Using the Lone Ranger as a case study, this book investigates the transmedia licensing, merchandizing, and brand management of iconic characters from the 1930s through the era of media conglomeration and convergence.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies
Originating as a radio series in 1933, the Lone Ranger is a cross-media star who has appeared in comic strips, comic books, adult and juvenile novels, feature films and serials, clothing, games, toys, home furnishings, and many other consumer products. In his prime, he rivaled Mickey Mouse as one of the most successfully licensed and merchandised children’s properties in the United States, while in more recent decades, the Lone Ranger has struggled to resonate with consumers, leading to efforts to rebrand the property. The Lone Ranger’s eighty-year history as a lifestyle brand thus offers a perfect case study of how the fields of licensing, merchandizing, and brand management have operated within shifting industrial and sociohistorical conditions that continue to redefine how the business of entertainment functions.
Deciphering how iconic characters gain and retain their status as cultural commodities, Selling the Silver Bullet focuses on the work done by peripheral consumer product and licensing divisions in selectively extending the characters’ reach and in cultivating investment in these characters among potential stakeholders. Tracing the Lone Ranger’s decades-long career as intellectual property allows Avi Santo to analyze the mechanisms that drive contemporary character licensing and entertainment brand management practices, while at the same time situating the licensing field’s development within particular sociohistorical and industrial contexts. He also offers a nuanced assessment of the ways that character licensing firms and consumer product divisions have responded to changing cultural and economic conditions over the past eighty years, which will alter perceptions about the creative and managerial authority these ancillary units wield.
Chapter 1: Hi-Yo Licensing
Chapter 2: Putting on the Mask: Character Licensing before the Lone Ranger
Chapter 3: Building the Franchise One Market at a Time: The Lone Ranger’s Extra-textual Career in the Late 1930s
Chapter 4: The Lone Ranger and the Law: The Construction of Corporate Authorship
Chapter 5: Containing the Ranger: Postwar Cultural (Re)Branding and the Industrial Logics of Containment
Chapter 6: Managing a Legend: The Troubled Career of the Lone Ranger as Heritage Brand
Chapter 7: The Lone Ranger and the Mouse House Together at Last? New Twenty-First-Century Partnerships in the Licensing Biz
Chapter 8: Parting Shots
In October 1940, Armstrong’s Linoleum Floors took out a full-page color ad in Better Homes & Gardens promoting a new bedroom design modeled after the Lone Ranger. He was the masked cowboy hero who, along with his Native American companion, Tonto, and his powerful steed, Silver, defended the Old West against criminals and charlatans, always leaving behind a silver bullet as his calling card. Originating as a radio series in 1933, by 1940 the Lone Ranger had become a cross-media star appearing in comic strips, comic books, adult and juvenile novels, and film serials. The “Masked Man”—as he was consistently called—was also a marketing phenomenon, rivaling Mickey Mouse as one of the most successfully licensed and merchandised children’s properties in the United States.
As pictured, Armstrong’s Lone Ranger–inspired room featured walls painted blue with an accompanying oversized fluorescent portrait print of the cowboy hero astride Silver and a green checkered linoleum floor with a close-up of Silver’s head as the center square. The remainder of the room was decked out in a Western motif, with a wicker chair, plaid sheets, a bullhorn-shaped curtain rod, and various accoutrements befitting a cowboy enthusiast neatly placed throughout, including boots, a handkerchief, a leather belt, a Stetson hat, a horse whip, a banjo, a white horse figurine, and some spurs. Each of these items corresponded with Lone Ranger merchandise sold by licensees other than Armstrong. In fact, upon closer inspection, the visible tag for the cowboy boots clearly marked it as an official Lone Ranger product. Much more clearly marked as Lone Ranger paraphernalia was the framed Lone Ranger Safety Club certificate hanging on the back wall.
The Lone Ranger Safety Club was affiliated with the Lone Ranger radio program and paid for by its sponsors. The Masked Man’s corporate owners, the Lone Ranger Incorporated (LRI), used the Safety Club ingeniously to promote a Lone Ranger lifestyle that gave meaning to the hundreds of licensed products bearing the Lone Ranger’s likeness. These included Armstrong’s Linoleum flooring and wall art. Not insignificantly, the ad features two radio sets, one prominently bathed in sunlight underneath the bedroom window and the other breaking up the ad’s copy. The second radio image is accompanied by a drawing of a small boy decked out in Western attire playing with the dial as the words “Hi-Yo-Silver,” the Lone Ranger’s trademarked tagline, literally exit the box and cross over into the material world. Armstrong’s tagline mimics this movement from ethereal fantasy to lived experience, informing mothers, “Now your Lone Ranger can live in the West . . . right in his own room.” In this manner, Lone Ranger licensed merchandise was positioned as the conduit for making the Masked Man’s radio adventures real by allowing enthusiasts to embody their hero’s attributes.
