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The Merchandise Driven show, otherwise known as the "half-hour toy commercial", is not merely a television show (or other work) with a line of toys licensed on the side, but a television show created from a line of toys. The program exists largely to sell these products to the audience, and this is most commonly associated with cartoons and Anime targeted at a younger audience -- though some shows can start out independent, and later become Merchandise Driven after too much success.
There is a full symbiotic relationship between the show's production and the toy company (or other manufacturer licensed, show-themed products), which is usually the primary (or even only) sponsor of the show. But the key difference between this and normal licensed merchandising is that here, it is the toy manufacturer who dictates the show's Canon. They may be able to demand addition or removal of characters from the series based on the actual toys in their production line, or that new characters must be something that they can quickly and easily design a toy version for (Military- or paramilitary-themed shows and Humongous Mecha anime are particularly prone to this). Another sign of a toy manufacturer exerting influence is the blatant structuring of episode plots solely around the newest merchandisable toy accessories, often where the characters Gotta Catch Em All or be declared a failure as a human being ... yeah, something like that.
Merchandise Driven shows are not limited to a young audience either. Many anime are adapted from manga or video games only if there's an existing lucrative market, and older anime fans are known for their loyalty and willingness to part with cash. That so many late-night anime can maintain a decent budget is due to this small but vocal group of fans.
Can be halfheartedly avoided with the use of a Segregated Commercial. Still, this sometimes produces a Franchise Zombie. However, Tropes Are Not Bad -- some fandoms like the merchandise more so than the show itself.
Many musicals ensured that potential hit tunes were reprised a few times. This was as much for the sake of the song publishers as for dramatic opportunities like the Dark Reprise. The revues, which were formed around Sketch Comedy and had little to no plot, could get quite shameless: some of them explicitly introduced song reprises as a ploy to sell sheet music.
Note that a show can have a line of licensed merchandise without being Merchandise Driven, and once the requirements are met the writers are basically given free rein to script what they want. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was famously quoted as saying there is nothing wrong with using characters in marketing, so long as the quality of one's work stays refined. That said, Bill Watterson has famously taken no chances, and limited Calvin and Hobbes to the print medium, to prevent any decay in quality. (Unfortunately, this caused people to just make offensive unauthorized merchandise...)
Also note while this can often be the main reason for a show's existence, it is never the only reason, that's what actual commercials are for. Shows of this nature always do their best to tell a story and to keep the viewers hooked with said story. Keep that in mind whenever viewing a show that falls under this trope.
It's also notable that, when the series is particularly well-done, it may outlive the product that inspired it. This seems to be particularly true of comic books, such as ROM Spaceknight and Micronauts. It's also common for merchandise driven shows to develop a cult following that long outlasts the original merchandise; such a fanbase may result in its eventually being Uncanceled (usually with accompanying new merchandise), as the current incarnations of Transformers, G.I. Joe, and others can attest.
Compare Misaimed Marketing, where this sort of thinking is applied where it shouldn't be. See also Defictionalization, where the licensed merchandise is also merchandise inside the show; and Breakaway Advertisement. Contrast with The Merch, where the merchandise sales came after the work, in order to support it. For derivative works that are (usually) not metatextual focus of the original work, see Tie-in Novel and Licensed Game.
There is a fine distinction between this trope and The Merch. Basically, if you can find no evidence that either the program was created to market a toy line, or the people involved with the toy line have creative control, then your example belongs under The Merch and not here at Merchandise Driven.
See also Product Promotion Parade, a common occurrence in Merchandise Driven works, and Cash Cow Franchise. The Sixth Ranger is a common trope in these works, due to the addition of toyetic new characters.
- Probably the most ludicrous example would be Beyblade, which focused on a wildly popular world dominating sport where competitors play with little spinning top toys and try to tip each others' toys over.
- Zoids is unusual in this respect, as the original model line from the 80s had no supporting media, aside from two short promotional videos, a few video games and a comic series produced by Marvel. The second model line, however, had numerous anime and manga adaptations, though only the first three (Zoids: Chaotic Century, Zoids New Century, and Zoids Fuzors) saw distribution outside of Japan.
