"In Latin America, it's primarily a kids program," Dekel says. "We're targeting elementary school-age children with school supplies and apparel sized for them. In the U.K., we have a kids program and an adult (merchandise) program. We started an infant line, and we're launching a ladies (clothing) line: The Ladies of Springfield. And in the U.S., it tends to be teens and dads that love The Simpsons."
The show has also become more marketable as it became more mainstream; the humor that used to seem so cutting edge is much tamer compared with risqué animated shows such as Fox's Family Guy and Comedy Central's South Park.
"It was once a crazy kids and teenage property," says Oliver Gers, a licensing expert who used to work at marketing firm IMG. "But it has evolved with its audience into a family show."
That fact seems to bemuse Groening.
"The goal for me was to see if I could invade pop culture — my tastes are a little more oddball and non-commercial," he says. "It was an attempt, at least in the beginning, to see how far I could push it. It's still a pretty odd show. It turned out to be popular. But it easily could have gone the other way."
T-shirts are cool
Now the goal is to keep up with trends in pop culture. For example, Fox is developing a style guide for licensed apparel and other merchandise that adopts the graphic-heavy look of classic rock album covers and tattoos, newly popularized by Guitar Hero and other video games.
"Somebody who's going to the Troubadour to watch a live show from a local band wouldn't mind wearing a shirt — it still looks cool," Dekel says. "But if you look at it closely, you'll say, 'Hey, that's Bart's head in there.' "
The Simpsons has an advantage over rivals when it comes to putting the characters into a commercial context. Most residents of Springfield are eager to get rich quick, so the real-world merchandising can become part of the gag.
"We try not to have Homer hold up a product and endorse it," Groening says. "On the other hand, Krusty the Clown will endorse anything because that's his character."
Is there anything that the Simpsons wouldn't sell? Groening says that he vetoed a proposal to have Simpsons slot machines.
Dekel, though, says he keeps an open mind.
"There were times years ago when we probably would not have done some of the products we're doing today," he says. "But society, culture and the marketplace evolve. The sensibilities of the show evolve. So I never say never."
Yet while he hones his strategy to turn the Simpsons into enduring and marketable pop icons, Groening says it's important to remember that the show itself has to come first.
"We try to keep the whole Simpsons juggernaut funny and surprising," he says. "From there, everything rolls out. But very rarely is anything within the show done in a calculated way."
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