Harry Potter: The Pop Culture Phenomenon

Krissy Edmonds
Sep 28 · 18 min read

20 years later, he is still relevant

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

Harry Potter is a major player in popular culture, that fact is undeniable. The novels by J.K. Rowling, the movies, the merchandise associated with both, clothing, housewares, unauthorized books making speculations of the how and why, websites, message boards and even a genre of music have brought Harry Potter to the cultural forefront. When you say Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling everyone will have some idea what you are talking about, it is culturally understood throughout the world. Harry Potter has gotten kids away from video games and the television, it has gotten adults reading again as well, but mostly it has made a huge cultural impact around the world. The story of the boy who lived, and his trials and tribulations through school has been able to reach out and touch all ages, despite having a lot of the determining factors of success working against it, Harry Potter was able to become more than a success, but a phenomenon in the literary world. This phenomenon spread outside the literary world and has had an amazing effect on popular culture as well, creating a Harry Potter phenomenon world wide.

Reading has not been wildly popular since the introduction of video games. Children have been more interested in what is on cable television, or the video game they are currently playing than in picking up a book. Thanks to Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, children are interested in reading again, and parents are reading the books along with their children. This has been the biggest cultural impact caused by these novels. It is an amazing impact for a single mother turned writer to have. J.K. Rowling set out to write a story that she loved, and on a train ride managed to come up with Harry Potter. A fantasy children’s novel with substantial length and being part of a series of seven was a huge challenge for her to overcome, but due to her belief in her product and finding an agent who also believed in her product she was able to overcome this obstacle. Her novels defied the plan for success in children’s novels, but again because of her faith and belief and love of her brand, she was able to overcome and succeed. The Harry Potter brand, thanks to J.K. Rowling was able to be kept in tact as she believed in it and as she imagined it, because even though she gained fame and success quickly, she did not turn over the reigns to Harry Potter, his image and his brand, she kept on top of everything and wrote the novels, and was able to keep control in the movies as well, she guarded her brand with the love and protection a mother would give to a child.

According to Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon anyone trying to market and seeking success needs to be able to fulfill the five components. “The five components are: A good product; Emotional involvement; Word-of-mouth marketing and an online buzz; Tease and perpetual marketing; Brand consistency and restraint. If a need exists already, and there is a void to fill it.” As we know Harry Potter has been a wildly successful series, which is unheard of for children’s literature. Rowling managed to fulfill all five components, some intentionally, some by sheer luck, but due to them being fulfilled her series has come to be the cultural icon that it is today. To get in to the details of the marketing and success of Harry Potter, we need to look at the backstory, the story of J.K. Rowling, the creation of Harry Potter and how it came to be what it is today, for you can not appreciate the present, without understanding the past.

