The Pooh becomes very, very rich Marketing: From videos to pajamas, Winnie-the-Pooh is making Disney pots of money now that the entertainment giant has marketing rights to A. A. Milne's classic.

Sun Journal

November 16, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

"Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders."

So begins "Winnie-the-Pooh," by A. A. Milne. Winnie-the-Pooh still lives in the forest. He also lives on video, at the supermarket and in department stores everywhere, while being heavily traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Pooh is no longer all by himself. He is everywhere. He is even two Poohs.

There is the original Pooh based on the Milne books with "decorations" by Ernest H. Shepard. And there is the Disney Pooh.

The original Pooh is 70 this year, and the Disney Pooh is officially thirtysomething. They look distinctly different, but it hardly matters. Disney owns both of them. Though Milne deemed Pooh a "silly old bear," he is making Disney honey pots of lucre.

If you are seeing more Pooh these days, this is not by accident.

Since the 1960s, Sears had an exclusive marketing deal for all Disney Pooh products. Two years ago, the contract ended. For two years prior to that, Disney planned for the day when Pooh would be free to be in all sorts of stores and there would be Pooh corners everywhere.

"Of all our characters, Pooh is second in awareness to Mickey Mouse," says Charles Champlin, spokesman for Disney's licensing and consumer products. "He deserved first-class treatment."

Pooh is getting that, and then some. There are now about 75 licenses for Disney Pooh, and 35 for the Milne/Shepard Pooh, which is known as "classic Pooh" at Disney's magic headquarters in Burbank, Calif. There is stationery for $5, Bilston & Battersea classic Pooh porcelain boxes for $250, and 12 different sizes of plush Disney Pooh bears.

The bear Disney calls classic Pooh first appeared in 1924 as Edward the Bear in "When We Were Very Young." "Winnie-the-Pooh" was published two years later. Pooh was first drawn in black ink, but 50 years later, when Shepard was 93 years old, he colored the 240 drawings for anniversary editions.

Disney Pooh is very orange, sporting a midriff-baring red polo shirt (the shirt appears in only a few of the Shepard drawings). Disney Pooh was introduced in the 1966 animated short, "Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree." (Actually, all the Disney characters look strikingly different from Shepard's decorations.)

The first Disney Pooh -- collected in three short features released last year as "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" -- is a hybrid between the Milne/Shepard Pooh and the modern Disney Pooh. So, to confuse matters even more, there are really three Poohs: classic, classic Disney, and Disney.

"We have diversified Pooh," says Laurel Whitcomb, a spokeswoman for Buena Vista, a division of Disney. "You have the Pooh character in the classic animated Disney tradition, and then you have the classic Pooh merchandise based on the original drawings. One does not necessarily exclude the other."

A heavily marketed character, like Batman, can have 300 licenses. Pooh has this potential, says Nicole Kristensen, vice president for Winnie-the-Pooh licensing. Next up are Disney Pooh products for adults, everything from denim to watches to pyjamas.

Through videos and other products, Pooh is often the first Disney character in many young children's lives, delivering built-in nostalgia for parents reared on the Milne/Shepard books, while offering stories free of violence, potential political incorrectness and aerodynamically confounding heroines. Pooh is safe -- with a literary pedigree.

A toddler might start with Pooh, mostly through videos and other products, then graduate to the next Disney character and product line. Books, though Disney licenses plenty of these, are almost an afterthought in attracting children to Pooh.

"As a franchise, Pooh would be at the very top of our video success," says Tania Moloney, director of marketing and publicity for Buena Vista Home Video. "We have seen an increase that I believe is based on an increase of good Pooh products."

The television show is now off ABC, another Disney company, but the stores are flooded with 29 different Pooh videos. "The reach of the video market is far greater than the reach of the television market," says Moloney, who estimates that between 15 million and 20 million Pooh videos have been sold since the late 1980s, 8 million alone for "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh."

For a single holiday, Halloween, there was a Pooh special on CBS, and two different Pooh videos in the stores, last year's "Frankenpooh" and this season's "Unspookable Pooh." There is a Pooh Valentine video and a Pooh Christmas video.

This rise of Disney Pooh has upset Pooh purists.

"Of course, I hate it," says Ann Durell, retired children's book editor at Dutton, the American publisher of the four Milne/Shepard classics. "I would have liked it if it had been more like Beatrix Potter, where the English publisher Frederick Warne kept the rights. The products all look like the original books."

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