Superman: Selling The Man of Steel

Date: January 2002
Author: Paisley Marks (paisleymarks@yahoo.com)
Copyright © 2001

Superman has reined over many forms of media throughout his 60 years as an American icon. His early audiences included Depression-era adults, Baby Boomers, and later Yuppies, and Generations X and Y. His early days in comics presented a darker, more sinister character that killed his enemies. Through the years, Superman was sanitized for younger television audiences.

The character of Superman presented on television differed significantly from the character presented in comics and on film. These changes are reflective of the intended audience for each medium, and offered new audiences a Superman with issues they could relate to. Superman episodes often offered moral lessons within the entertainment. However, in all manifestations of Superman, producers and sponsors have used him to sell ideals and products to the current viewing audience.

The current target audience for Superman includes the "baby-boom echo" -- a population bulge made up largely of the children of the baby-boom generation. These are the prime viewers and consumers that producers and marketers hope to capture. "According to the group Adbusters, teenagers are exposed to an estimated 3,000 advertisements each day. Combine the ads with programming itself, like the fashion-, music- and skin-filled shows on MTV, and you've got a barrage of messages telling kids what they should own if they want to fit in." (ABC News Ventures.)

Last year, 31.6 million U.S. teens spent an estimated $155 billion, and increase of 8% over the previous year according to Teenage Research Unlimited. (ABC News Ventures.) This demonstrates that teens are powerful consumers, and a desirable audience for marketers who use hip, young programs like WB's Smallville to attract this demographic. Once they get their attention then they can sell them everything from food to on-line services. And to get their attention, they must present viewers with characters and heroes that they can identify with. The WB network's new program Smallville offers a modern interpretation of Superman for today's youth audiences.

Superman as presented on Smallville is an adolescent character who learns to use his superpowers for the good of others through the careful direction of his parents, and often in care of his friends and peers. Clark Kent, a high school freshman, learns early to sacrifice without reward, and to cope with his internal struggle for truth and honor in the face of adversity and temptation. These trials represent the transition from child to adult for Clark, and man to hero for Superman.

Early representations of Superman, as seen in the Superman series of films in the 1970's and 80's show a self-assured man who uses his superpowers to fight villains, gain the love of Lois Lane and transcend to goodness. The early adult version of Superman as portrayed in films (and comic books) has an edgier, darker feel, while the modern TV versions have been sanitized for youth viewing. Although Superman has always represented the "God among us" hero, who struggles with issues of identity, good versus evil and transcendence without reward, the different manifestations of Superman are directly related to the intended audience. Superman's commercial success is due to his ability to evolve to meet the changing expectations of new audiences. This has included the recent use of a teen Superman in Smallville to attract youth.

The history of Superman spans over 60 years and includes the Man of Steel's representation in many forms: radio personality, comic book hero, and film and television heart-throb. Originally introduced in 1938 by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster during the ninth year of the Great Depression, Superman offered readers a protagonist who symbolized freedom, justice and the American Way. He evolved over the years, conquering every dimension of media entertainment: launching radio, and television shows, major motion pictures, books and novels, video games, and, of course, comic books. He has been used to sell more than just ideals; he has sold toys, books, cereal, postage stamps, even American Express credit cards, and much more.

In the 1940's there were Superman comic books, a radio program and dozens of low-budget movies for Columbia. The early comic book representation of superman often dealt with serious issues. "The thirteen pages of Superman's adventure in Action Comics #1 include episodes centered on unjust imprisonment, spousal abuse and corrupt government officials. Subsequent issues included stories on labor relations, disarmament, and drunken driving." (Daniels, 35.)

Superman's daring deeds offered distraction and inspiration these troubled times in U.S. history. The early Superman of WWI was dangerous; in fact, the first Superman killed people. This included any "foe of all interests and activities subversive to this country's best interests" and any menace to American democracy. (Bridwell, 64.) Superman represented many ideals, including patriotism, as seen by young Shuster and Seigel.

Soon however, Shuster and Seigel sold the rights to Superman. "The adult Superman's social conscience was also less in evidence by 1941; that particular well of inspiration may have run dry, or perhaps the change was the result of DC's editorial policy." (Bridwell, 63.) The writers were restricted in their portrayal of the Man of Steel and edgier issues were soon abandoned. Topics took on a lighter tone; Superman no longer killed people, but only stopped them for police arrest.

Superman was so successful in both comics and on the radio, owners DC Comics soon decided to branch out into the new emerging medium of television to reach a younger generation of fans. The Adventures of Superman program represented his entry into the modern technological world. This program dealt with issues of tolerance, but also demonstrated a continued transition to a lighter and more juvenile programming. In fact, Superman soon turned up in comedic performances, including a Broadway plays in which his superpowers were spoofed. In 1956, Superman as portrayed by George Reeve appeared on the I Love Lucy Show. "Such guests shots were generally reserved for Hollywood icons like John Wayne, Rock Hudson, or Harpo Marx, but in 1956 Reeves joined their illustrious company - or rather, Superman did." (Bridwell, 93.) This unique appearance signified a definite transition in the portrayal of Superman, in a comedy and as a commodity.