- Crush Gear Turbo was advertising for a rather strange game where battery-powered toy cars rolled around and collided in a small tray until one of them had the wheels fall off, or something. The merchandise is almost as hard to find as the show itself.
- Hello Kitty and all her Sanrio friends. They have various adaptations including TV shows and comic books, but they are at heart saleable products.
- Mini 4WD related manga and anime Dash Yonkuro and Bakusou Kyoudai Let's and Go are created sorely to sell toy models from Tamiya. They even add tips on how to race the toy cars. The premise is similar to Crush Gear Turbo, except these are even older.
- The Black Rock Shooter franchise exists to promote new BRS figurines. It would have been less egregious if other Other-world characters have their figurines released, but they just keep releasing BRS variations (regular, 2035, BRSB, IBRS...), and the variations aren't even all that different.
- Medabots was a vehicle to sell a series of video games and customizable action figures; justified in-universe by having battlers being able to take one part from their opponent on victory and add it to their robot. Fits this trope to a T; and was also pretty memorable in its own right.
- Redakai was made in an attempt to support a card game of the same name, with the characters "Unlocking new X-drives" (basically opening a booster pack of cards and listing them off) at the end of each episode.
- A glaring example of this is a comment made when Ky unveils his "Gold Metanoid"
Boomer - I've got to get me one of those!
- Mon Suno, which is being backed by Jakks-Pacific and Topps. It is gaining a steady fandom for the show, card game, and action figure line.
- In Atop the Fourth Wall, Linkara reviewed a comic called "US-1" that was used to try and promote a line of toy trucks. It failed miserably.
- Marvel's Micronauts comic book series was created specifically to sell the action figure toy line, but writer Bill Mantlo successfully turned it into a well-written and sometimes deeply philosophical science fiction epic, while doing all they could to avoid some amazing similarities between the toy line and the recently-released Star Wars. The comics outlasted the toy line, but since Marvel doesn't own the trademark, the Micronauts have rarely reappeared in the Marvel Universe, and their more familiar aspects, and name, have been suspiciously absent when they did appear.
- Bug still appears without the rest of the team, since he bears so little resemblance to the "Galatic Warrior" figure on which he was very loosely based, that Marvel can claim him as their own original creation.
- Marvel Comics had several toy-based series in the late 70s/early 80s: in addition to Micronauts, there was also Shogun Warriors, ROM Spaceknight, Transformers, G.I. Joe and others. Somewhat unexpectedly, nearly all of them, especially G.I. Joe, are usually regarded as quite good. All of these (except Transformers and Joe) were considered part of the main Marvel Universe, meaning they could interact with Marvel characters. In fact, even after losing the rights to the main characters, Marvel still owns the ones they created (such as the Dire Wraiths from Rom) and they still show up in the comics occasionally. Marvel also created a few series that were intended to be adapted as toy lines, such as Crystar Crystal Warrior with Remco.
- Bionicle was, for LEGO, something of an experiment in this trope in response to increasing financial trouble and realising that reliance on their Star Wars licence wasn't a good permanent solution - the company theorised that promoting a line with a story would bolster sales compared to lines without a story. It's hard to tell whether the story was much of a factor, but they were proved right for a while -- no other LEGO line sold better until around 2007, this being when the story really started to become bloated. Though the toyline was terminated in early 2010, the line's head writer continues to write story serials, making BIONICLE an example of a merchandise-driven property that outlived the merchandise. Its Spiritual Successor, Hero Factory, is still merchandise-driven but doesn't push its story as much in comparison.
- LEGO also tried this with an Animesque Humongous Mecha set clearly inspired by stuff like Voltron. LEGO Exo-Force lasted three years; while short compared to City or BIONICLE, it was very popular during its run, second only to BIONICLE and LEGO Star Wars sales. It died in its third year due to the loss of the studio producing the related comics and because the bigger sets of the second year stayed behind in stores like solid rocks.
