Lentis/Hello Kitty: Identity Crisis, Kawaii Culture, and More

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Hello Kitty is a fictional character designed by Yuko Shimizu. She is described to be five apples tall and weighing three apples. Born in London with the name Kitty White, she lives her fictional life baking and collecting cute things while being bright and kind-hearted.

Popularity of Hello Kitty[edit]

Hello Kitty is an extremely popular and profitable brand and character; she is worth nearly $7 billion a year and boasts over 50,000 products in over 60 countries as of 2014 with little advertising. Hello Kitty was originally aimed at young girls, it's market has expanded to include all genders and ages. [1]

Cuteness[edit]

The driving force behind Hello Kitty’s popularity is her cuteness. People prefer spokes-characters that are cute and innocent which are two features of Hello Kitty which form an unbroken cycle of consumption and self-branding.[2] Cuteness is a subjective term describing a form of attractiveness that is associated with juvenile and neotenous traits; which includes proportionally larger heads, higher forehead, smaller snout and proportionally short limbs.

Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, contended that infantile and juvenile traits prompted paternal instincts in adults and that this response was an evolutionary adaptation that helped to guarantee adults cared for their offspring.[3] It has been shown that adults react positively to infants that are stereotypically cute and that this response is similar across cultures. It has also been shown that these positive responses are not only found in adults, but children as well. Children have a preference in toys that have high juvenile features over those with low juvenile features. Parents are more willing to purchase a product for their children or even themselves if they see the product as cute and neotenous. The success of Hello Kitty can be attributed to Sanrio’s ability to tap into the primal paternal instincts of humans as shown by its success in over 60 countries with little advertising and back story.

Kawaii Culture[edit]

Kawaii is the level or quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. It has a significant role in aspects of Japanese culture, food, clothing, styles, behavior and appearance.[4] Hello Kitty is at the forefront of all things kawaii with product ranges from small dolls and stickers to high end products like Hello Kitty buildings. In Yuanlin, Taiwan a Hello Kitty themed maternity hospital opened in 2008.

Sanrio exploited the Kawaii culture and the market it created for all things cute by creating a character that was easily identifiable as cute and readily accessible through its various products.


Lessons:

  • Products are more successful when they play directly into natural human behavior. In this case Hello Kitty plays into the human propensity for cute characters.

Identity Crisis of Kitty White[edit]

There is recent debate whether Hello Kitty is a cat, girl, or something in between. Dozens of news sites report her as a human girl, others report an anthropomorphic cat, while some fans believe that she is just a cat.

Looking back at Hello Kitty's first appearance, she is sitting. The next year, she has a family (one mom, one dad, and a twin sister) as reflected by her profile. This suggests that Hello Kitty may be human because the picture shows a domestic family. In 1976, she is shown standing. Cats do not stand. In the following years, Hello Kitty continues to stand or sit, but is never depicted to be on all four limbs [5].

Finally, in 2014, an official answer came. Yano, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii, was preparing her speech at the Japanese American National Museum when she was corrected by Sanrio to not describe Hello Kitty as a cat. Importantly, Los Angeles Times quotes Yano,

"Hello Kitty is not a cat. She's a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But She is not a cat. She's never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it's called Charmmy Kitty."
—Christine Yano, [6]

This quote has gone viral and appears in multiple news sites (The Washington Post, the protojournalist, Mail Online) and has given the impression that shockingly, Hello Kitty is not actually a cat.

However, one day later, a reporter from RocketNews24 quotes a Sanrio representative,

"We never said she was a human"
—Sanrio representative, [7]

and further investigated by Kotaku,

"Hello Kitty was done in the motif of a cat. It's going too far to say that Hello Kitty is not a cat. Hello Kitty is a personification of a cat."
—Sanrio representative, [8]

This is the most official description of Hello Kitty, but some questions arise: Has the 24-hour gap provided enough time for the first viral quote to convince a mass audience? Who really decides what is Hello Kitty? Was this confusion intentional, and if so, what is Sanrio's motive?

It is too soon to tell what Sanrio's motives are. Analyzing marketing data during this time (the holidays) and because the event was recent, is hard to create a concrete contention.

In one poll, 73% believe Hello Kitty to be a cat [9]. This suggests that both the Los Angeles Times and official description failed to convince the majority that Hello Kitty is a human girl or a personification of a cat. One speculation is that Sanrio will use this data to influence the way they market Hello Kitty, i.e, they make Hello Kitty more cat-like, not human, to keep up with the majority's interest.

Some lessons learned:

  • Redefining objects grabs attention. (i.e. tomato is a fruit, Pluto is not a planet, Earth is not flat, getting married changes marital status)
  • Established notions are difficult to change.

Hello Kitty, Racism, and Cultural Appropriation[edit]

Avril Lavigne released a music video called Hello Kitty on April 23 2014 [10]. The video and song have met harsh criticisms since their debuts, despite Avril’s innocent intentions. Major criticisms consist of comments about both racism and cultural appropriation of Japanese culture as represented by the title of the song, bright colors, and robotic female backup dancers. Hello Kitty is well known as a Japanese cartoon character that appears on most of Avril Lavigne’s gifts from Japanese fans. The bright colors are stereotypical of Japanese pop culture. The backup dancers have the same hairstyle, wear identical outfits, move robotically, and have no expression. In Amanda Duberman’s words, “they don’t seem to have any agency, emotions or purpose beyond playing Lavigne’s backdrop and representing a watered-down version of Japanese culture, palatable for a white American audience” On a blog in The Two Chairs, STRINGSTORY says, “Asian women are not meant to be your props. Asian women are not your backdrops. Neither are they ‘oriental’ displays. ASIAN WOMEN ARE NOT YOUR ACCESSORIES" [11].


