Why is it so Hard to be a Fan at Work?

Every fan loves to express their devotion to their favourite show, film, or comic. Now more than ever, they have a plethora of ways of doing so too, which wasn’t always the case. Not only is a wide variety of merchandise available, but it isn’t limited to what’s in the toy aisle either. There is however, one area where current merchandise seems to fail, and that’s when it comes to being appropriate for the workplace.

Traditionally, this was a problem that was never going to become an issue. Animated content for the big and small screens was aimed at kids and their tastes were known and catered to. You can see the proof just by browsing the kids clothing section of any store, where you’ll find just about every major cartoon character you can think of, plus whichever movie/TV show is the current hot favourite.

As animation has grown in popularity, it has attracted legions of adult fans that live outside the core fan demographics. Many of these adults could be looking for ways to advertise or broadcast their fan affinities, yet they are often left out in the cold by creators and merchandisers alike by way of poor quality options or none at all. Not everyone is looking for this type of merchandise of course. If you work in a job that requires a uniform, specialised equipment, or an otherwise standard appearance, this post is irrelevant. Ditto if you work from home and lounge around in your pyjamas anyway.

Yet for the legions that work in a professional environment of some kind that permits a degree of leeway with regard to appearance, there are still restrictions on what is and what is not acceptable. Standard American office attire can be pretty stifling despite the rise of the ‘business casual’ aesthetic and ‘casual Fridays’ that let employees loosen up (within reason) prior to the weekend. As a fan of something who works in a professional environment, your options are extremely limited, and if you’re a guy, you might well be out of luck entirely.

Miku polo for the professional fan

This is partly because fans are not being catered to, but also partly because the market is practically non-existent. Some examples do exist (like the Miku polo shirt above from We Love Fine), but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Two primary problems are standing in the way. Firstly: traditional business apparel companies are not familiar with licensing and have been shown little incentive to get involved, and secondly, while all fans are more than happy to broadcast their affiliations outside of work, many may prefer to keep them secluded while at the workplace.

The first problem can be solved relatively easily; no company worth their salt will look a potentially profitable opportunity in the mouth once they are shown its viability, but the second problem is much more difficult to overcome.

For all the respect that animated content has received in recent times, it’s reputation amongst the public as a whole remains that of an entertainment medium exclusively for kids. This isn’t helped by the majority of animated TV shows being broadcast on the kids’ networks, but the stigma is very real and resistant to change. This is despite the deep, complex storytelling of shows like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls too. Any fan who ‘outs’ themselves at work may be exposing themselves to a variety of unwanted attention. From personal observations, the reaction of fellow coworkers and bosses can range from ridicule at best to a denial of advancement at worst.

Entertainment properties in all sectors are being squeezed by the decline of the traditional finding models, and are seeking out new avenues to bring in revenue. Professional attire and accessories is just one of these non-traditional avenues that are being explored. The NFL has been rather upfront about their efforts as they branch out into new sectors like women’s clothing and even medical scrubs.

Why can’t cartoons be any different?

The low hanging fruit like watches, ties, earrings, etc. have all been done to varying degrees down through the years but nobody has made a concerted effort to chase the working fan. You can have a fun watch made of bright coloured plastic, but not a more substantive timepiece made of metal. You can have a funny looking tie with a silly face on it, but if you’re meeting a client, you are better off playing it safe. In deciding to chase after the bridal market, Disney avoided that problem altogether, and instead sought to connect with a special occasion.

For fans looking to advertise in the office, things don’t need to be overt or tacky. Symbolism and inferred branding are what professional attire is all about. Many articles of clothing are unidentifiable while being worn; only the hidden tag gives them away. Which nicely proves that people are happy to wear something even if nobody else can readily tell. Merchandise based on cartoons and other animated properties need not be any different, and if anything, they may be better. Symbols or emblems may appear obscure to non-fans, but they can signify a shared secret to those in the know in much the same way as the Batman logo did in the run-up to the original feature film in 1989.

In this regard, women arguably have a bit of a headstart on men. Earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and so on can all convey a love of cartoons without appearing unprofessional, and in any case, the important emphasis is on compatibility with the rest of the outfit. This makes them much more suitable for things casual cosplay; a concept where you wear a combination of clothes and accessories that are comparable to a character’s actual outfit, but maintain a safe distance from genuine cosplay that may cross the line.

Men’s fashion on the other hand, is immensely more restrained in terms of variety and taste. The buyers aren’t near as picky about what they buy either, but that isn’t to say that they do not appreciate style; it just needs to appear relevant to their needs and desires. Embroidered golf shirts, button-downs, ties, cufflinks and so on are obvious potential products, but others like collections and lines are more in tune with male consumer’s tastes. While a suit may be a suit, it remains just that until it’s given a name and brand to go with it. Then it becomes a statement even though appearance-wise, it still looks like a suit.

If you wanted to be truly bold, you could say that the men’s apparel market is in need of some new products. What form these could take, I don’t know, but it could be fun to explore!

I didn’t write this post out of some desperate desire to convey my love of animation while working in a decidedly un-studio like office, but rather to ponder whether it’s a market that is currently being under-served, and if so, why? My gut says that the market is still far from maturity, but given how many animation fans are maintaining their love from childhood into adulthood, in another few years, there may be sufficient demand to enable a studio to eke out a profit. Until then, fans will need to keep their favourite shows and films to themselves.

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