Radios are not the only doubled image in the ad. Directly underneath Armstrong’s tagline is a second image of the Lone Ranger riding Silver, this one in color and bearing LRI’s corporate copyright. It is the very image that adorned the vast majority of Lone Ranger licensed products and packaging in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Originally distributed as a giveaway to radio listeners in 1936, the drawing was repurposed by LRI to serve as an easily recognizable unifying brand image. Since many children likely first acquired the drawing by writing in to their local radio station, its subsequent appearance on hundreds of products likely made these objects seem like natural extensions of the radio adventures. In 1938, LRI embarked on a “cooperative consumer advertising campaign” with twenty-three manufacturers all producing goods under the licensed title “trading post” and bearing the Lone Ranger brand image. By February 1939, the number of product licensees had grown to sixty-two, and by 1941 LRI had negotiated an impressive seventy-four separate merchandising licenses for the Lone Ranger. Lone Ranger Trading Posts were set up in department stores like Gimbel’s in New York City, aggregating merchandise from multiple manufacturers under a unified banner while also providing shoppers with both immersive and extractable experiences. Gimbel’s set up a makeshift silver mine where shoppers could see the Lone Ranger’s “helpers” forge his mythic silver bullets and could pose for a photo with a nine-foot wooden likeness of the Masked Man, available for pickup “right beside the counter selling Lone Ranger outfits from $1.98 to $6.98, complete with masks.”
Meanwhile, LRI encouraged radio sponsors and other third-party media licensees for Lone Ranger comic strips and film serials to work with retailers in promoting new Lone Ranger experiences. This generated what Eileen Meehan has termed a “commercial intertext” in which the radio program was the key to generating interest in a much more expansive Lone Ranger lifestyle brand. The end result was a kind of paratextual synergy, in which every encounter with the brand prepared consumers for the next one and in many instances guided them toward that next encounter.
At this point, you might be asking why this book begins with a description of an advertisement for Lone Ranger–branded merchandise rather than with the radio text that seemingly inspired this ancillary product. Simply put, the Lone Ranger’s value for LRI exceeded his popular radio adventures. In fact, the cowboy icon was imagined almost from the outset as a lifestyle brand whose textual exploits were primarily a means of generating exposure for the property, which in turn opened up sponsorship and merchandising opportunities for its owners. While accounts of the Lone Ranger’s popularity and iconic status typically approach the figure as embodying a particular—if also malleable—set of mythic/ideological qualities that resonated (or failed to resonate) with the American public, very few accounts exist that assess the Lone Ranger’s popularity as intellectual property (IP).
It is often assumed that increasing trends toward horizontal integration and technological convergence within our media industries, dating back to the late 1960s and early 1990s respectively, drive IP management strategies. Scholars have argued that during this period, media conglomerates shifted away from producing medium-specific texts toward investing in “content” that could traverse previously bounded media forms. Yet as the Lone Ranger/Armstrong Linoleum example suggests, IP was both extended and coordinated across media and merchandising platforms long before conglomeration and convergence became industry buzzwords. Though conglomeration and convergence have made cross-media brand extension more common (and perhaps more commonsensical), many efforts to cultivate investment among both consumers and licensees in cross-media entertainment franchises, in which stories told across a range of media forms are linked together by a shared affiliation with a brand, can be found throughout the first half of the twentieth century (see Chapter 1).
The Lone Ranger was by no means an isolated instance of carefully orchestrated brand management and cross-media marketing in the 1930s. In 1933–1934, John Dille, president of the National Newspaper Syndicate, had a special Buck Rogers short film screened at the World’s Fair. He generated dozens of new licenses by promoting his futuristic brand at a venue celebrating the wonders of new technologies. In 1936, Dille had another Buck Rogers short film made and screened in several department store windows where Buck Rogers merchandise was sold. In 1935, under the guidance of Herman “Kay” Kamen, head of Walt Disney Enterprises, the company’s licensing and merchandising arm, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs merchandise two years before the actual film as advance promotion for the company’s first feature-length motion picture. In 1937, licensor Stephen Slesinger engineered a cross-property promotional campaign by having a licensee selling Tarzan-branded ice cream give away original Buck Rogers, Tailspin Tommy, and Ella Cinders story books in exchange for collecting and sending in a dozen ice cream lids, effectively introducing fans of one property to the others that Slesinger managed. Slesinger and his wife Shirley Slesinger-Lasswell were also responsible for introducing Winnie the Pooh products to American audiences through the creation of radio (1933) and later live action television projects (1960) intended to call attention to the character’s merchandisable personality and distinguish it from the myriad teddy bears marketed to children and their parents. In fact, the list of “innovations” and “innovators” in the management of character brands in the first half of the twentieth century is so long, at some point we must accept that this was less a series of unique experiments than a routine set of business practices commonly adhered to by a loosely organized licensing field.
Selling the Silver Bullet offers a sustained case study of the Lone Ranger as character license from 1933 to 2013 in order to trace how the fields of licensing, merchandising, and brand management have operated within shifting industrial and sociohistorical conditions that continue to redefine how the business of entertainment functions. Through the prism of the Lone Ranger, this book makes the case that in order to understand how iconic characters gain and retain their status as cultural commodities, scholars must pay greater attention to the work done by so-called peripheral consumer product and licensing divisions in (selectively) extending iconic characters’ reach and in cultivating investment in these characters among potential stakeholders. In doing so, this book productively instructs readers on the shifting value and roles of character licensing across a number of intertwining cultural industries—most notably, radio, television, film, comic books, comic strips, and toys—from the pre-network to the post-network eras, and from the studio system to industrial conglomeration.