By 1966, Superman had debuted on Saturday morning cartoons for children with the New Adventures of Superman. "ABC (Television) got into the act in 1973 with the Hanna-Barbara series Super Friends", which ran in various forms until 1984. (Bridwell, 139.) Unlike some of the earlier representations of Superman, these episodes were clearly geared to the audience of children. These programs specifically did not contain too much violence; early drafts of some episodes with big brawl scenes were toned down due to sponsor and producer demands. Some episodes continued to contain messages of tolerance for race and religious differences, but every episode had ad time devoted to tie-in products like cereal, wallets, toys, lunchboxes, and, of course, other Superman products like the ever-enduring comic book series.

Soon the Warner Brothers Company planned a lavish, big-budget motion picture starring Christopher Reeve, which was soon followed by three additional movies in the late 1970's and early 1980's. These films briefly reintroduced the darker elements of Superman's personality with conflicts of identity, Superman's schizophrenic struggle with good versus evil, and his sexual tension with Lois Lane. Once again Superman returned to the more adult audience and movie viewer. More serious issues were included in these versions of Superman, including social issues like Communism, Feminism, nuclear destruction, and his own moral dilemmas. For example, the character of Lois Lane is a prime example a modern women's struggle for liberation. Lois is a career girl, a professional women struggling for respect in the male dominated newsroom.

Then in 1993 Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman debuted, starring Dean Cain and Terry Hatcher. This new interpretation of Superman, "as very young, very modern and very hot" once again served new audiences a familiar hero, updated for modern times. (Bridwell, 172.) This series offered Lois and Clark as near-equal partners in investigation and crime fighting. They were self-actualized adults in a committed relationship, and who were eventually headed for marriage. These two young urban professionals fought villains, held down careers and contemplated the effects that having children would have on their lifestyle - a very modern issue, indeed. (Superman Home Page.) Hatcher's role of Lois has been described as a Lois Lane for the 1990's. She is brave, competent and capable woman. Finally, Clark Kent/ Superman has met his equal.

And finally, in September 2001, Smallville aired on the teen station WB offering new audiences a younger, hipper, and once again sanitized interpretation of Superman. This is a character dealing with issues relevant to a teen audience. Two new Hollywood beauties and competent actors, Tom Welling and Kristen Kreuk, portray adolescent characters struggling with modern day issues, such as cheating on exams, anorexia, environmental contamination and organic gardening, alienation and isolation, peer pressure and parental conflicts. The producers have created a well-done program through its use of developed story lines, capable actors, eye-popping special effects and popular songs. This program helps to perpetuate America's worship of youth culture and beauty, while at the same time targeting these young viewers for marketing consumption.

The youth-oriented programming of WB "has displayed a flair for turning sci-fi and horror myths into metaphors for teen pain". (Gilbert.) Its latest reinvention of Superman, Smallville tells "the story of Clark Kent/ Superman to convey the psychic dislocation of a Midwestern Everyboy." (Gilbert.) and reaches American teens everywhere. This network continues to supply a steady stream of fresh faces that offer distraction and escapism to viewers, and opportunity to advertisers.

In the late 1990's, broadcasters such as FOX, UPN and WB began airing youth-oriented programs such as Beverly Hills 90210, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell. They provided these programs in attempts to reach the young, urban audiences that advertisers value through niche marketing. These were interesting times for advertisers as huge corporations merged and technologies converged. Programs often crossed mediums - television shows like Roswell and Smallville use and promote popular music owned by parent companies.

Top billboard songs, including the Smallville theme song, Just Save Me by Remy Zero, are often included throughout the programs. Information for the Smallville soundtrack is offered at the end of each episode and viewers are directed to websites for more (purchasing) information. Television programs list website addresses, that offer not only more information about your favorite shows and characters, but additional opportunities for sponsors to sell products through web links and banner advertising.

The WB was one of the first networks to recognize the value of niche marketing, and introduced programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This comedy/action/horror program is about a high school cheerleader who slays demons and monsters. She struggles to balance her life as a teenager with her responsibilities as the Vampire Slayer and a teenager. Airing since 1997, Buffy is a long-running favorite with young viewers. Smallville is the latest program, like Buffy, to offer a teen superhero for young viewers and consumers.

Smallville is the story of the adolescent Clark Kent growing up in modern day Smallville, Kansas. This television version is directed by the well-respected and renowned David Nutter of X-Files and Roswell fame, and presents the viewer with a younger, updated version of Superman. Young Clark Kent struggles to find his place in the world as he learns to harness his alien powers for good and to deal with the typical troubles of teenage life in a small town. "It's a bizarre story, about a strange visitor from another world, but at its heart it's a very human story too, about the dream of having power, and the hope of knowing love." (Daniels, 187.)

