On a Hello Kitty hunt

Even knowing it is a sales gimmick, I had to get the black limited edition of the toy.

There was a frisson of excitement in the office on Thursday afternoon.

The limited-edition McDonald's black Hello Kitty had been released that morning and was sold out within a couple of hours islandwide.

People had queued overnight for the coveted creatures and fights had broken out in the rush to buy them. Scalpers were already making a killing reselling the dolls online.

By 2pm, one would have thought one was hopelessly late to the party. Except that there was just one more doll available somewhere in the office - a gift from McDonald's to our food reporters.

News of its existence spread like an out-of-control forest-clearing bush fire.

Sensing a chance to do good, the Life! section put it up for auction, with the proceeds going to charity. The minimum bid was $100, more than 20 times the $4.60 sticker price.

I'm not at all a Hello Kitty fan. But as usual, a feeding frenzy on anything remotely limited in availability awoke the hunter in me. I had to have it - but I wasn't sure why.

And just like that, the usual building up of overwrought justifications began.

You never ever see a black Hello Kitty, I found myself arguing. And that's largely because the full name of the cartoon character invented in 1974 is actually Kiti howaito or "Kitty White".

In fact, Hello Kitty has a whole family (twin sister Mimmy, father George, grandma Margaret etc) who all have the surname White and they all live in England. It seems the Japanese were obsessed with Western culture, especially the British, at the time.

But there is also something sexily subversive about Black Hello Kitty, I reasoned further, now digging deep into the realms of anthropology and sociology.

It's like Black Santa, I told people. Throughout history, depictions of the fabled character have always shown him to be white.

To suddenly see Santa as a big black bearded man in a tight suit of black velvet or leather would be not only disorienting but perhaps even slightly blasphemous.

Then you have to consider the fairy tale behind Black Hello Kitty, I reasoned further.

Hello Kitty's creator is a company called Sanrio, who is really the undisputed king of cute.

Whether it was the angelic Little Twin Stars in the 1970s, the frog Kerokerokeroppi in the 1980s or the penguin Bad Badtz-Maru in the 1990s, it has always been about the joy of fluffy pink clouds, the sweetness of brightly blooming flowers and the wonders of wishing on a shooting star on a magical night.

Accordingly, the other characters in the toy series are cute: There is Hello Kitty in a cape as Little Red Riding Hood and pretending to be the scaredy-cat lion in the Wizard Of Oz.

But Black Hello Kitty is totally out of character. It's an enigmatic, borderline creepy creation called "The Singing Bone".

"Once upon a time, in a certain country there was a great concern about a wild boar that was destroying the peasants' fields. The king promised a large reward to anyone who could free the land from this plague..." say the words on the box.

When I looked it up on the Internet, I found that The Singing Bone is actually an obscure and violent German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

A man murders his younger brother to claim credit for slaying the said wild boar and stashes the body under a bridge. The grateful king allows the man to marry his daughter.

Much later, a shepherd finds one of the bones from the corpse and fashions it into the mouthpiece for a horn. The horn starts to sing on its own and tells the story of the gruesome killing.

Wow, that's like The Lovely Bones, I thought, referencing the Alice Sebold novel that was made into a movie a couple of years ago. "The events my death brought were primarily that the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future," goes the penultimate line of the novel.

Oh, the subtle connections! I looked at those words and at the black doll whose white bones were clearly marked out on its body next to its pink heart that bore the McDonald's logo.

What price would one put on an artefact of the modern world that wasn't just rare and culturally iconic but also the equivalent of a literary Rubik's Cube (and impervious to dirt)?

Surely more than $100, I roared, as I ostentatiously doubled the opening bid.

Later, in a calmer moment, I wondered why I keep falling time and again for the oldest marketing trick in the book.

I have paid extra for countless CDs, DVDs and books in special packaging. I have bought watches and shoes in funny colours that I didn't even really like.

I once persuaded myself to buy a pair of black boots that was slathered with thick white paint - simply because they had my size and it was a special collaboration that would not ever be repeated again (you think?).

By creating artificial scarcity, companies use limited editions to generate hype and charge an unjustified premium on a standard product. It's been cited in management journals as a cheap way to do everything from building customer loyalty to reviving an ageing and tired brand.

For a long time, I thought that hunting down a limited edition was about individuality and standing out from the crowd. It confirmed my status as a true enthusiast, or at least, a discerning collector and completist.

In these days of Facebook and Instagram, I find it has degenerated into simply the thrill of the hunt and the bragging rights that come with being able to show it off immediately.

Which is what I would surely have done had I actually won the bid for Black Hello Kitty. At $500, someone had outgunned even the most irrational version of me.

That's a crazy price, a friend said, when I told him the story afterwards.

Yes, I appeared to agree, but I knew deep down that losing had only made me want it even more.

ignatius@sph.com.sg 


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