Historicizing Character Licensing
Most historical accounts of the character-licensing field begin with the phenomenally successful 1977 Star Wars merchandising campaign. Star Wars is generally seen as having changed everything, supposedly breaking so radically with past licensing and merchandising endeavors that they are now scarcely worthy of mention. As Karen Raugust puts it, “many observers point to the licensing program surrounding the movie Star Wars, released in 1977, as the start of the licensing business as we know it today . . . people began to think of this business as a career opportunity.” While Star Wars was—and still is—an incredible merchandising success, earning nearly $13 billion in retail sales of licensed merchandise alone from 1977 to 2007, it is important not to assume that its unprecedented market accomplishments show that merchandising and licensing strategies had been undeveloped previously. The occupational purviews and tactics embraced, imagined, and fought over by licensors prior to the field’s emergence as a power player were essential to crystallizing assumptions, now taken for granted, about the value that character brands possess as cultural commodities.
There is practically no scholarly history analyzing character licensing and entertainment brand management practices prior to Star Wars. Jane Gaines, Gary Cross, Mark C. Rogers, and Ian Gordon each acknowledge the significance of licensing and merchandising to the development of the American film, toy, comic book, and newspaper comic strip syndication industries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other rare and valuable exceptions to the dearth of in-depth analysis on this topic include the following: Jason Scott’s work on the promotion and exploitation of character-oriented media franchises in the first half of the twentieth century, Chris Anderson’s work on Disneyland as commercial intertext, Mary Celeste Kearney’s analysis of how A Date with Judy and Corliss Archer were promoted across media markets in the 1940s, Michael Kackman’s work on the international expansion of the Hopalong Cassidy brand by William Boyd Enterprises in the 1950s, and Cathy Johnson’s work on BBC radio’s licensing and merchandising programs in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet none of these works traces how character licensing and brand management tactics were adapted to changing industrial configurations, nor do they attempt to theorize the residual legacy of such tactics for these fields.
Selling the Silver Bullet aims to show how many of the transmedia experiences documented and celebrated by contemporary scholars of convergent media find their generative precursors in the tactical work done by character licensors many decades earlier. These range from opportunities to drill down into a story through extra-textuals that provide dedicated fans with additive comprehension possibilities, to the development of participatory brand communities and immersive world-building experiences.
My goal, however, is not to make a facile point about contemporary brand management strategies having historical parallels. Derek Johnson is correct in his assertion that it is misleading to read the coordinated media extension of 1930s properties like Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, or Dick Tracy through the lens of contemporary discourses. Still, it would also be a mistake to think that such concepts do not find their genealogical roots in earlier moments. In contrast to prevailing assumptions that brand management practices were born of conglomeration and convergence, Johnson’s own work demonstrates how contemporary media franchise development strategies are less the outcome of conglomeration than the impetus for industry restructuring.
Hence, my intention in Selling the Silver Bullet is to situate the development of character licensing and entertainment brand management practices within their proper historical, institutional, and cultural contexts; and to unravel the economic, legal, industrial, and social mechanisms that shaped the practices character licensors employed pre-conglomeration and pre-convergence, always with an eye to how such tactics would later become commonsense strategies for extending IP. While LRI’s brand extension arsenal included variations on what today might be called transmedia storytelling, branded entertainment, additive comprehension, and commercial intertexts, such precursors to the contemporary moment developed as tactical maneuvers rooted within their particular historical and industrial contexts. Indeed, LRI’s greatest innovations often came in response to crises that threatened the entity’s autonomy, authority, and market share and were intended to leverage its position against competitors. As such, in drawing comparisons between past and present tactics, surface-level similarities must be contextualized to identify their very different generative mechanisms. Though contemporary brand management practices are informed by past iterations, these typically take the form of residual inspirations rather than a direct lineage. Tracing the Lone Ranger’s career as IP allows an analysis of the generative mechanisms that drive contemporary character licensing and entertainment brand management practices, while at the same time situating the licensing field’s development within particular sociohistorical and industrial contexts. It also allows for a nuanced assessment of the ways that character licensing firms and consumer product divisions have responded to changing cultural and economic conditions over the past eighty years, in turn altering perceptions about the creative and managerial authority these so-called ancillary units wield.
Through licensing, IP owners are able to extend a property's reach into almost every area of consumer life without having to invest in manufacturing infrastructure or distribution networks. Licensing agreements typically involve a contract signed between a minimum of two parties, in which the licensor gives the licensee(s) permission to use the name and/or image of their intellectual property for a specified purpose, for a limited amount of time, and within agreed-upon geographic and product market boundaries. Typically there is an upfront fee, a guaranteed minimum payment, and a royalty percentage of either the net or gross profits, and the licensor does not relinquish ownership over the intellectual property. For a price, licensees reap the benefits of associating their wares with a recognizable icon that comes with a built-in fan base, which in turn helps their product stand out within a competitive marketplace.