J.K. Rowling is the epitimy of a rags to riches story, a single mother with no place to live, to a woman who has more money than Queen Elizabeth II. Harry Potter started in 1990 when “a 24 year-old J.K. Rowling was on a train from Manchester to London. She had been searching for an apartment in Manchester with intentions to move there to be closer to her boyfriend.” (p. 3 Gunelius) It was on this train ride that Harry Potter, the person, the story, the series, the idea hit J.K. Rowling. It was just an “image of a boy in her head. It was Harry Potter in full, detailed form. She even instantly knew his back story — a boy wizard with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead.” (p. 3 Gunelius) This moment changed the history of literature, pop culture, movies, television and society as we know it. Rowling did not have an easy path from when Harry Potter entered her head, her road was still not clear or concise, she still had to keep on fighting for what she wanted, and the story she needed to tell. In December of 1990 tragedy struck J.K Rowling’s life when her mother passed of multiple sclerosis, and then her relationship with her boyfriend ended, she was left alone, and then headed to Portugal to teach English and start her life over. This new job allowed J.K. Rowling to write days and teach at night. While in Portugal Rowling “met Jorges Arantes with whom she fell madly in love. Despite early problems, the two married on 16 October 1992 in a small civil ceremony. Within just a few weeks, Rowling became pregnant, but she continued to teach and devote as much time as she could to writing Harry Potter.” (p. 3 Gunelius) Marriage was perhaps not the best answer for a path for J.K. Rowling, while she did end up with her daughter Jessica, her marriage did not last, and she then left Portugal with Jessica, a couple suitcases and headed “for her sister’s home in Edinburgh, Scotland with no home, no job and no money.” (p. 4 Gunelius) Even though Rowling was raising a daughter, and trying to work, she fought through and was able to finish the first draft of Harry Potter in 1995, right as she was getting ready to go back to school and obtain her teaching certificate. “As 1995 came to an end, so did the final draft of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling still had no money, but her novel was complete. She typed the final manuscript on a secondhand typewriter.” (p. 5 Gunelius) Just because Rowling’s novel was finished does not mean her work was, her work in fact was nowhere near complete, she had six more novels to write, but first she had to find and agent and a publisher who saw her vision and fell in love with Harry Potter as she had. Finding an agent and publisher is not an easy feat, but when your novel breaks boundaries and their usual guidelines for a children’s book, and is in a genre that at the time is not currently in high demand, you run across a few more problems. “Rowling submitted her three sample chapters to the Christopher Little Literary Agency. Unfortunately, it did not represent children’s literature at the time, so Christopher Little’s secretary, Bryony Evens, relegated Rowling’s submission to the reject pile. Serendipitously, however Little’s secretary hesitated. Rowling had submitted her sample chapters in a unique black binding. For no other reason than the unusual cover, Little’s secretary opened the package and started reading.” (p. 5 Gunelius) Rowling found herself an agent, one who didn’t represent children’s books, but who after one reading fell in love with the boy who lived, and therefore agreed to represent her in a standard agreement. Little then went to work with Rowling trying to find a publisher for this novel, “at 223 pages and around 90,000 words (50,000 words above the established norm at the time for children’s fiction), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone broke all the rules for children’s fiction.” (p. 6 Gunelius) Rowling didn’t care about the norms, she just loved her story and her characters and wanted to share it with the world, to fulfill her own dream. Little backed her completely, he too loved Harry and his story and wanted the world to see what talent Rowling had, so he (for a fee of course) set to work finding a publisher who would look past the fact that the book broke all the rules, and back it with enthusiasm. “After 12 rejections and a year of searching, Rowling’s work finally struck a chord with one publisher. Barry Cunningham, head at a newly formed children’s division at Bloomsbury, read Rowling’s manuscript and instantly loved it. In August 1996, Bloomsbury offered Rowling a meager $6,500 advance against royalties, and changed her pen name to J.K. Rowling from her given name of Joanne Rowling, under the assumption that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman.” (p. 6 Gunelius) Rowling was invited to lunch by Cunningham where he explained to her there was no money in children’s literature, she explained that she was not doing it for money, but for herself. She soon after started writing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in June of 1997 with a print run of only 500 copies. Rowling relied on talent, love of her character and story, and a whole lot of luck to get to where she was, but more luck was coming her way. “Arthur Levine from Scholastic stumbled upon the first Harry Potter book at a book fair in Italy. He began reading the book on the plane home to New York, and immediately knew he had to have the U.S. publishing rights no matter what the cost would be.” (p.8 Gunelius) Scholastic, thanks to Levine paid a sum of $105,000 for the U.S. publishing rights, which for an unknown author was an unheard of amount. More luck went Rowlings way, luck and love of the boy who lived. Even early on in publishing people who read the novel were able to relate with the characters and the story, they were so enthralled by it they went out of their way to help it reach the success it has obtained, and without these key players Harry Potter would not be the household name that it is today.

