latest James Bond flick will feature the spy getting some assistance from
Supercop star Michelle Yeoh (whom Rolling Stone recently named "hottest
ass-kicking babe").

   Mainstream marketers have wasted little time attaching themselves to the

   An ad for a Diesel store's "cut to fit" sale, for example, shows a woman
karate-chopping a wooden table in half. A recent Coca-Cola ad used kitschy Roy
Lichtenstein-style animation to show a mom who goes to great lengths --
transforming herself into a super-heroine and leaping tall buildings -- just to
get her kids some soda.

   Other marketers are opting to hook up with established heroines through
licensing and promotional deals. This summer, for example, the kids' meals at
Carl's Jr. included a toy from "Xena: The Warrior Princess."

   About to enter its third season, "Xena" stars Lucy Lawless as a
leather-and-metal-clad crusader who vanquishes evil-doers with everything from
kicks to airborne somersaults. Then there's Xena's trusty "chakram," a sort of
razor-sharp Frisbee that she somehow can hurl with absurd accuracy to slice and
dice her foes, and of course, her trademark "yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" battle cry.

   The show now regularly beats out the muscle-bound sibling from which it was
spun off, "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," in viewership.

   The success of "Xena" has spawned a bevy of licensed goods, including
T-shirts, mugs, action figures, and a CD-ROM. On the Web, there are more than 60
sites devoted to the mighty princess as well as an International Association of
Xena Studies. And Universal Studios' theme park in Orlando, Fla., recently
unveiled a Hercules and Xena attraction.

   This fall, the duo will appear in their own direct-to-video cartoon,
supported with print and radio ads, an on-air sweepstakes, personal appearances
by the two stars, and even ads on school-lunch menus. Tropicana signed on,
offering a $ 3 rebate with purchases of its new Bursters juice blend and Topps
Comics books will feature ads in all of its titles, including its new glossy mag
devoted to Xena.

   Much like other cult faves such as "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," "Xena" operates on
two levels. For kids, the show offers relatively harmless, comic-book style
action along with a nice, good-versus-evil morality tale. Older fans dig the
action too, but they also appreciate the show's slightly bawdy tone.

   It's that audience that Universal is looking to tap with a newly expanded
line of licensed goods, including greeting cards, collector plates, and even a
version of Xena's chakram mounted in stone. Other items reportedly under
consideration include Xena-themed fashions, make-up, and exercise equipment.

   Tim Rothwell, senior vice president-domestic sales at Universal, is trying to
break out of the standard categories associated with female properties.

   "People are used to Barbie, who's always sweet," he said. "Xena is a
take-charge kind of woman. A lot of girls and women identify with that. We
realize that and we're trying to truly capitalize on that by positioning Xena
as a powerful woman."

   "There's a huge audience that would like to see more of a trend to female
action heroes," Rothwell said. "Studios are waking up. There's certainly a
female audience for shows they can relate to and Xena does a lot of things women
would like to do."

   As for the men, Rothwell predicted Xena eventually would have her way with
them: "They have no choice. She'll get out her chakram," Rothwell said.

   Elliot Lederman, Universal's senior director of licensing, said "boys welcome
Xena" and notes that the show boasts an equal share of boys and girls 8 and up,
which he attributes to the fact that the character "isn't positioned at girls at
all. It's focused on boys. Although Xena is obviously a female, if we positioned
it more as a girls' property, that would turn off boys. But if we position it
more as a boy's property, we can still capture the girls."

   Despite the popularity of Xena, Lederman said, don't expect a rash of female
Rambos anytime soon.

   "There hasn't been a successful female action hero since Wonder Woman,"
Lederman said. "Other studios have tried to create them, but Xena is the first
successful one and it's going to be tough to follow the trend."

   For years, the mostly male ranks of entertainment marketers argued that
audiences, particularly men, would find female action heroes lacking in

   "That's what we were scared of -- that no one would take seriously the idea
of this blonde kicking vampire butt," said Lew Goldstein, who along with Bob
Bibb, is in charge of marketing The WB's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."

   Indeed, focus group research revealed that viewers frowned on Buffy's initial
reluctance to trade in her pompons for a wooden stake. The character's
believability was further besmirched by the fact that the show was based on a
more lighthearted, fluffier flick of the same name. "This Buffy is savvier and
the show is much more serious," said Bibb.