Other views suggest that the backup dancers reinforce the stereotype of expressionless and submissive Japanese people in general in contrast to the outgoing and expressive demeanor and behavior of Avril Lavigne [12]. In general, the music video comes across as a shallow attempt to appeal to her Japanese fans and their culture. She has no genuine appreciation of Japanese culture, but selectively uses its aspects to promote herself [12]. Amanda Duberman from the Huffington Post goes on to say that Avril Lavigne is not embracing Japanese culture, but is instead “using it as her jester” [13].

One may notice that most of these criticisms come from non-Japanese viewers [12]. Japanese viewers of Avril’s music video are not as offended as non-Japanese viewers are, though they can agree that the video and song are not good [14] [12]. Nobuyuki Hayashi, a social media expert, says, “searches in the Japanese Twittersphere and blogsphere show that most of the reactions were favorable. The people who are blaming the artist for racism are non-Japanese but most Japanese people are not taking it that seriously” [15].

Some find that the backup dancers were strange, but did not find them racist [14]. Others agree that Avril’s view of Japanese culture is shallow, but that is not her fault [16]. She can only indulge in Japanese culture for short amounts of time that she spends in Japan, despite her large appreciation for her Japanese fandom. There is acceptance by Japanese viewers that “images of cultures outside of one’s own in mass media are always different from the reality” [15]. Some might even consider the non-Japanese reactions to the video and song offensive because they seem to say that Japanese viewers are “too stupid to realize that this video is offensive” and that non-Japanese viewers should feel offended for them [14].

Avril Lavigne has responded to the criticisms through her twitter page saying that she loves Japanese culture and spends half of her time in Japan [17]. She flew to Tokyo to shoot her music video for her Japanese fans with her Japanese label, choreographers, and director [17]. Her large relationship with her Japanese fans inspired the song. It is about her genuine love for Hello Kitty and Avril finds Hello Kitty interesting as a topic and subject [18].

Lesson:

  • Products that are consumed through global mediums are consumed globally no matter who the intended consumers are.
  • Adopting established names attracts those who consume its reputation.

References[edit]

  1. Detroit Free Press (2014), Hello Kitty Still Bowling 'Em Over, by Jenee Osterheldt, page D1
  2. Hosany, Sameer; Prayag, Girish; Martin, Drew; Lee, Wai-Yee. (2013). Theory and strategies of anthropomorphic brandcharacters from Peter Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, and Ronald McDonald, to Hello Kitty. Journal of Marketing Management, 2013 Vol. 29, Nos. 1–2, 48–68
  3. Van Duuren, Mike; Kendell-Scott, Linda; Stark, Natalie. (2003). Early aesthetic choices: Infant preferences for attractive premature infant faces. International Journal of Behavioral Development. May2003, Vol. 27 Issue 3, p212. 8p.
  4. Lee, Diana. (2005). Inside Look at Japanese Cute Culture
  5. Hello Kitty Fun Stuff, (1999). Hello Kitty History. Portal Brain. <http://www.portalbrain.com/hellokitty/hellokittyhistory.html>
  6. Los Angeles Times, (2014). Hello Kitty is not a cat, plus more reveals before her L.A. tour. Los Angeles Times. <http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-hello-kitty-in-los-angeles-not-a-cat-20140826-column.html#page=1>
  7. RocketNews24, (2014). Hello Kitty Is Not A Cat Because Nothing Makes Sense Anymore. Huff Post Entertainment. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/27/hello-kitty-not-cat_n_5725908.html>
  8. Ashcraft, B. (2014). Don't Be Silly, Hello Kitty Is A Cat. Kotaku. <http://kotaku.com/dont-be-silly-hello-kitty-is-a-cat-1627820750/+laceydonohue>
  9. Hongo, J. (2014). Poll: So What Is Hello Kitty?. The Wall Street Journal (JapanRealTime). <http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2014/08/29/poll-so-what-is-hello-kitty-2/>
  10. Hello Kitty Music Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiaYDPRedWQ>
  11. STRINGSTORY, (2014). ASIAN WOMEN ARE NOT ACCESSORIES. The Two Chairs. <http://thetwochairs.com/2014/04/23/asian-women-are-not-accessories/#more-564>
  12. a b c d Kei Hiruta, (2014). In Defence of Avril Lavigne: Racism, Cultural Appropriation and the Meaning of ‘Hello Kitty’. Practical Ethics. <http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/05/in-defence-of-avril-lavigne-racism-cultural-appropriation-and-the-meaning-of-hello-kitty/#_edn2>
  13. Amanda Duberman, (2014). Avril Lavigne, Asian Woman Are Not Your Props. Huffington Post. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/23/avril-lavigne-hello-kitty_n_5198199.html>
  14. a b c Rachel and Jun, (2014). Is Avril Racist?. Youtube. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFrCDIpJ_f0>
  15. a b Rob Schwartz, (2014). Avril Lavigne's 'Hello Kitty' Video Gets 'Favorable' Reactions in Japan. billboard. <http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop-shop/6077421/avril-lavigne-hello-kitty-video-japan-reaction-tokyo>
  16. randomyoko2, (2014). Avril's Hello Kitty Seen By A Japanese. Youtube. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_NlVDFHMNc>
  17. a b Avril Lavigne's Twitter Page. <https://twitter.com/AvrilLavigne>
  18. Amy Davidson, (2014). Avril Lavigne defends 'Hello Kitty' video. Digital Spy. <http://www.digitalspy.com/music/news/a523644/avril-lavigne-talks-sexual-new-album-track-hello-kitty.html#~oY3OsX1TO3DxLT>