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BARNEY RISES AGAIN TO CAPTIVATE TOTS PURPLE PERFORMER GROWS WITH MAGAZINES, RADIO

By Published on .

Barney the dinosaur refuses to become extinct.

After soaring to unprecedented fame on the Public Broadcasting Service's "Barney & Friends" TV series in 1992, the kids' character reached Elvis-like popularity with tots the following year.

Trouble cropped up last year, when Barney began suffering from overexposure. Product sales declined sharply and some analysts predicted Barney would soon be on the endangered species list.

Worst of all, millions of adults began hating the gentle Tyrannosaurus rex, creating a widespread backlash that's spread onto the Internet.

But beware: The purple preschool phenomenon is now on the comeback trail.

"The Elvis year was 1993, when people just couldn't get enough of Barney, and then there was a backlash, but now things are starting to turn around," said Russell Mack, VP-communications for the Lyons Group, Barney's creators.

Here's why: a fresh crop of 2-year-olds has fallen in love with the latest batch of "Barney & Friends" episodes; the shows began airing last month, featuring new characters and activities. Sales of new Barney products are growing again; two new magazines and a radio program are thriving. A Barney feature film is in development to be produced by Geffen Pictures and distributed by Warner Bros. as early as next year.

Finally, Barney will star at his own multimillion-dollar attraction, set to open July 11 at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. A Day in the Park with Barney is expected to draw hundreds of families daily.

The Universal Studios' attraction, like the "Barney & Friends" TV series, targets families with kids between 2 and 5 years old, an untapped market at theme parks. Barney's handlers at Lyons say market research indicates it will be a hit.

"Barney is unique in many respects because it appeals to a very specific target audience, and at theme parks there has never been anything just for toddlers," Mr. Mack said.

That's precisely why adults dislike Barney, apparently. Unlike other popular kids' educational programs like "Sesame Street," "Barney & Friends" offers no humor or content aimed at adults, who fail to appreciate the program while tots are wild about it.

Barney was conceived in 1987 by former teacher Sheryl Leach. She used the character in videotapes that hit the market in 1988, teaching kids positive values and communication skills.

A licensed product effort followed, and by 1993 as much as $1 billion in Barney merchandise was sold in the U.S. Toy retailers were unable to meet demand.

Within a year of hitting his zenith, Barney was already suffering from the flip side of his fad-driven fame. Last year negative publicity began to swell as millions of adults professed to hate Barney's preachings about politeness, friendliness and fun.

On the Internet, Barney has become a favorite "flame" target, generating thousands of electronic insults by computer users who have suggested Barney is brainwashing children.

"We don't take the Internet stuff seriously. What people say about a harmless children's character at 3 a.m. is irrelevant to us," Mr. Mack said.

Nevertheless, Lyons in January hired its first advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago, to create a brand image for Barney and develop his first-ever advertising.

The agency doesn't think Barney is suffering from the negative attention on the Internet.

"We don't think Barney needs an image campaign," said Brian Heffernan, a senior partner at JWT. "Our goal is to help make Barney a classic character and get moms to see Barney through their kids' eyes. When kids see him, they instantly love him. When parents see that, the [negative image] problems will take care of themselves," Mr. Heffernan said.

A print campaign from the agency starring Barney will appear this year in magazines.

The privately held Lyons Group re-fuses to release sales results of merchandise, licensed to 42 companies including Hasbro, Binney & Smith, Colorforms, Hallmark Cards, Fruit of the Loom, Dakin and Sega of America. In addition, Lyons markets its own plush toys.

Among new licensed products already driving revitalized Barney-themed product sales this year: kids' toiletries, tub toys, games, puzzles, hats and umbrellas. New products also star Barney's friends B.J. and Baby Bop.

Although Barney toy sales have slowed since late 1993, analysts expect at least $500 million in merchandise will be sold this year, while a fever continues to rage for videos and books. Last year 12 of the top 100 best-selling videos starred Barney, bringing total video sales of all 14 "Barney" titles to 27 million since 1988.

Toy industry analyst Gary Jacobson of BT Trust, New York, said Barney may last into the 21st century as a classic kids' brand, but he'll never be a superstar again.

"Barney certainly isn't going away, but it's never going to be huge again. People are still sick of him," Mr. Jacobson said.

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CORPORATE CLOSE-UP

The Lyons Group

Headquarters: Richardson, Texas

Estimated sales: $500 million in product sales and licensed merchandise.

Leadership: Sheryl Leach, executive producer and creator; Dennis

DeShazer, executive producer and production chief; Cecilia Anzaldua, director of licensing; Debbie Ries, director of sales.

Anticipated marketing spending: $5 million for a new print image campaign.

Agency: J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago.

Recent successes: Named an advertising agency to nurture long-term sales of Barney brand products for preschoolers. Refocused the Barney marketing effort on broader themes, introducing other characters into the famous PBS TV program "Barney & Friends." Extended the concept into new venues and media, including a Barney film currently in development and a permanent Barney attraction opening this summer at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.

1995-96 challenges: Reinvigorate retail sales of Barney merchandise and videos after last year's decline; nurture a consistent brand identity for Barney; overcome negative publicity and reaction against the

oversaturation and intensive popularity of Barney among preschoolers that began in 1992.

Source: Advertising Age and company reports

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