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Striking Viral Gold

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Lately, there’s this new mascot in Korea has skyrocketed in popularity. Pengsu is a headphones-wearing penguin that does 10-minute man-on-the-street skits produced by EBS, the Korea Educational Broadcasting System. Unlike a lot of Korean comedy, the character is able to attract both young children and adults with his witty ad-lib free of sexual overtones, cursing, or slapstick.

I must admit, I too find him amusing. The whole set-up is reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen skits. Talk to someone for a few minutes, move one, rinse and repeat. He also has recurring things he comes back to, basically building his own world simply by virtue of the story he spins.

Much like PBS, EBS survives through sponsorship and advertisement. Because they’re mainly focused on education, they’re not as attractive to companies compared to other bigger broadcasting companies in the country. The character Peng-su’s surge in popularity not only because of the character itself but also due to the story of an educational character crossing over to the viral mainstream. And that is one of the things that interest me most about the character. A lot of the character’s fans are quite keen on speculating on what products the character would or should endorse in the future. Already, I’ve seen news stories of companies courting the creators of the character to ink a deal to start hawking their merchandise.

Now I know that some characters or some shows are always in danger of not having enough funding to continue. It’s always difficult finding funding for the arts. But to me, the Peng-su phenomenon is akin to having a viral tweet or Instagram post. When an unknown account suddenly goes viral with one tweet, it is often followed by either the original poster advertising something in response to the sudden popularity or just shrugging it all off and linking to something innocuous. That attitude of “BAM! You’ve hit the big time, not milk this for all it’s worth” is so pervasive that it’s a tad off-putting. Now, I know that this has been going on since the very beginning of mass media, but now it’s almost the very first thing one thinks of the minute they get a hint of fame (or infamy even). And now it’s even come to cartoon mascots. It’s a bit weird. I mean, I enjoyed cartoons and different characters and media when I was younger, but not once did I think they should trade their fame for more advertising revenue. G.I. Joe was already selling me action figures. I didn’t think they should advertise McDonalds just so they could eke out more episodes. Sesame Street could easily survive if Big Bird started selling life insurance.

I’ve seen this kind of talk with athletes before in the country. And this I understand. The champion figure skater Kim Yoona was super popular (and still is) in the country and her fame coupled with her good looks made her a magnet for advertisers. And good for her, too. Athletes only have a few years to capitalize on their fame, so she did well with her advertising and she didn’t overdo it either.

I remember Howard Stern once saying, “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.” Which is him saying just because you can be part of any sort of project just to make a few dollars, doesn’t mean you should say yes to everything. You can afford to not be part of everything. You can afford to say no. Which is more than I can say with some celebrities in Korea. There are times when the media just keeps on pumping the same set of people again, and again, and again. Sure, they might think their current popularity has a very short lifespan, but during that lifespan, I’m already sick of their face on television (Yes, I’m sick of Park Na-rae). This is one reason why I get easily put off by Korean television. It’s the same people again and again until you get sick of them.

Now, I do hope this Peng-su character lasts for a while. If anything, his popularity shows that there is more to Korean television than singing, people eating, or fake reality show BS. It’s also good to see a character be successful fueled mostly by wit. It’s a good departure from the standard brand of stand-up comedy you would see in Korean gag comedy.

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