Licensing Max Headroom's wild appeal in US

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

To teen-agers, school kids, and college students - Max is the man. To advertising and marketing people, the computer-retouched voice and apparently plasticized features of Max Headroom make him the hottest television pitchman in a long time.

Taft/Hamilton Group, one of the nation's largest merchandise licensing agencies, has taken advantage of Headroom's popularity by signing up nearly three dozen licensees. Plastered on everything from teacups to T-shirts will be the Max Headroom image and insignia, says Seth M. Siegel, executive vice-president of Taft/Hamilton.

Who, or more exactly, what is this electronic Pied Piper lighting up television sets and making cash registers jingle from coast to coast? Max Headroom is a witty and articulate talking head. Since he has no arms or legs, Max comes to life only on television screens.

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Actually, Max Headroom is a British television invention that came into being in London in 1982. He's the brainchild of Peter Wagg, a record company promoter who was casting about for new ways to market his music videos. Mr. Wagg selected Matt Frewer, a Canadian actor with an unidentifiable accent to play the role.

How Matt was transformed into Max, the sassy, stuttering talking head, remains a trade secret. But the details include a latex mask for Matt, whose made-up image is then further altered using computer graphics. But Max bounded across the Atlantic last year and is making a splash in media and marketing circles in the US.

In its drive to convert the thirsty young to its new Coke flavor, Coca-Cola is pleased as punch to have spotted the Max Headroom trend early. Beside TV commercials promoting new Coke, other promotions include a Max watch, Max face masks, and Max ``off-the-wall'' ceiling clocks.

Enthusiasm for Max has even prompted Mr. Wagg to view Max as the Mickey Mouse of today's computer-literate, TV-wise generation.

Taft/Hamilton's Seth Siegel feels the comparison with Walt Disney's beloved Mickey is ambitious, but concedes his firm expects nearly a million dollars this year from licenses granted to merchandisers that will result in about 150 Max Headroom products.

Licensing is big business in the US. In 1986, the value of all retail licensed products was $54.3 billion, says Arnold Volka, publisher of The Licensing Letter in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Still, Mr. Volka feels it is a bit premature to think of Max as a latter-day Mickey Mouse. ``Max has a track record in England ... and he's definitely moving up in this country.''

Siegel points with pride to the Max Headroom skateboards manufactured by Valterra of San Fernando, Calif., which retail for about $80. ``You could call them the Rolls-Royce of skateboards,'' he says.

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