- Larry Hama's legendary run of G.I. Joe was full of this, in spite of his writing. Many, many issues featured an entirely new cast of characters on their "first mission" or a "training run" or somesuch thing, as they were based off of new toys that were coming out. Hama seemed to take it in good cheer, and enjoyed coming up with creative new concepts and character names. Aside from a near-constant recurring main cast, the comic featured an endless supply of new background characters.
- Mattel execs hoped Masters of the Universe would save the then-dying He-Man franchise by reigniting interest in the brand. Unfortunately, the film flopped and the toy sales continued to plummet.
- Similarly, Hasbro started the Transformers Film Series out of a need to revitalize the brand after the Dork Age of the Unicron Trilogy. It worked. The films were all box office hits, and the toylines were big sellers. The toys for the first Transformers film surpassed Power Rangers in sales for the top boys' toy series. The second film proved to be a big example of Critical Dissonance (it made several worst of 2009 lists, but made over $836 million worldwide), and had steady toy sales. The third film made over $1 billion worldwide, and the toys make that much every year.
- Mattel created Monster High just for this reason. They also planned a book series and a movie from the get-go.
- Stone Protectors
- Trolls, Trolls: World Tour and Trolls: The Beat Goes On!.
- G.I. Joe. This is most blatant with scenes where the plot stops to have the team's bridge layer tank, piloted by Toll-Booth, appear out of nowhere to lay a hinged two-piece bridge on a gap that is always just the right size for it.
- Transformers. An odd instance of the fandom embracing this. Toy reviews abound, fanfic tends to feature toy characters who weren't on the show, etc. Most notably, if a character doesn't have a toy made, you'll often hear fans clamoring for it... the Rule of Cool applies here, and the Rule of Fun even more so, but they're double-edged swords: a sub-standard figure tends to garner far more backlash than a sub-par episode. The Transformers Wiki has a whole page about this.
- He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Mattel originally intended the toys as part of a Conan line. However, focus groups determined that an alternative design was more popular with children. These were sold each with its own "mini-comic" to establish the He-Man mythos, and the television series followed a couple of years later, coincidentally throwing out most of the established backstory. The toy-based version of He-Man appeared in a few DC Comics, teaming up with Superman.
- Jem and The Holograms existed solely to sell "Jem And The Holograms" dolls and playsets.
- Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, which was cancelled after the first season because the toys didn't sell well. That's why the show has No Ending--the plot would have been resolved in a movie that died along with the series.
- My Little Pony, of course, to the point where, because there were costumes and accessories as well as the Ponies in the toy line, there are entire episodes where the Ponies are dressed as cheerleaders and in bathing suits, apropos of nothing.
- An excellent example would be the Dino Riders cartoon, designed specifically to sell a line of Tyco dinosaur toys. The Home Video VHS tapes even had commercials during the show.
- The Bratz doll line has managed to launch several straight-to-DVD disasters and a major motion picture, and a short-lived animated TV series that was actually pretty entertaining.
- Visionaries: The main characters in the show could undergo Voluntary Shapeshifting by projecting an image of their totem animal from their chest. The action figures had 1980s hologram stickers on their chests where you could sort of make out the animal if you already knew what it was.
- Hot Wheels has had three series (World Race, AcceleRacers, and Hot Wheels Battle Force 5) under this trope, all in the same overall storyline.
- Robotix. Strangely, the animated series entry on Wikipedia is many times bigger than the toyline entry, while in other countries (such as France) the animated series is totally unknown (while the toyline is merely "obscure").
- Pound Puppies
- Littlest Pet Shop
- The Wuzzles
- Sky Dancers.
- Mighty Max (which you could say was the boy's version of Polly Pocket) was of course made for this reason.
- Popples. Heck, there's a website listing every piece of Popples merchandise ever!
- MASK, which was created to sell a toyline of the same name by Kenner, which combined elements of the aforementioned Transformers and G.I. Joe.