While anything that is proprietarily owned can be licensed, ranging from artwork and music to fashion labels and trademarks (e.g., the Coca Cola insignia, which generated $850 million in branded merchandise retail sales in 2010), entertainment and character brand licensing is particularly profitable. In 2011, character and entertainment brand licensing, at $48 billion, accounted for 43.86 percent of all retail sales of licensed merchandise while earning property owners $2.48 billion in royalty revenue. Overall, in 2011 the strongest product categories for character and entertainment licenses were toys/games (25.5% of royalty revenue, or $632.4 million), software/video games (13.5% or $334.8 million), apparel (10% or $248 million), food/beverage (8% or $198.4 million), and gifts/novelties (7% or $173.6 million). Other licensing categories include accessories, footwear, home décor, health/beauty, housewares, music/video, infant products, promotions, publishing, sports goods, paper/school supplies, and other. A company like Disney is capable of extending its character and corporate brands into almost every one of these markets, ranging from toys, games, and apparel to “non-character products with subtle inspiration drawn from either motion pictures or Walt Disney’s lifestyle aura,” including high-end fashion and jewelry lines and home furnishings.
When media scholars talk about licensing, the usual refrain is less than flattering. It is viewed as lucrative but essentially noncreative, leeching off the popularity of established and successful characters and texts—and largely concerned with contract oversight. Jane Gaines refers to licensing as a “parasitic industry,” a description intended to call attention to how it profits off of the creative labor performed by others. Offering a more literal but no less negative description of the field, Norma Pecora suggests that while the claim that licensing is paramount to stealing is simplistic, it is “nonetheless the ‘philosophical’ foundation to licensing.” Though it is not my aim in this project to recuperate licensing as a benevolent and heroic profession, it is clear that efforts to paint licensors as villains and opportunists greatly oversimplify the work they do in popularizing IP with licensees. In suggesting that only the pursuit of profit governs how the field operates, scholars risk overlooking the myriad ways that cultural systems shape economic activities, imbuing both products and processes with social value well beyond (but also intrinsic to) their monetary value.
Licensing has historically served as a key site for transforming intellectual properties into cultural commodities. As an article in the New Yorker detailing the phenomenal popularity of Winnie the Pooh succinctly exclaims, “if the image and the name of Winnie-the-Pooh today are unforgettable, the blame rests not so much with [the character’s creator] Mr. Milne as with [the property’s licensor] Mr. Slesinger.” Indeed, Slesinger was the one who dressed up Pooh in his iconic red shirt in an effort to distinguish the character from other teddy bears on the market, a tactical marketing decision with decidedly creative and cultural impact.
As intellectual properties eclipse the products bearing their names and become the primary purveyors of both meaning and value, there needs to be an accompanying shift in focus among scholars toward investigating licensing sites as contested spaces for delineating and negotiating creative authority. Corporate authorship is not merely a dogmatic assertion of control over IP via contractual and legal instruments (though these are certainly effective tools), but also a valuable form of brand stewardship. Even as corporations displace human authors and artists as the primary legal owners and economic beneficiaries of branded characters and stories that circulate under their imprimatur, they stake their authority on their managerial acumen. They do so by seeking to redefine categories of authorship in the legal sphere, but also by presenting themselves to consumers and creative laborers as the ultimate trustees of a character brand’s essence.
Brand management is never simply or only about successful profit maximization strategies (though, to be certain, making money is always the desired outcome), but also about historically and socially contingent beliefs about what “values” are economically valuable. In his critique of Horkheimer and Adorno’s economic determinism in studying the “culture industry,” Bernard Miège argues that scholars need to pay greater attention to the cultural dimensions of the production process as shaping the often incoherent ideologies of media products. Miège suggests that cultural and social dynamics not only outweigh economic factors in creating cultural commodities, but these contentious and varied cultural and social interactions often also shape economic rationales. Meanwhile, Paul Du Gay asserts, “The production of culture cannot be reduced to a question of ‘economics’ alone. Processes of production are themselves cultural phenomena in that they are assemblages of meaningful practices that construct certain ways for people to conceive and conduct themselves in an organizational context.” Licensing agents play key cultural roles in helping licensees understand both the value of character and entertainment properties among consumers as well as how to translate that value for different market conditions.
Most of the cultural managerial work that licensors “do” hides in plain sight, distilled through various overt and mundane practices. It is only by treating what seem like run-of-the-mill economic and promotional practices common to the licensing profession—drawing up contracts, assembling merchandising guides, taking out ads in industry press organs, etc.—as tactical and cultural resources that we can begin to recognize how these sites of inter- and intra-industry exchange shape expressive culture and define the occupational identities that licensors embrace.
For example, by the early 1950s, LRI had developed a fairly standardized licensing agreement template that could be adapted for any number of Lone Ranger products and productions—ranging from branded flashlights to public appearances and from comic books to television—merely by filling in different licensee names, dates, dollars, and percentages and referencing the appropriate sub-clauses pertaining to the particular item being commissioned. Also included in every contract was “Schedule B: Descriptions,” which contained detailed information on the Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the rest of the supporting characters’ appearances and habits, which licensees were expected to adhere to in their representational strategies. The Lone Ranger’s height, weight, age, and facial structure, the look in his eyes, the shape of his nose, the color and cut of his hair, the sound of his voice, the way he walked, and the types of clothing he wore were all spelled out. Of course, some of the details about the Lone Ranger’s appearance had changed from earlier contracts. In the late 1930s the Masked Man was described as 5’11” and 170 pounds, rugged yet also clean-shaven. By 1951, the Lone Ranger was expected to be between 6’ and 6’2” and 190–210 pounds with “no fat; broad shoulders and lean hips.” Though still described as clean-shaven, this version of the Lone Ranger was no longer rugged, but “well-groomed, does not wear chaps. Wears high-heeled cowboy boots with trousers tucked into the tops.”
