A Brand Name Waiting to Happen

Pajama Sam 2
Humongous Entertainment, 1998

Like it or not, we're a nation of consumers. There is a certain small virtue in knowing how to find something you actually want at a price that is reasonable, not inflated. Part of that ability involves reliance on brand names.

The only problem with brand names and kids is that the relationship is more pumped up than ever. Marketers talk more and more openly about "branding," which is both the process of establishing a trustworthy label/shopper relationship and the uncomfortable-to-imagine metaphor of being singed by a logo, as steer on the prairie. The way cross-promotion and ancillary merchandising has been going, "branding" can cover clothing, food, shelter, and more-if we're willing to participate.

Parents in a shopping haze, hoping to satisfy a kid's needs, both buy into and promote this knowledge of the brand name. Lacking either the time or energy to find a nonbranded alternative to an Elmo backpack or Mulan night-light, parents often guiltily buy a branded product. This is unfortunate, because even in the overloaded world of media products, just sometimes "brands" are worth being loyal to.

I'm referring to media products that feature a popular character that just might be worth using despite the familiarity and even the hype. For example, a new CD-ROM, Arthur's Computer Adventure, boasts not just one but two brand associations. It stars the sweet and sometimes hapless aardvark first made famous by Marc Brown in some nice little books, who is now even more famous thanks to a popular TV series. In addition, Arthur's Computer Adventure is a "Living Book" from Broderbund Software-and this company has had a longer shelf life than most in what is still a short-lived industry.

"Living Books" give back the experience of a complete book, with bonus treats and diversions. The Arthur disk allows the user to be read to (passively), read at his or her own speed (more active), or fool around with not just the individual pictures but some simple games and activities (interactive). All of these, like their counterparts in other "Living Books" disks, are innocuous and entertaining enough that it seems just too grouchy to point out that maybe the world has seen a little too much of one sweet aardvark and his family. (In addition, the "computer adventure" involves Arthur's fears that some unpermitted use of his mom's computer has wrecked it.)

Similar generosity could be extended to both the two new Carmen Sandiego computer games and the latest Pajama Sam 2: Thunder and Lightning Aren't so Frightening CD-ROM.

The former products spin off from a pioneering computer game that became a TV show, while the other builds on the popularity of a single previous game, produced by a savvy company (Humungous Entertainment) that has recently signed cross-media deals to feature its game-based characters in TV shows.

You've probably already heard plenty about Carmen Sandiego; trust that the new

Where in the World and Where in the U.S.A. versions of her sneaky adventures are not mere reissues of old software, but colorful, enriched refurbishings that meet state-of-the-art computer standards. For example, in addition to the menu screen showing messages from "The Chief" at ACME Central, and the maps that orient a player, there are panoramic photos of an actual place, populated by cartoon characters who will interact with the player. This is simply a fine embellishment on what has long been a good idea.

You may not have heard too much about Humungous Software, depending on your child's age or familiarity with computer games. But trust, again, that this is a company offering well-made products with refreshing content. The cartoony "sets" of the places in Weather Central where Pajama Sam must go (to readjust the excess of thunder and lightning) are drawn with great perspective, implying a wonderful comic playland. The characters Sam meets are also reliably quirky, and the problem-solving skill required to take their hints and win the game are appropriately geared to a young thinker. The play can be adjusted for complexity and continuing interest.

Finally, a brand name we all recognize but don't necessarily know: Mickey Mouse. He has so long been a T-shirt decoration that it's hard to remember he was once the nation's darling. To reacquaint viewers of all ages with the Mickey that was (far more interesting than the corporate spokesmouse he is today), Walt Disney Home Video has issued The Spirit of Mickey. It's a compendium of older classics, especially such landmark cartoons as "The Band Concert" (Mickey conducts, in a storm) and "Steamboat Willie" (Mickey's debut). These are rowdy cartoons, full of slapstick humor that is there for its own right and without trendy irony. However much he's been exploited since, this is the Mouse at his best and most genuine, a brand name in the making.

Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.

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