This program offers weekly problems to be solved by our hero with the help of family and friends. Clark's transition from boyhood to adulthood is played out as he struggles with his emerging superpowers. Clark, a 15-year old freshman, deals with the loneliness and isolation of adolescence, which is made more difficult in his necessity to hide his true gifts from friends and peers, including his unrequited love interest Lana Lang. He secretly battles villains and plagues in the besieged Smallville. The kryptonite-embedded meteors which rained down on Smallville twelve years before delivered not only the baby Kal-El (Superman), but other strange phenomena as well. These green rocks are responsible for such odd phenomena as human-mutants and evil forces in the lives of the Smallville citizens. They also provide a modern metaphor for environmental pollution and disease.

The earnest young Clark Kent has a lot to deal with. This coming of age story depicts the troubles of growing up in small town America. Clark is learning about his origins and developing his superpowers all under the tutelage of his upstanding adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Each episode designates some time to heart-to-heart conversations between the boy-hero and his concerned parents who carefully nurture their son's development. The Kents keep their son on a tight leash for fear that he might accidentally hurt someone or be discovered by those who might want to hurt or exploit him. This presents the familiar struggle of a teen longing for independence often seen in network programming and American culture.

However, in an age when many children are latchkey kids with both parents working outside of the home, Clark's parents offer a different breed of TV parent. In fact, their parenting style could be considered a return to the parents of 1950's programs like Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. The Kents are present and involved in their son's life and personal development. In fact, this may be the one most consistent way in which this show differs from other similar modern programs. These parents are different from the negligent or nearly absent parents of other programs like Beverly Hills 90120 or Roswell. The Kents are not regulated to cameo scenes in their child's life, they are featured in each episode - guiding and reassuring Clark through his tumultuous teen years.

Each new episode offers a weekly problem that is solved through Clark's own integrity and the careful direction of his protective parents, and support of his friends. This Superman is a sweet, sensitive and obedient teenager that not only listens to his parents, but also rescues others, with time left over for school and to complete his daily chores on his family's organic farm.

The October 30th episode, called "Hothead", is a story of peer pressure and breaking out of externally imposed roles. It begins with Clark and his two best friends, Pete and Chloe, talking about the school's football players who were caught cheating on an exam right before the big game. Chloe, editor of The Torch, the school newspaper, exposed these players in a recent story.

Coach Walt is looking to recruit some new players including the recently recognized strong and agile Clark. The Coach notices his skills of speed and strength when he saves Chloe from getting clobbered in the face with an errant football, flung by one exposed cheating football player. Clark catches and returns the throw and nearly knocks the player to the ground.

The Coach asks Clark to join the team in time to replace the suspended players. However, Clark has been forbidden to play team sports because his parents feel that he might hurt someone and his father believes that Clark is destined for bigger things than high school football. The coach badgers Clark into joining the team, and soon he must go home and tell his father about his decision to play.

This episode has the familiar weekly Kent Family discussion evident in each show. This week Clark struggles to get his father to understand his desire to play football, and to gain his father's trust that he will not accidentally hurt someone on the field. This heart-to-heart conversation ends with Clark disagreeing with and disobeying his father. Later, Jonathan shows up to watch Clark practices but is disgusted when he uses his powers to show off to the other players and perhaps in an attempt to impress his father. (It may demonstrate the challenges of parenting by offering solutions for affective parenting, including open and continued parent-child communication.)

Later, the principal confronts Coach Walt and tells him that a player caught cheating has come forward and implicated Coach in the scandal. Enraged the Coach starts a fire with his temper and nearly burns Principal Kwan alive in his car as he tries to escape. Clark leaves the locker room just in time to rescue the principal from the burning vehicle. It seems that the Coach has been infected by the kryptonite in the lava rocks of his steam sauna, and now has evil powers that have made him a firestarter.

That night Clark has another family discussion with his parents. Martha acts as mediator between the two, reminding Jonathan that Clark has his stubbornness, and that they need to support their son. She gives wise advice that Clark has to be prepared to make his own mistakes. Clark responds like most teenagers might, and asks her to please trust him. (The lesson here for parents and teens to continue to talk and work through conflicts.)

The bulk of the program consists of Clark and his newspaper editor friend, Chloe, discovering the Coach's secrets about the fires, cheating and abusing the team players in an all out attempt to win his 200th game. The Coach has been verbally and physically abusing players in his win-at-all- costs approach to football coaching. (There are two lessons in here - the pitfalls in winning at all costs and the need to speak up if someone is abusing you.)