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Unfortunatly one can not have the kind of success Rowling did by just writing a good story and having luck. There is a lot of other hard work that goes in to the billion dollar empire that Harry Potter has become. Once a writer has their story, agent, and publisher, comes marketing. A lot of writers turn this task over to a special marketing team to do their magic and make their brand for them. This is where Rowling is different, she was “acting as brand guardian, ensuring nothing is done to harm the Harry Potter brand in her eyes or the eyes of her fans.” (p. 10 Gunelius) None of the people backing Harry Potter at the beginning ever expected it to become what it has today, “So how did Harry Potter become a phenomenon? In simple terms, the phenomenon started with a good product and people who believed in it.” (p. 13 Gunelius) It can be speculated that Harry Potter became such a success because Rowling protected it so well, she made sure anything related to it would fit her image and her storyline, because of this she developed an extremely loyal fanbase. Having a loyal fanbase is essential to the success of any product, it falls in to marketing, and generating word of mouth buzz, which is ten times more powerful than critics reviews or print and screen advertising. The other factor that Rowling had been hoping to achieve was emotional involvement, and she succeeded. Emotional involvement is not something you can market or count on in the literature world, but you strive for it because any novel with staying power requires it. The emotional involvement of the readers of Harry Potter not only made the novel a success, but helped it thrive and become what it is today, without it Rowling would not be where she is, Harry Potter would not be the cultural icon he is, there would not be movies, merchandise, spin off novels or a theme park. “No piece of popular literature has done more in recent years to remind us of what it’s like to be a kid than the Harry Potter series.” (p. 2 Baggett and Klein) Rowling’s ability to reconnect adults with their childhood, and give children back a taste of what childhood is supposed to be like, has created a lot of the emotional involvement, and a lot of the success she has achieved.

The world would not have the universal language of Harry Potter and the wizarding world, Rowling created a world and a language of her own for Harry and his friends, and that language and world are now known worldwide, and understood worldwide. The language of Harry Potter helps take this from a novel to it’s own fantasy world. Rowling not only tells an engaging, emotionally involving story that touches on traditional stories with morals, but she tells a story of a world many of us wish existed with such clarity that we can feel it really does exist. Within this fantasy world she creates her characters are so real and easy to identify with that anyone and everyone can somehow relate to the story she is telling. Rowling also created a language to go with her fantasy world, wizards of course had to have their own language and slang, as well as their own creatures. These words have become jokes on television shows and in movies, as well as every day words for fans of the novels and movies, they have made their way in to people’s everyday vocabulary. “All around the globe, words like “Dursley” and “Quidditch” now enrich vocabularies and occupy permanent categories of imagination, conjuring their mesmerizing spells.” (p. 1 Baggett and Klein) In March of 2003 “The Oxford Dictionary said that the word ‘muggle’ would be added to its text. The definition reads: ‘Muggle (noun) In the fiction of J.K. Rowling, a person who possesses no magical powers. Hence in allusive and extended uses, a person who lacks a particular skill or skills, or who is regarded as inferior in some way.’” (p. 107 Thomas) These words show the popularity of the book as well as the effect on our culture, had the book not been so widely read or accepted, these words would not be universally understood.

Now that the backstory and some aspects of Harry Potter are understood, we can take a look at the impact the novels have had on the society. As previously discussed there is a universally understood language thanks to Harry Potter. This is the first major impact, as these words have become a part of everyday vocabulary all throughout the world. There is a feeling of belonging, a sense of a group with the fans of Harry Potter. There is always something to discuss, or something they are awaiting, which right now would be the newly delayed sixth movie. Previously the discussions were book based, movie based or even merchandise based, but this group of fans always has something to talk about or speculate. Rowling helps feed this with announcements about characters, movies, upcoming books like the release of The Tales of Beedle and Bard, by releasing these bits of information in small doses, she keeps the buzz and Harry Potter up front in the media, online circles and in print. Rowling has also released supplemental materials to keep her fans satisfied while they wait on the next big thing, and her website also helped by releasing bits of information as she saw fit. These bits of information kept Harry’s fans talking, and always keeping Harry in everyone’s minds. Thanks to this method of marketing she was able to have such a huge impact on culture, if she had let Harry fall to the wayside in between novels and movies, the effect may not have been seen.

