It was the frog that pushed me over the edge. I’ve never been a Harry Potter fan myself – I was already out of kids’ books when they first came out, and those clever grown-up covers weren’t enough to tempt me back – but I’d always admired JK Rowling from afar. Who wouldn’t? A writer whose imagination transfixed the world, whose riches now exceed those of the Queen, but who has founded a children’s charity, pays her taxes in full, and remains both poised and politically engaged: as role models go, it is hard to think of a better one.
So I was pleased when my seven-year-old son went Harry Potter crazy. Having never read to himself before, he was suddenly racing through book after book, his bedside light on late into the night. His brother and several of his friends caught the bug – just as the Suez canal flowed through Clarissa Eden’s drawing room, Hogwarts overshadowed our house, as children constantly dashed about on broomsticks, casting spells and looking for snitches.
It was impressive to see the “Harry Potter effect” in action: the magical power that, in the two decades since its first publication, has revitalised the children’s publishing industry, encouraged millions of children to read, sold more than 400m copies across the world, and generated a cultural empire worth £20bn.
Less pleasant, however, was the realisation that there was a marketing juggernaut poised to capitalise on my son’s enthusiasm. Unlike those first readers 20 years ago, the children discovering Harry Potter now are immediately faced with a multibillion-pound industry trading in Potter-themed “experiences” and paraphernalia. The prices of this stuff are hardly child-sized: £35 for a plastic wand – and £10.50 for a three-pack of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans; £4.50 for a chocolate frog.
In the gift shop at the British Library’s excellent exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, I watched my son deliberate anxiously about whether to spend nine weeks’ pocket money on a small piece of chocolate, and couldn’t avoid feeling that he was being fleeced by the Harry Potter industry.
Rowling’s approach to commerce appears to have shifted in recent years. In the early days, the marketing around Harry Potter relied upon scarcity. Total secrecy surrounded the books before publication, and Rowling insisted that Warner Bros, which bought the merchandising rights in 1998, issued relatively few licences to manufacturers, especially compared with other franchises. She refused profitable partnerships such as tie-ins with fast-food chains. The idea, according to the Economist, was to play the long game, and avoid over-saturating the market.
More recently, however, it has become clear that the thirst for Potter-related products is nigh on unquenchable. A professor at the London School of Economics has estimated that when you include the income generated by tourism to Harry Potter-related attractions, the boy wizard is worth £4bn to the UK economy – no small deal in a country with an increasingly uncertain economic future. It was recently reported that 10 wands are sold on eBay every minute, and three Harry Potter costumes every hour. There are now four Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks (two in Florida, one in Hollywood and one in Osaka, Japan).
The Warner Bros studio tour The Making of Harry Potter has attracted more than 8 million visitors since it opened outside London in March 2012, and official themed shops have opened in King’s Cross railway station and Heathrow airport (“Harry Potter is a quintessentially British brand”), with smaller independent tribute shops around the country. When a Harry Potter-themed wand shop opened in Brighton recently there were queues around the block; there have been similar scenes in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
“My feeling is that Rowling, who once vowed to resist the commercialisation of her creation, has decided to ‘give the customers what they want’,” says Stephen Brown, a marketing expert at the University of Ulster who has studied the Harry Potter phenomenon. “You can hardly blame her. If she didn’t, all sorts of fakes and counterfeits and so on would crawl out of the woodwork.”
This may be true, but I still can’t help feeling sorry for the young readers whose experience of Harry will be forever shaped by these commercial forces. One can only hope that they pay close attention to the books themselves, in which Rowling satirises marketing mumbo-jumbo (even as she creates brands such as Bertie Bott’s and the Nimbus broomsticks).
The books are careful to show us that what we want may not be, in fact, what we need. In The Philosopher’s Stone, the Mirror of Erised reflects each viewer’s deepest desires, but as Dumbledore observes, “This mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”
• Alice O’Keeffe is a freelance literary critic and journalist and former deputy editor of the Guardian’s Saturday Review section