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Meet the ‘Bronies’: adult fans giving My Little Pony a marketing headache

My Little Pony fan, Michael Anderson, a Brony, at the Dragon Con science fiction and fantasy convention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, in 2014. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

Meet the ‘Bronies’: adult fans giving My Little Pony a marketing headache

When My Little Pony: The Movie lands in cinemas this October, producers Hasbro will be hoping that the animation proves popular with its target audience of young girls. The film will also attract a very different group of viewers: adult My Little Pony fans known as “Bronies”. Made up predominantly of young men aged 18-30, the fandom has evoked reactions ranging from bemusement to celebration since it emerged at the beginning of this decade.

Hasbro launched a new My Little Pony series, subtitled Friendship is Magic, in 2010. The new show adopted a distinctive and appealing art style while focusing on creating strong female characters and consistent character arcs.

The adult fandom initially developed via the notorious internet forum 4-Chan. Although users planned to mock the show, a number became regular viewers and began discussing it in dedicated forums. The term “Bronies” – a combination of “bros” and “ponies” – developed soon after. Although this initially applied to male fans, it is now generally used to describe fans of all genders.

Bronies engage in typical fan activities. This includes writing fan fiction and creating artwork. Fans write songs and create pony inspired music, from orchestral, to dubsteb and metal. Physical meet-ups and large conventions (often involving cosplay) offer opportunities to engage with other fans in offline settings.

The fandom has generated both positive and negative reactions. It has attracted praise for progressive views of gender, encouraging charitable activity and promoting creativity. At the same time, some argue that academic and media interest in male fans risks ignoring the many female “Pony” fans who are not seen as worthy of comment.

The most common criticism of the fandom has focused on its supposedly “regressive” nature – the worry that adults watching cartoons designed for young children represents an inability to deal with real life. As Anne Gilbert argued, popular press coverage “reveals a pervasive discomfort” with adult men celebrating a cartoon for young girls.

This repeats a longstanding criticism of fandom. Representatives of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, attacked 1930s jazz fandom as inherently regressive, while the Tolkien Clubs that formed in 1960s America were branded “infantile” on their foundation. Critics argued that fans were living in fantasy worlds in order to avoid adult responsibilities.

But, as studies of fandom have multiplied over the past 30 years, they have suggested that involvement in fan communities offers outlets for creativity, socialising and spaces for political debate.

Neither is adult consumption of children’s media new or particularly novel, as the continued popularity of Disney animation among adults suggests. As far back as 1908, Walford Graham Robertson’s children’s play Pinkie and the Fairies attracted such large numbers of soldiers that its audience was said to resemble a military parade ground.

What is more novel in My Little Pony fandom is its scale and visibility, facilitated by the internet and rise of social media. For Hasbro, this presents both opportunities and challenges.

Marketing dilemmas

Bronies might sound like a marketing dream for Hasbro’s movie. Adult fans offer a built-in audience, social media presence and disposable income to spend on merchandise. Although initially wary of Bronies, Hasbro have increasingly courted the adult fanbase. The toy range now includes a line of more expensive products designed for collection and display, alongside merchandise including coffee-table art books explicitly aimed at adult fans.

Marketing for the movie has therefore tried to capitalise on fan enthusiasm. The initial trailer launched alongside a GIF maker designed to generate memes and facilitate promotion on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. Exclusive designer posters were distributed to fans at San Diego Comic Con, while the movie’s Twitter account produced stylised artwork designed to appeal to adults.

At the same time, a committed fandom brings challenges. Fans criticised producers over elements of the movie’s promotion, complaining when early trailers emphasised guest stars (such as Emily Blunt and Sia) instead of allowing the TV show’s voice actors to reprise their central roles. Issues such as where the movie fits into My Little Pony continuity – which are unlikely to worry the film’s young audience – suddenly also become important considerations.

Above all, producers have to balance their knowledge of adult fandom with the requirement that the film appeals primarily to children. Ironically, some fans have expressed concerns that producers pandered to them over recent years, citing the show’s original innocence and un-selfconscious charm as responsible for its initial appeal. As Ewan Kirkland has argued, there is a risk that in the pursuit of adult fans, My Little Pony’s young female audience is getting lost in the process.

Press coverage focused on the supposed “weirdness” of Bronies misses the point that historically and culturally they aren’t doing anything overly unusual. The fandom nonetheless raises questions about fan/producer interactions. How visible do Hasbro want their involvement with a sometimes ridiculed fandom to be? Are producers celebrating fans or exploiting their enthusiasm for marketing purposes? And where does the child audience fit in all of this? The movie, and reaction to it, should offer some fascinating answers to these questions.