There’s something magical about American marketing strategies. It might have something to do with its strong culture that emphasizes might (wealth) makes right, and a general lack of doujinshi culture, but when you see something that’s typically driven by fans for fans in Japan, you can bet it’ll never grow to see the light of day in America.
Yamaha’s Vocaloids weren’t marketed to the U.S., making what culture of fanship that exists here based completely on memes and viral spread. It was, essentially, a phenomenon that lacked financial incentive from a corporate schema in the U.S. In Japan, the movement seemed largely user driven, and any corporate interest was curtailed by what I imagine being: 1). execs not quite understanding this “Internet” stuff, 2). Vocaloids were in Japan, making copyright troublesome to work through, and seriously, 3). anime and manga are for kids, kids can’t drive cars so why market cars to them?
Well, it turns out that Toyota decided to prove everyone wrong and use its multinational corporate power to broker a deal that makes Hatsune Miku an official sponsor of the 2011 Toyota Corolla. Kids still can’t drive, though.
What really interests me about all this is that the whole promotion just smashes into the court, like a Hummer driven by the Kool-Aid-Guy. We’ve gone 0-60 with Miku’s commercialization in a matter of minutes.
My question, now is, how are Vocaloids going to change now that we have a corporate logo supporting it? Toyota has a vested interest in Miku now; will we see them attempting to control the portrayal of Hatsune Miku to fit their marketing strategy? It would, after all, be terribly unfortunate if Miku’s image wasn’t that of a bubbly virtual idol that sings of love, electronics and leeks (and even leeks are pushing it there). And with no major creative base for her in the U.S., the first entity to firmly establish its territory on U.S. soil becomes Toyota, not a creative fan culture.
So will Toyota start trying to affect the portrayal of Miku in the United States? Will there be a homogenization or a “mainstreaming” of Hatsune Miku? And how will the Japanese community react to this? Could this essentially have jumped the shark?
The other day I just so happened to be chatting with Ben Hamamoto regarding the popularity of Vocaloids. He asked me if people who write songs for Vocaloids are only her fans. In the sense that Hatsune Miku was not a conduit for commercial promotion, I found that people who made music using her, while they may be fans, are creators at the core.
I now realize that I was being horribly foolish. People who make music using Hatsune Miku are creators; they are composers that use her as a musician plays the piano. My core argument remains the same, but there is the possibility for corporate objectives. In due time, I would guess there will be an ode to Corollas by someone or other, one funded by Toyota. This is not to say it will be bad, it could just as well end up being good and possibly iconic. Let’s hope it’s good if they’re going to do that.
In any case, I’m not sold. People who go out and buy a car based on sponsorship by a virtual idol seem rather sad (oh, wait). Sure, Corollas are nice cars, but just saying “Miku drives this” isn’t all that convincing. If you want to sell a car, sell a car by showing what it can do and what it represents.
Author’s note: I’m terribly wary of any corporation that earns more than a billion dollars a year. My abhorrence of Toyota and Miku teaming up is mostly from this — that and the fact I hate the Prius.
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.