Forget Butterbeer. Harry Potter’s favourite drink is actually Coke.
In 2001, Coca-Cola paid 150 million dollars for the marketing rights to the first Harry Potter movie, which allowed the company to put Potter-related images on their products.
To make it seem like the partnership was really about promoting literacy rather than luring kids to sugary drinks, the BBC reported that Coca-Cola also donated $18 million to organizations that help kids learn to read.
As much as Coca-Cola claimed their actions were motivated by noble intentions, promoting literacy might have been a deeper level of marketing. Coca-Cola increased the number of kids who recognized the Harry Potter characters on their products and who begged their parents to then buy them.
“There are questions about what corporate interests do and how they can drive a particular book towards popularity,” said Sarah Brophy, a McMaster professor in English and Cultural Studies. Beyond the captivating world and relatable characters, there are all kinds of things (like Coca-Cola promotions) that went on behind the scenes to make Harry Potter as popular as it is.
We all know J.K. Rowling’s single-mother, rags-to-riches story. But why do we know it?
“One of the ideas of the theorist Pierre Bourdieu is that in the production of literary celebrity, value and success, there’s a need to disavow the economy,” said Brophy. “So you pretend that you’re not interested in the practical, commercial concerns, and that allows you to retain your authenticity and legitimacy as a writer. The people who are really successful are those who are really savvy about those practical and strategic concerns.”
The fact that J.K. Rowling’s own story is so well known is evidence of her (or her publicist’s) marketing know-how. But even better evidence is her billionaire status.
“That rags-to-riches story also maybe masks the issues that we face in our society with the struggle that it takes to be an artist or a writer,” said Brophy.
“In an age when we are talking about austerity measures, one of the things that comes under scrutiny is arts funding. There’s a risk that if we focus on these stories of wild success, and wild economic success, we forget about the real struggles that many writers go through.”
Brophy suggested that J.K. Rowling’s level of success can affect the entire publishing world, influencing which books get promotion. Maybe we have Harry Potter to thank for the popularity of Twilight and The Hunger Games.
All of this focus on the commercial aspects of Harry Potter can seem a bit cynical and dismissive; ultimately, people love books because of the writing and not the marketing. But the marketing still affects how we see the writing, even if we try to resist it.
“How do you disentangle commercial success in the value of a piece of literature as art?” said Brophy. “I would say it is impossible to disentangle those things, particularly in our era of media adoptability, cross-promotion, etc. I think it’s important to think about how value is always being negotiated and to think about not only the global cultural reach of these texts as giving them significance, but the fact that they become focal points for cultural debates.”
The true magic of Harry Potter, after all, is that we can’t stop talking about it.