These small representational changes not only demonstrate how brand formulas are often adjusted in response to changing sociohistorical and production contexts; they also complicate the perception that licensing agreements are merely transactional and legal documents. To be certain, LRI’s numerous contracts with its licensees were filled with their fair share of sometimes indecipherable and often dry jargon about payment methods and copyrights, but far from being only economic agreements, they are also clearly sites of cultural and creative deliberation. Schedule B not only structured licensee creative practices; the changing descriptions of the Masked Man and his colleagues also reveal how licensors sought to simultaneously regulate and adapt properties in accordance with shifting cultural ideals. As such, these documents are also often sites of struggle and debate between licensors and licensees over creative authority and third-party authorial rights to both property and profit.
Above all else, licensors are in the business of cultivating investment among stakeholders in a property’s attributes and value. Much as in agricultural work, cultivating investment not only involves planting seeds with potential licensees and convincing them that a property can be made to work within differentiated markets, but also teaching licensees how to properly extract value from the property. While the value of planting apple trees is obvious (you get apples), variations in climate, soil type, or the intended use of the fruit (for juice, applesauce, or as produce, etc.) require different cultivation techniques. Planting the trees in the wrong soil or too close together, irrigating improperly, or picking the apples too early, all risk spoiling the fruit. The same holds true for how licensors go about their jobs of establishing value for their properties. Licensors often work to teach licensees, whether via the stick or the carrot, the contract or consult, how to properly (and improperly) take advantage of brand attributes.
According to a December 1966 article published in True Magazine, character licensors play many different roles in extending intellectual property across markets: “The licensing agent acts as legal advisor, salesman, merchandising expert, package designer, promoter, advertising consultant, brusher-offer, whooper-upper and Dutch Uncle.” Though offered up somewhat comically, this list of licensor activities suggests a fairly complex relationship with licensees, who are seen as needing occasional “brushing off” and substantial oversight. This perspective hints at the ways licensing can, at times, be a contested terrain, wherein contracts are not only violated, but their interpretation is the subject of heated debate. Under such conditions, licensors’ authority is repeatedly challenged and they must readjust their tactics in response to licensee feedback.
Licensors stake their creative authority not only on their ability to mediate between IP and licensees but also on their skill in translating, and hence monetizing, a character brand’s appeal with consumers. Licensors present themselves as being uniquely positioned to help licensees understand what makes a particular character brand popular with consumers. Put another way, licensors’ creative authority is a function of their status as cultural intermediaries, acting as both brand interpreters and advocates for (imagined) consumers, translating the brand’s (still inherent) social and cultural value for licensees.
Often this means imposing “commonsense” cultural assumptions onto economic processes. For example, in an interview, Jay Emmett, former president of the Licensing Corporation of America, who in the 1960s was responsible for negotiating merchandising rights for James Bond, Batman, and Superman, dismissed my suggestion to license Superman’s name and image for a line of prophylactics (tagline: “for the man of steel”) as my somehow misunderstanding the property’s “true” consumer appeal with children and parents. Though Emmett acknowledged that there was likely a market for such a product, he saw associating Superman with sexuality as ultimately harmful to the brand’s overall value, both economic and social. In rejecting my offer, Emmett revealed how the Superman brand’s economic value was directly correlated with its perceived social value as superimposed onto an imagined consumer group. And yet his attempt to correct my misunderstanding of why Superman was popular never deviated from the premise that the qualities and attributes that Superman possessed were inherent, rather than selectively imposed by either him or the property’s corporate owner. Instead, Emmett continued to maintain that he was just there to ensure that the Man of Steel’s meanings were being properly translated across markets: Superman sold himself.
Within licensor trade rituals, or the mechanisms through which licensors construct certain truths about their properties as well as their own occupational identities, the brand is often described as possessing qualities that inspire acts of creative expression and consumption. According to this division of labor, the licensor merely appears to chaperone the brand on its journey, performing a series of secondary tasks designed to facilitate a pleasant and profitable experience. Yet it is through these “accompaniments” that the licensor emerges as brand advocate, guardian, and steward, authorized to teach licensees how to decipher a property’s attributes and entrusted with both safeguarding and rearranging brand formulas to best take advantage of their market appeal. Where Bourdieu saw the “charismatic ideology . . . of creation” as the chief stumbling block in conducting rigorous research into the production of cultural goods, when it comes to understanding how IP accrues value, the difficulty actually lies in the constant erasure of its authorial markers. Licensor authority resides in its ability to provide licensees with the right interpretive framework for gaining inspiration from licensed source material.
Presented as “common sense,” such responses demonstrate what Timothy Havens identifies as the impact of “industry lore” on cultural production and distribution. According to Havens, industry lore refers to “the conventional knowledge among industry insiders about what kinds of media culture are and are not possible, and what audiences that culture will and will not attract.” Industry lore encompasses the educative stories that media industry professionals tell one another about what makes for a successful product. Appearing in trade press interviews and self-serving biographies, circulating at industry parties, trade shows, and closed-door meetings, and even finding their way into merchandising guides and licensing agreements, these shared cautionary and celebratory stories about consumer tastes and desires often guide licensor assessments of appropriate expansion outlets, providing interpretive frameworks for making sense of market conditions. Licensors see themselves as protecting both brand and consumer from those would-be-licensees who cannot appreciate the property’s popular attributes. As Nicole Garrison-Sprenger notes regarding licensing Superman merchandise, “a clothing manufacturer that puts the [Superman] logo on a cheap pair of pants that rips or frays after a few wears is negating the ‘strength’ aspect [of the character], essentially throwing Kryptonite at the Superman brand.”
