Just this week, the crowdsourced design site Threadless released a new line of officially licensed The Simpsons T-shirts. Designed by fans, the products are a first for Fox, a company that’s self-admittedly litigious in protecting the Simpsons IP. But the move is right in line with what Peter Leeb, VP of Global Brand Management and Strategy for Fox Consumer Products, calls a more interactive Simpsons brand—one that has included everything from a mobile game (The Simpsons Tapped Out) to a Season 22 fan vote that decided the fate of Ned Flanders’s love life.
These initiatives are just part of the reason The Simpsons has managed, almost 25 years after Bart first ay, caramba'd his way into our living rooms, to become one of the world's most resilient brands. Simpsons licensed products are worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Bart, Marge, and Homer are regulars on the celebrity endorsement circuit. And on social media, The Simpsons is a virtual juggernaut, with 20 million more Facebook likes than Disney. "You look at the global reach we have on Facebook, and we’re approaching 69 million Facebook fans," Leeb says. "If you compare that with [Facebook likes] of general brands—not even other entertainment properties—The Simpsons as a brand is right behind Coca-Cola. It’s ahead of Starbucks and McDonald's." How did a show that once passed for a cultural lightning rod get more popular than Starbucks, and every bit as anodyne?
In the year 1990, I performed the ultimate demonstration of second-grade rebellion. I didn’t pull a fire alarm or flunk a test. I wore a Bart Simpson T-shirt to school.
He was surfing on a wave upside down. A speech bubble read, "Aye carumba!!"
Friends spotted it the moment I stepped off the bus, mouths agape in total disbelief that my parents had ever approved the purchase. I didn’t get it, especially since it seemed like half the school was donning similar Bart Simpson gear. But within the week, I couldn’t wear that shirt to school anymore. Bart Simpson had been banned, and little did I know, my small midwestern town was caught in a nationwide wave of knee-jerk response to prepubescent self-expression.
Reading news reports from the time, it’s shocking to see that it wasn’t just a few paranoid principles or overzealous parents outlawing the shirts. As a million Bart Simpson shirts sold each week, adult society at large feared the rise of a grade school anti-hero. One shirt in particular featured Bart aiming a slingshot right at the viewer. He was labeled an Underachiever, "and proud of it, man!"
Said UCLA professor Gordon Berry at the time, "If I had my option, the T-shirt would say: 'I'm Bart Simpson. I'm an underachiever and I'm trying to do better.' But that's not much fun, is it?"
A quarter of a century after Bart Simpson so maliciously stated, "Don’t have a cow, man!" he’s become the Elvis of his era. The Simpsons is now the longest-running scripted show in television history, which has provided the cultural half-life to transform Bart from a symbol of rebellion to an endless stream of family-friendly merchandising opportunities. Children who grew up on The Simpsons are becoming parents.
While 25 seasons of The Simpsons makes for more than a few overreaching plot twists, it also provides time for the IP to snowball. Like any brand, the images of the family have become more recognizable through impressions on our eyes. Simultaneously, each new season allows the writer’s room to expand The Simpsons IP to a larger world. Bart may be one of only three children, but there are now hundreds of other characters on the show.
Threadless Marketing Director Todd Lido believes that all this lineage creates good fodder for Threadless artists to riff on. "There’s stuff in the collection for casual fans, but there are some really insider designs as well," he says. "That’s the opportunity you have after so many seasons and hours and hours and hours of content."
Fox's Leeb also recognizes the sheer opportunity that hundreds of different characters represent in the global market. "Take Itchy and Scratchy," he says. "If you look at global creative trends, you see more cats in the digital world than ever—in videos and GIFs. And now even Itchy and Scratchy are starting to break out in new designs for a high-end U.K. retailer."
So why has The Simpsons succeeded where no other cartoon has outside of, maybe, Disney or Peanuts? Well in the case of The Simpsons, this natural snowballing of branded culture—where the shocking becomes mainstream by impressions alone—has been further propelled by our contemporary obsession of the anti-hero. Since The Simpsons first debuted a grade school role model with an attitude, some of our most popular entertainment has featured bad-boy protagonists. Look no further than a mob boss on The Sopranos, a psychopath on Dexter, a cheating, drinking, and chain-smoking ad guru on Mad Men, or a science teacher gone murderous meth czar on Breaking Bad.
The anti-hero is not a new idea, but it certainly seems to have crescendoed in 25 years of The Simpsons' wake. Nowhere is that mass mentality shift more clear than in this Bart-bashing comment from a school administrator in 1990: "...we want to spend some time reinforcing good behavior and self-esteem rather than looking at an anti-hero."
With parental support and an anti-hero obsessed culture—combined with 6 million TV viewers a week—Bart hasn’t just continued selling T-shirts, but he’s also served as a virtual spokesperson for Blue Chip companies, endorsing Butterfinger and Wonderful Pistachios (alongside his dad, Homer) in the past year alone. The rest of the family is doing well, too. Marge was featured as the guest celebrity on a recent episode of Project Runway. And baby Maggie has her own clothing line at the U.K.’s Primark. (Lisa’s endorsements are notably absent.) Fox wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Simpsons spokesperson agreements or product revenue, but all-in-all, Simpsons licensed products represent hundreds of millions a dollars a year, placing them in a class that’s notably and repeatedly bested only by IPs from Disney and Hello Kitty.
Depending who is counting, a handful of other entertainment brands like Angry Birds, WWE, and Peanuts are on par with The Simpsons, too. But notably, there's only one other character we'd label an anti-hero on the elite top-20 of licensed merchandise: Spongebob.
Even still, while The Simpsons brand has had a rare set of legs, it’s hard to imagine our anti-hero Bart Simpson ever selling as many shirts as he did during his heyday of 1990, when The Simpsons moved $2 billion in merchandise. "I can’t say it’s the best response we’ve gotten," Lido admits of the ongoing Threadless campaign, though he still considers the response "really really strong." That’s fair. Elvis’s record sales had dipped late in his career, too. But then you know what happened? He died, and then he sold 100,000,000 records the following year.
Now we’re not insinuating Fox needs to kill off Bart. The show and merchandising are both doing more than fine. We’re just pointing out that, should society ever take Bart for granted, well, it’s always an option.