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Rowling’s works sponsored numerous unauthorized books, more than one could count. If her work had not been so popular, and had not had such a large effect on our culture, these books would not have surfaced. No one wants to write, publish and market a book they believe is going to fail, and thanks to the fans, anything Harry Potter related was bound to be a success. Fans could not get enough of Harry Potter, so they turned to sources other than Rowling for speculations, hints in to the mind of Harry, analysis of the books, how they relate to philosophy and religion, and pretty much any other subject you can imagine. Harry Potter touched people from all walks of life, though perhaps with very different effects. There were many religious groups who protested the novels, saying they undermined that religion and promoted the pagan religions. In April of 2003 “an Arkansas judge ordered a ban on Harry Potter books to be lifted, dismissing the notion that the novels encouraged witchcraft.” (p. 108 Thomas) There was much controversy surrounding the novels because of that, but ultimately the novels still had a positive effect on society. The buzz created by these religious groups helps Harry Potter succeed, because it was still more attention on the novels. These groups also wrote books about why Harry Potter was a bad influence, again showing the effect Harry had on culture.

Culture consists of many aspects, not just literature. Harry Potter and Rowling also inspired a genre of music now known as Wizrock. Children and adults all around the world, who loved Harry Potter decided to take the ideas in the novels and turn them in to songs. Wizrock would fall under the more broad genre of indie rock. These songs are based on things happening within Rowling’s novels, or about people or objects. They stay very true to the image that Rowling wanted to project. These bands can now be found on popular networking sites like myspace.com as well as their band websites, and some like Harry and the Potters have been added to itunes. These bands, like the novels have almost a cult following, the fans making t-shirts, going to their local shows, and even traveling to see them play. These bands have also developed the Harry Potter Alliance, which helps to fight evil, by supporting missions that will have a positive impact upon society. The bands have concerts to help Darfur, to support breast cancer awareness, pretty much any positive cause. They send out monthly newsletters explaining the cause and how you can help, and relating the things going on in the world around us, to things from the novels. They use Voldemort, the epitimy of all that is evil, to the evil in the causes they are fighting, like those committing genocide in Darfur. Their most current initative is called Wrock the Vote, as they are not endorsing any one candidate, but just making sure young people vote. They even had concerts where they had voter registration. Without the success and popularity of Harry Potter these groups would not exist, and the culture they have created would not as well. The subculture of people who are Harry Potter fans are bonding together because of the books, but also to help worthy causes, enjoy music and socialize as well.

Rowling and Harry Potter also had an effect on television, from behind the scenes specials, to jokes on late night talk shows, and visits by Rowling as well as the cast of the movies appearing on daytime talk shows. Pottermania could not be avoided, if you turned ont he television, something Potter related was bound to be seen. Even Fox got in on the action, in February 2003 “Fox announced that J.K. Rowling would be making an animated appearance on an episode of The Simpsons. Executive producer Don Payne explained ‘ The Simpsons bump into J.K. Rowling outside a bookshop and they talk all about Harry Potter. We’re very excited about the episode; and rest assured, every British cliche will be trotted out to get a laugh.’” (p. 106 Thomas) Rowling also appeared on Rosie O’Donnel, among other talk shows. Jokes and comments about and from the novels are also frequently heard on evening sitcoms, as well as in newer movies.