Whether through legal battles against trademark infringers or through the array of merchandising and writer’s guides it produced, LRI repeatedly linked its corporate authority to a deep-seated understanding of the Lone Ranger and its skill in guiding licensees to extract the Masked Man’s merchandisable attributes. Through their managerial acumen, corporate entities like LRI positioned themselves as cultural intermediaries capable of translating brand attributes for differentiated industrial and cultural contexts and channeling consumer needs and desires into appropriate production outlets.
While this is certainly a book about the Lone Ranger as IP, LRI is the true star of this particular project. It was first formed in 1935 as an independent licensing operation and still exists today, albeit as a subdivision within a subdivision of DreamWorks Entertainment’s DreamWorks Classics. In between, the company has also been owned and operated by the Jack Wrather Corporation (1954–1985), the Southbrook International Television Company (1985–1994), Broadway Video (1994–2000), and Classic Media, Incorporated (2000–2012). LRI’s longevity and multiple permutations allow for a sustained and nuanced analysis of how the character-licensing field has changed over the past eighty years, from semi-autonomous and existing at the interstices of different media and manufacturing industries, to integrated within media conglomerates (while being subordinate to other divisions within those conglomerates). Indeed, one of the primary reasons that I selected LRI and the Lone Ranger as case studies is that they offer a unique opportunity to trace how character licensing, brand management, and consumer product extension practices have been rationalized and operationalized within the entertainment industries at different historical junctures.
I have also chosen to focus on LRI precisely because it is not Disney or Warner Bros.—companies whose continued successes often obscure the complex managerial labor that goes into cultivating investment in character brands not named Mickey Mouse or Superman—although in the early 1940s, the Lone Ranger’s popularity easily rivaled the Man of Steel’s or the Mouse House’s trademarked mascot. Whereas most scholarship on contemporary convergence culture and branding tends to celebrate successful franchises and thus oversimplifies innovation as a causal argument, the Lone Ranger’s struggles over the past half century make possible an analysis of brand management tactics in adverse conditions. The divergent paths taken by LRI, DC Comics (acquired by Warner Communications, Inc., in 1971), and Disney reveal a great deal about how the consolidation of industrial practices around character brands in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond have made it increasingly difficult for independent IP owners to operate from positions of strength. The Lone Ranger’s rise to prominence as a national cultural icon starting in the late 1930s through the early 1960s, as well as its protracted devaluation over the past five decades, owes much to the ways the property has been managed by LRI’s various owners as well as to their respective positions within the entertainment industries at different historical moments, including their diminishing direct control over production and distribution outlets for promoting the property. The Lone Ranger’s topsy-turvy career reveals how the licensing field has both shaped and been shaped by the growing centrality of IP to entertainment industry expansion. It situates the field of character licensing within broader shifts in the entertainment business, from corporate capitalism to conglomeration to contemporary brand networks and the knowledge economy.
Perhaps most importantly, LRI is a corporate entity that at different junctures has been both typical and exceptional in how it went about its business. Over time, LRI’s position within the entertainment industry landscape has shifted from emergent to dominant to residual, in turn generating very different position-taking strategies on the parts of its various owners. LRI’s shifting status and reputation have informed its brand management practices.
In the late 1930s, LRI bucked the trend toward centralized, national media sponsorship, instead embracing localization and resource recycling as an alternate means of developing the Lone Ranger into an American icon and merchandising phenomenon. LRI used Lone Ranger giveaways, premiums, and other extra-textual materials to cultivate investment in and prepare licensees and consumers for future encounters with the Lone Ranger brand. The Lone Ranger Safety Club was designed to promote an expansive Lone Ranger lifestyle brand that not only linked together the Masked Man’s myriad licenses, but also struck a balance between the civic values the Lone Ranger advocated and the property’s commercial value. Most importantly, Lone Ranger Safety Clubs taught licensees and Lone Ranger fans how to create local franchise outposts that were linked together as part of a broader Lone Ranger brand community (see Chapter 3).
In the 1940s, LRI established its managerial acumen and cultural/creative authority through a range of practices, from drafting contracts and writer’s guides to merchandising packets and trade advertising, all of which repeatedly positioned the company as best able to speak on behalf of the Lone Ranger and translate the character’s appeal with consumers for licensees. LRI also established its corporate authority through a series of legal battles linking its marketing efforts and management strategies with its ownership rights (see Chapter 4).
By the 1950s, LRI held a dominant position in the field and deployed a much more conservative managerial style, aimed at controlling how the Lone Ranger was portrayed across platforms and eliminating any potential negative associations. The company exemplified the ways that cultural containment within the United States would produce a set of managerial strategies and styles which would both stabilize character brands and attempt to fortify the positions of their corporate owners in the face of social and industrial reconfigurations. LRI’s yearlong 1948 Frontier Town marketing campaign demonstrates how the company responded to cultural containment anxieties by offering parents and children a safe haven within the Lone Ranger brand (see Chapter 5).
