consumerism

What Funko Pops can teach us about consumer economics

Last week I was in the toy shop in town, looking for marbles. We didn’t find any, but I was puzzled to find that an entire aisle of the shop had been given over to uniform plastic boxes with vinyl figures in them. It’s not a big shop, so this is obviously ‘a thing’ and needs to be given space.

These are Funko Pop! figurines. I’ll say it straight up – they have no reason to exist. That’s why this one has a question mark on his head. And also because he’s the Riddler.

I know I sound like an old man mumbling about ‘kids these days’, and how in my day we were happy with marbles. But I was genuinely puzzled by these items. They don’t do anything. They have zero play value. And yet there are dozens of different designs, special editions, exclusives and collectables.

They do have a purpose of course. They leverage those funny big heads, cute big eyes and instant pop culture icon recognition to hoover ten pound notes out of people’s pockets. That is, ultimately, why they exist.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’ve got an affection for a particular character and want a big-headed version of Harry Potter or Han Solo on your mantel piece, carry on. On my desk I have a Madagascar dragon plant and a wooden elephant from Kenya, and two vintage cameras from my wife’s grandfather. All very tasteful. But I also have a Lego house, Thunderbird 3 and a toy monkey in a fez, so I’m not going to judge your Funko Pop.

However, I do think that whole aisle of landfill-bound vinyl is worth pausing to consider for a moment. We’re told that the toy market, like any market, is governed by supply and demand. There is demand for Funko Pops, and the market responds.

Except that demand doesn’t necessarily come first. There were no children taking to the streets to demand vinyl figures that don’t do anything. There were no parents wishing they had a bit more clutter on the window sill of their children’s bedroom. Nobody knew they wanted a Funko Pop until they saw it. Supply came first, and demand was created.

That’s doubly true of the special editions. Take the blue chrome version of The Flash in the header image. People would have been happy with The Flash, but Funko Pop released a chrome version, and a blue chrome version – £15 rather than £10, thank you very much.

Then there are the collectable and limited edition ones, which retail for even more. The most expensive Funko Pop last year – yes, I went away and looked this up, so that was a good use of my time – was a special edition Buzz Lightyear that was only available at ComicCon. Collectors were buying them for $1,200 on the internet shortly afterwards.

There’s no reason why Funko Pop couldn’t make those figures by the million if people liked them. They’re no more expensive to make than any of the others in the range. But by purposefully making a couple of hundred, they make them rare and worth more. Economics textbooks tell us that resources are scarce, but a rare collectable Funko Pop is a deliberate, artificial and manufactured scarcity.

An economist called Wolfgang Hoeschele argues that in affluent countries, scarcity has to be constantly manufactured – see the book The Economics of Abundance. Once you’ve understood artificial scarcity, you’ll see it everywhere.

The economics textbooks also tell us that human desires are infinite. That may or may not be true. Our needs certainly aren’t infinite. Our wants might be, but even then they are unspecific and therefore easily manipulated. There is no great yearning for fat-headed figurines in the human soul, but there is a desire for novelty. If you’ve got the advertising budget and some willing YouTubers ready to champion your tat, you can tap that desire for novelty and sell your Funko Pops. Another year, that same desire might be met by fidget spinners or loom bands – two other trinkets that nobody knew they wanted until they did.

In some ways, that aisle in the toy shop isn’t a sign of consumerism so much as producerism. It’s a term that Rupert Read uses in the book This civilisation is finished, which I’m reading at the moment:

“The real push for us to be ‘consumers’ comes from the producers. It is producers who need to sell us stuff, in order to extract a profit – and the most effective way they can do that is to artificially create in us ever-growing ‘needs’.”

This is why advertising is so important, because that’s where consumer desires are nurtured. But it only gets us so far. Business models that rely on constant growth and profit are what lie behind that drive to sell, and that’s why we need healthier business models that operate on not-for-profit or cooperative principles.

Those are big things to fix. In the meantime, we can address them as individuals. When you see the words ‘exclusive’, ‘collectable’, or ‘limited edition’ on anything, think of it as a sucker premium and put it down. Talk to your children about advertising and consumerism, and about what adverts are really trying to do.

And if your children need a summer novelty to keep them occupied, get them some marbles. Marbles are pretty and tactile, you can play all kinds of imaginative games with them, and they cost 10p each.

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