Beijing Games’ panda mascot has been a great success in China. Fans have waited hours to purchase plush dolls of the cartoon Bing Dwen Dwen.
Last week, the character made an appearance on Chinese TV. He spoke with a grown-man’s voice and shocked viewers.
One commenter on Chinese social media said that “I don’t think it’s cute anymore.” It’s an old man.
Although the incident did not affect the popularity of the character, it was a small setback. By week’s end, Bing Dwen Dwen, one of the most popular Olympics mascots, was still in existence and drawing large lines for sales. It was the latest comedy mishap in , the pantheon for Olympic characters.
It is a rich tradition to consider a character to be a representative of, or distillation of, a product or an event. Asia is a hub of creativity: Many packaged goods are filled with colorful, cartoonish spokesanimals and spokesfoods.
Mascot characters in Olympics context are expected to represent the culture of the host city and generate interest in the event via the merchandising and sale of toys and memorabilia. They are not always a hit. They can sometimes be downright polarizing.
Fatso, the Wombat, was an unathletic character who became a reproach to the positive images of the official mascots at the Sydney Games 2000. A newspaper compared the one-eyed mascots at the London Games to “Cyclopean nightmares” in 2010.
The Atlanta Games 1996 saw the introduction of a blue cross-eyed mascot that was supposed to symbolize “information technology” and the city’s ambitions to be a technological hub. At the Barcelona Games’ end, a gigantic costumed character ran onto the stage and awkwardly joined a dance routine.
Sarah Dylla, curator of an exhibit on the Games at Atlanta History Center, said, “He’s wearing these light blue tights and the blob-shaped body sits high so there’s a lot leg.”
Dylla stated that the name of the character, “WhatIzIt”, caused confusion among the audience because it sounded like a question but no one knew the answer.
“It’s embarrassment it is what it is,” stated a review of Catherine Fox, an Atlanta-based art critic.
Izzy was later renamed after the character was tweaked. Dylla stated that Izzy was a popular character among children despite the mockery from the media. She also suggested that his absurdity might have helped to create other cartoon characters such as Wenlock, a divisive mascot, at the London Games 2012.
Olympic organizers claimed that Wenlock was to have been made from steel used in London’s Olympic Stadium. The giant eye on Wenlock’s face was the lens of a camera filming everything that he sees.
However, choosing more traditional characters is not guaranteed success.
The Sydney Games 2000 organizers selected three cartoon animals to represent Australia. However, the mascots were outshone by Fatso the Wombat, a large-bottomed character who rose to fame on an Australian comedy program.
Fatso became so popular that athletes carried his to the podium during medal ceremonies. Officials from the Olympic Committee were also asked at a press conference if he was “stealing” the show and if they were considering banning him.
“I don’t know about banning Fatso,” a Olympic official replied.
Mascots are an important way for host cities and countries to add their stamp to the Games and increase its appeal, despite the embarrassment that they can cause Olympic organizers.
Even though the mascots usually vanish shortly after the Olympics, their temporary existence can fuel souvenir buying frenzy, especially among attendees who want to keep a memory of the experience, according to Keith Niedermeier, an Indiana University marketing professor.
He said, “They’re wildly collectible.”
This has been the case with Bing Dwen Dwen. At medal ceremonies, athletes receive a doll of the bear to hold onto the podium. This has given Bing Dwen Dwen a huge publicity boost. The Games were not easy for the panda superstar.
The mascot was seen moving around during a segment on Chinese state TV. He was interviewing a Chinese free-skier. It was clear that the voice coming from the bear was that of an adult male, which created a strange effect. Later, a reporter was seen emerging from the costume. However, the backlash on Chinese social networks was swift.
“It was a middle aged man in Bing Dwen Dwen. One user said, “I’m horrified.”
The hashtag “#BingDwenDwenHasSpoken” began trending, prompting Chinese officials to ban it, as they often do with grassroots expressions with any whiff of controversial sentiment. Beijing Olympic organizers stated on their social media accounts that the TV character was fake and that they had sent an email clarifying that the “real” Bing Dwen Dwen doesn’t speak.
The popularity of the panda doesn’t seem to have been affected by the episode. The wait for Bing Dwen Dwen toys at the main media center to be sold was still quite long on Saturday.