In 1954, the Jack Wrather Corporation (JWC) acquired LRI as well as all rights to the Lone Ranger IP for a then-record $3 million (that’s $24.4 million in 2010 dollars, according to the Consumer Price Index converter). Billing the Lone Ranger as a defender of the American heritage, JWC emerged from the postwar period managing a valuable but aging heritage brand. In the 1970s, the Lone Ranger encountered an identity crisis as the attributes that had made the property so valuable for three decades began to lose their luster. The Lone Ranger’s failed comeback efforts during this period were, however, less the result of brand stagnation than of overdetermined attempts to rejuvenate the masked hero that misunderstood the continued consumer power of an older generation of brand loyalists. Though the Lone Ranger would see its least successful iterations during this period, culminating in the disastrous Legend of the Lone Ranger (1982) blockbuster, the period was actually characterized by tremendous innovation spurred by the need to reboot the property. As other properties—now overseen by powerful conglomerates—eclipsed the Lone Ranger’s merchandising prowess, efforts to revitalize the property would produce some ideas that were truly ahead of their time, but also a fair amount of misguided replication of competitor strategies. JWC’s struggles to translate the property for changing industrial conditions and consumer tastes in the 1970s and 1980s ultimately resulted in not only the Lone Ranger’s diminished reputation as a licensable commodity, but also in JWC’s diminished reputation as brand steward (see Chapter 6).
By the new millennium, the Lone Ranger had joined the ranks of hundreds of underperforming heritage brands still perceived by stakeholders as possessing value, but lacking a clear path toward being effectively monetized. As the property’s status has diminished, so too has the creative and managerial authority previously held by its corporate overseers. Indeed, Classic Media Incorporated (CMI) would grant licensees significant leeway in updating the property. This was certainly the case with the 2013 Lone Ranger feature film—produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, distributed by Disney, and starring Johnny Depp as Tonto—where CMI ceded both script approval and merchandising rights to its more powerful clients. As such, the current configuration of the industry has shaped how the property might be marketed and managed. Yet many of the tactics employed by LRI in popularizing and extending the property from the 1930 through the 1970s have now achieved “commonsense” status within the character-licensing field. Current modes of IP extension continue to be selectively informed by residual practices. In spite of the Lone Ranger’s diminished—but by no means vanquished—status, there can be no denying the role LRI played in setting into motion many brand extension practices commonly associated with convergence and conglomeration (see Chapter 7).
In many ways, the Lone Ranger’s future success now seems to rest on the shoulders of the star talent attached to the property rather than the Masked Man serving as the star attraction, although as the final chapter of this book argues, in the end, character brands retain their symbolic capital even when talent fails to monetize them. Accordingly, despite the 2013 film’s box office failings, no one in Hollywood argued that the Lone Ranger brought down Bruckheimer and Depp. Rather, it was they who failed to draw the right kind of inspiration from the property, or so industry trade talk has rationalized the matter. In analyzing the fallout from The Lone Ranger’s box office failure, I focus on how reviewers selectively framed the film’s shortcomings as simultaneously rooted in efforts to diverge from the property’s formula as well as the supposed incommensurability of said formula with contemporary audience sensibilities. I also analyze the lessons learned by Hollywood from the film’s failure, which might have far-reaching implications for future tent-pole films, which currently serve as the centerpiece of multimedia and merchandise-driven franchises. Of paramount importance is the lesson never learned: that the Lone Ranger possesses insufficient symbolic capital in today’s consumer market. While the entertainment industry seeks out new ways to monetize heritage brands, the assumption remains that the value of these intellectual properties is intact, just untapped (see Chapter 8).
A Note on Materials and Method
A significant challenge in a project tracing character licensing pre-conglomeration and convergence is the lack of public records that identify a particular IP owner or property’s comparable market share. The licensing industry did not start tracking such numbers until the mid-to-late 1980s, when the field finally began to organize as a professional community under the auspices of the International Licensing and Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA), formed in 1985. Prior to that point, licensing divisions and IP owners saw one another as competitors and were reticent to share data (though they were certainly not above co-opting successful campaign strategies). And while individual IP management firms like LRI accumulated all sorts of statistics about the power and popularity of their properties, these numbers were rarely placed within a broader industrial or consumer context. Because the primary purpose of these statistics was to promote the Lone Ranger to potential licensees, LRI often came across as self-aggrandizing and oblivious to the existence of other licensed IP except for wanting to show how the Lone Ranger bested them. As such, any claims made about LRI’s position within an “industry” that did not truly exist, or the Lone Ranger’s market share within that industry, are hard to substantiate through earning statements or consumer sales records.
Instead, the Lone Ranger’s success and failure as IP needs to be measured by a different yardstick, one that looks to the character’s presence across a wide array of media forms and merchandising categories, not to mention within a broader cultural and symbolic landscape of Americana. For example, to celebrate the Lone Ranger’s twentieth birthday in 1953, Michigan senator Homer Ferguson honored the hero by entering into the congressional record heartfelt thanks for all the public service work the brand had performed on behalf of children. The Lone Ranger’s ubiquity by 1953 caused one author to comment, “The impression that had been accumulated by the twentieth anniversary of the Lone Ranger’s creation might reasonably have been that the ‘masked man of justice’ had become, as his creators put it, ‘an American institution.’” This is admittedly a nonscientific gauge that relies more on perception than facts, but in many ways it also captures the essence of how character licensing operates: by cultivating investment among licensees in the symbolic power of particular properties as evidence of their potential sales power with consumers.