Merchandise is a huge part of marketing to supplement any popular movie or book, but in this case it also kept fans occupied and excited while waiting for the next installment. Harry Potter fans were always wanting for and asking for more Harry, more Ron, more Hermoine and even more Snape. Rowling to keep up had to authorize tons of products, so that Harry would remain how she wanted him to. That did not stop fan from creating their own merchandise. Thanks to websites like cafepress.com fans were able to create, design, purchase and sell their own t-shirts, coffee mugs, bags, stickers, hats, sweatshirts and even pet clothing relating to Harry Potter (or any other subject for that matter.) The fans wanted more and Rowling could not keep up as much as she tried, so the fans turned to making their own merchandise for book release parties, movie releases or everyday wear. Rowling did authorize an abundance of merchandise though, everything from stickers, coloring books, housewares, bedding, replicas of items from movies, additional books, collectors editions books, actions figures, candy, t-shirts, Halloween costumes, wands, broomsticks, pretty much if it was in one of the novels something was made about it. These items, even the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans flew off of retailers shelves. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans did cause some controversy though “There was some serious consideration given to the bodily fluid flavours. We thought, at the end of the day, do we really want to do that? [But] the people who read [the books] want to live in Harry’s world. They want to be Harry Potter. Bertie Bott’s are the only artificial product on the market. They’re exactly what Harry Potter would be tasting if he were a real person.” (p. 56 Thomas) In the 36 flavours they inluded sardine, horseradish and booger. Halloween costumes based on a book, not a movie or television show were popular for the first time in many years. Previous trends in costumes had been all movie or television related, so to see more book based characters spoke volumes of the impact these novels had on children, their parents and society in general.

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Rowling’s effects on culture reached around the world. In December of 2007 “Harry continued his phenomenal success around the world, becoming a big hit in Vietnam, among many other places.” (p. 41 Thomas) This is just showing a bit of the success Rowling had reached. “The Harry Potter books have been translated in to 64 languages.” (p. 9 Gunelius) This also shows that people around the world have also wanted a taste of the famed Harry Potter, and the translation of the books has lead to Harry and his wizarding world being universally understood. Thanks to the translations Pottermania was able to spread worldwide, and have an impact on those cultures as well as English speaking cultures. “Over 400 million copies of the seven books in the Harry Potter series have been sold worldwide.” (p. 9 Gunelius) The success and popularity of Harry Potter was not limited to our planet, but was put in to space as well in April of 2006 when “an asteroid was officially named Rowling.” (p. 10 Gunelius) It was also not contained to current popular culture, but put back in to the time of the dinosaurs as well. In May of 2006 “a newly discovered pachycephalosaurid dinosaur, which was on display at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indiana, was named Dracorex hogwartsia (The Dragon King of Hogwarts) in reference to Rowling’s wizarding world. The name is a combination of the latin word for dragon, draco, which is also one of Rowling’s character’s names, and the name of Harry Potter’s wizarding school, Hogwarts.” (p. 10 Gunelius)

Even today, more than ten years after Pottermania began, people are still awaiting more from the Boy Who Lived. There are three upcoming movies, creating all sorts of buzz in the media, social circles and on the internet. There is also the release of The Tales of Beedle and Bard that is stirring up even more buzz within the community. An entire generation of people grew up with Harry Potter, the novels had an impact on their lives, it got them reading again, and looking forward to more from Rowling. These novels reopened peoples eyes to the fantasy genre, and made it acceptable for adults to read children’s and teen literature. While Rowling may not be the next Shakespeare, she had a profound impact not just on literature, but on popular culture. She touched lives, paved a pathway for female fantasy authors (like Stephanie Meyer,) opened people’s eyes to reading, and created a lasting buzz that has not been seen in the literary world in a very long time, a buzz that rivals Star Wars and Lord of The Rings. Rowling created an entire subculture, wether or not she meant to, of people who love Harry Potter, and another of people who think he is the root of all evil. Regardless, children reading again, and loving to read again, a cult following, merchandise on every rack, and a brand new language, that is a huge effect for a single mother who just wanted someone to love Harry as much as she did.

Works Cited

Baggett, David and Klein, Shawn Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts Copyright 2004 Carus Publishing Peru, Illinois

Duriez, Colin Field Guide to Harry Potter Copyright Colin Duriez 2007 InterVarsity Press Madison, Wi

Gunelius, Susan Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon Copyright Susan Gunelius 2008 Palgrave Macmillan New York, NY

Heilman, Elizabeth Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter Copyright 2009 Routlege Press New York, NY

Thomas, Scott The Making of the Potterverse Copyright Scott Thomas 2007 ECW Press Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Krissy Edmonds
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