These two burgeoning investigative reporters eventually confront and provoke him. The Coach responds by trying to burn down the school newspaper with Chloe inside and eventually attacking Clark in the locker room. Later that day, the Kents finally decide to attend Clark's first football game, only to discover that Clark is missing. The Coach has left him to die in the sweltering kryptonite-infested sauna. His father rescues him and then Clark saves everyone from the Coach by battling with him. Fire bursts from the showerheads; Coach Walt eventually burns himself up in a fit of uncontrollable rage. (This may be another lesson about anger management.)

The program continues with Clark having another discussion with his father and apologizing for disobeying him. Jonathan and Clark reach an understanding; Jonathan reassures Clark that he does trust him. He tells Clark that he will always be a little afraid for Clark, because part of being a parent means sometimes fearing for your child. (Hothead.)

"Hothead" ends with Lana and Clark complaining about their days - Clark's struggle to do good, and Lana loss of her first job. They both agree that sometimes you just want to scream - and so they stand on the football and scream together in teen angst.

This episode like the others deals with Clark Kent's transition from adolescent to adulthood. He struggles with is issues of identity, as he pushes the boundaries of his parental constraints. When he defies his father and joins the football team, he becomes more independent and adult.

Clark is also discovering and developing his superpowers. Each day, he wakes up and discovers a new talent for running faster, flying and his x-ray vision. Each one of these skills offers him the potential to be recognized as special, and respected by his peers. He could use his powers to play a great game of football or peek into the girl's locker room. Instead, Clark struggles to do the right thing with his powers: to fight villains, to save his family and friends, and to be a good person, all in secret. Clark meets these challenges and temptations each episode, and although he may long to have respect and prestige, or get the girl, he recognizes that he is destined for greater things.

Most importantly, Clark is learning to sacrifice without reward. He may do all of these wonderful things - save his friends and family from death by villain or accident, rescue the damsel in distress, protect the weak and vulnerable, but he will never be able to tell others about it, or take the credit. Only his mother and father know about his gifts and daring feats, and they expect nothing less from him.

Superman's latest incarnation on Smallville as a teen hero is indicative of the cultural environment in the United States. We presently live in a culture that is youth oriented; this is primarily motivated by advertisers desire to capture young audiences early for sale of their products. Many social factors contribute to this current environment. The Baby boomers, the largest population segment in the history of the United States, are now the parents of the 2nd wave of this surge in population growth. The "Echo" generation of American youngsters comprise nearly 40.8 million youth and teen viewers and potential consumers for advertiser's products. (Karl.)

They also have large disposable incomes that make them an excellent demographic for target marketing. These kids are media-savvy; they have grown up with television, advertising and exposure to multi-media. They make prime targets for crossover advertising as seen on the WB with tie-in product placements for music videos (as heard throughout the episodes) and for use of other products available on-line.

In relation to advertising, WB sponsors for the Smallville series include Victoria's Secret undergarments, AT&T cellular telephone service, Dunkin' Donuts, board games such as Pictionary and Moods, movies like Outcold and Spy Game, and on-line services, such as E-bay.

All of these ads that sponsor the new teen-hit Smallville demonstrate the viewer demographics targeted by these products. The intended audience for this type of show is young, urban consumers. By watching this show, we know what viewers in America value: youth and beauty with just the right amount of substance imparted through moral lessons. Sponsors and advertisers carefully target teen audiences for their products. The entire creation of the WB network could be viewed as nothing more than a sponsor-vehicle for reaching these new, desirable consumers.

Sure - Smallville is another show about a disenfranchised teen trying to come to terms with his destiny, and the continued mythic story of virtues, ideals and the American dream as demonstrated by the enduring Superman character. The mediums for Superman have changed through the ages with new technology and younger audiences; however, the deeper level message of commercialism has not. Superman continues to evolve through the ages, at times offering a complex character dealing with gritty social issues, and at other times, offering a pretty, lightweight, juvenile heartthrob. However, the many faces of Superman have always offered sponsors and advertisers a unique vehicle for selling a variety of ideals and products to new generations of American viewers and consumers.



Works Cited

ABC News Internet Ventures, "Hey, Big Spender.", ABCNews.com, 2001, http://abcnews.com

Bridwell, E. Nelson, Superman: From the 30's to the 70's, New York: Bonanza Books, 1971.

Daniels, Les, Superman: The Complete History, San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books, 1998.

Gilbert, Matthew, "Teenage Wasteland", Boston Globe, 25 Nov. 2001, L1.

"Hothead", Smallville, WB. Hollywood, California, 30 Oct. 2001.

Karl, Jonathan, "Children of Baby Boomers Crowd Classrooms", CNN.com, 19 Aug. 1999, http://www.cnn.com

Turner Network Television, September 15 2001

Superman Homepage, http://www.supermanhomepage.com/

Paisley Marks
December 5, 2001