Selling the Silver Bullet draws on a number of archival sources. Chief among them are the George W. Trendle and Raymond Meurer papers housed at the Detroit Public Library as well as the Jack Wrather and Anita Granville Wrather papers housed at Loyola Marymount University. Other collections consulted include the Harold Gray papers and Hank Ketchum papers housed at Boston University (Gray and Ketchum were the creators of Little Orphan Annie and Dennis the Menace), the William Dozier papers at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming (Dozier held the TV rights to the 1960s Batman and Green Hornet), and the NBC papers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I analyzed trade correspondence, internal memos, and contracts and merchandising guides assembled to license various character-based and entertainment brands. Additionally, a wide range of popular and industry press sources were consulted, including the licensing industry’s internal organ, License Global! I reviewed articles about licensing as well as advertisements featuring licensed properties aimed at both consumers and future licensees.
While I extracted information from all of these sources about the business of character licensing at various historical moments, it is their contribution to a cultural analysis of the licensing field that is of greater interest. As such, I read these documents for what they reveal about ever-shifting norms and values guiding economic practices, as well as tensions and anxieties about maintaining authority over a property’s core values and markets amid changing economic, industrial, legal, technological, and cultural conditions.
I treat the inter- and intra-industry exchanges between licensors and potential licensees—produced through marketing materials, memos, and other correspondence—as sites of discursive struggle over production meanings and occupational identity formation. These interactions shaped sociohistorical and industrial understandings of cultural commodities and their translation across markets. Exchanges between licensors and licensees also serve as sites where the creative authority vested in licensors is affirmed, contested, or negotiated. They are “tactical responses” (i.e., reactive and contingent) to shifting “socio-historical and industrial conditions.”
In applying some of the sociological tenets advocated by production studies scholars to historical analyses of particular media work cultures, Selling the Silver Bullet seeks to answer the call for more historical work investigating the roles of older cultural intermediaries in shaping cultural production and circulation. The obvious challenges of such an approach for this project are that interviews cannot be conducted with long-dead licensors and licensees. Neither can participant observation of how they went about the work of licensing the Lone Ranger. Perceptions of occupational purviews and imaginings of consumer desires and IP value had to be gleaned from other sources. Nevertheless, the underlying goals of production studies are valuable in assessing how particular occupational communities came to define and refine their roles within ever-changing institutional and societal structures. Job categories like “licensor,” “licensee,” or “brand manager” do not simply get created, but rather, their occupational purviews and functions are negotiated in relation to the material conditions of their practice. Similarly, Paul Du Gay and Michael Pryke assert “techniques of ‘economic management’ do not come ready-made. They have to be invented, stabilized, refined and reproduced.” LRI’s creative and cultural authority as licensor and steward of the Lone Ranger brand has had to be repeatedly reproduced through the tactical discursive exchange of what Caldwell labels “trade stories” designed to establish its “career capital.”
Writing history in such a manner generates a far less stable explanatory framework of successes and failures, as accounts of overarching strategies are displaced by a focus on contingent and fluctuating tactics, in turn revealing how the positions and dispositions held by licensors are always in a state of “becoming” through their labor rather than preceding it. As such, while LRI’s managerial labor is the key to understanding how the Lone Ranger became such an iconic cultural commodity, the licensor’s actions were often less prescient or ingenious than anxious and reactionary, with tactical innovations and managerial purviews formulated both in response to market instabilities and the need to rationalize shifting societal tastes and values.
The remainder of the book follows a loose chronological order that begins in the early 1930s with the creation of The Lone Ranger radio series and ends in the first decades of the twenty-first century with efforts to revive the property. Each chapter is also organized thematically to elucidate a particular set of practices, beliefs, concerns, or struggles central to understanding the importance of character licensing to cross-media interactions and how the field has changed over an eighty-year period. Thus, each chapter looks backward as well as forward in tracing how and why character-licensing strategies change. While all chapters use the Lone Ranger as an anchor, the property and its management exist in a mutually constitutive relationship with other IP extension efforts. Hence, each chapter also situates the licensing of the Lone Ranger in relation to other dominant iconic brands during the same time period.
By the time readers get to the book’s final chapters, they will have little doubt about how powerful consumer product extensions and character licensing are to current industrial practices, nor how important the work done by companies like LRI has been in forging these practices. Along the way, readers will gain important insights into how these seemingly ancillary and peripheral operations accrued and leveraged their managerial acumen at distinct sociohistorical moments and under shifting industrial configurations. By repositioning licensing, merchandising, and character brand management as constitutive of myriad creative and economic practices from the pre- to the post-network eras, Selling the Silver Bullet tracks the tactical ways corporate authorship over intellectual property has been deployed and negotiated over the past eighty years. Now, let us return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear.”
“I’m fascinated by this compelling book about the Lone Ranger as a uniquely American heritage brand and its management—or mismanagement—over four generations. With profound insight, Avi Santo explores the role that my father, Clayton Moore, played in preserving the legacy of the Lone Ranger. Even die-hard fans like me will find many new insider revelations about our hero.”