   But it's not so dramarama that there's not room for a little humor. Even the
show's more violent scenes -- the one where a cheerleader spontaneously
combusts, for instance -- are more likely to have viewers smirking than

   Still, Bibb and Goldstein wanted to "stress the action and the dark
surprises," so when it came to creating an ad tagline, they eliminated
tongue-in-cheek ones such as "In the war against evil, the stakes have just been
raised." Finally, they settled on the tag, "For each generation, there is only
one slayer."

   The marketers thought the campaign would identify "Buffy" as an all-female
property, but ironically, the network discovered the show's audience was skewing
male. The network concluded that the show had "more action and violence, albeit
surreal, than women want," said Goldstein.

   So for the upcoming season, the series will be "marketed and positioned as a
dark and gothic Ann Rice-style romance" between Buffy and Angel, a
brooding-and-buff guy who just happens to be the only vampire with a soul.

   But The WB isn't planning a total wuss-out: "There's still enough danger for
men and Angel is a vampire."

   Also aware that "men have another option called football," the network will
try to accommodate male viewers by repeating the Monday night broadcast on the
following Sunday.

   Our fearless slayer has yet to take the plunge into consumer promotions or
licensing, although Bibb and Goldstein hinted there was an deal in the works.
Buffy did participate in a WB promotion with En Vogue last season, and Goldstein
said Elektra and other Warner record labels have expressed interest in "Buffy"
tie-ins. Alternapop band Nerf Herder is already featured in the opening credits
and gets a nice little plug from a sticker inside one of the character's

   Buffy's ratings remain small by Big Four standards, but the show is giving
The WB its highest numbers yet. The hope is that it could be the one that
transforms the upstart into a viable network.

   That's right -- not only are these heroines supposed to save the world,
they're also responsible for bringing in new business. In the case of the
already established Batman movie franchise, for example, industry insiders say
the addition of Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl was designed to extend the movie's
appeal to more women.

   The hype was astounding. Print ads featured her prominently. Warner Bros.
Studio Stores were festooned with pics of Silverstone "as the brave and daring
Batgirl" and a promotional "Gotham TV" reel proclaimed her "the first-ever
teenage superheroine."

   Batgirl merchandise sold there and elsewhere ranged from baby-doll T-shirts
to a $ 32 pewter figurine. As part of a tie-in with Taco Bell, there was a
souvenir Batgirl soft-drink cup, and Toys R Us gave away Batgirl comic books.

   Hasbro's hopes ran high for Batgirl to become its best-selling female action
figure. The relatively poor performance of the movie makes it a tough call on
her success, but Marketing Evaluations reports below-average Q Scores for the
character, in both film and comic book incarnations.

   Female action heroes tend to score lower, said Henry Schafer, Marketing
Evaluations' executive vice president. "Male action heroes tend to be more
recognized and popular and have longer staying power," he said. If the idea is
to use them to pull in more women, Schafer added, entertainment marketers need
to do a better job.

   "There's been no concerted effort to market action heroes to women, which is
not to say that it's not doable, it just hasn't been done. Action heroes --
whether they're female or male -- have always been targeted to males," he said.
"The attractiveness of the characters and the way they're clothed make them more
appealing to men."

   And if, as in the case of Buffy (who doesn't have a Q Score yet), marketers
try to change the character's positioning to appeal to women, "they have to keep
it in balance with the male appeal," he said. "It's a delicate issue. If they
soften the character too much, it could push away the male audience."

   It may be a generational thing. Marketing consultant Sid Good said he sees a
growing acceptance of female action heroes among kids.

   "It started with properties like Power Rangers" that included girls in the
line-up, he said. "And the more kids see girls or women in these roles and
getting equal billing with the guys, slowly but surely, it will be just as
appropriate to have female action figures."

GRAPHIC: Pictures 1 through 3, Move over Superman, marketers are promoting a new
generation of female action heroes, including warrior princess Xena, Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, and an all-new-for-the-'7; Picture 4, As part of the promotional
blitz surrounding the debut of Batgirl in the Batman film franchise, Toys R Us
released a replica of the comic book that originally heralded her arrival.;
Picture 5, Ads for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" are designed to stress the action
and dark surprises, rather than the show's tongue-in-cheek humor.

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