25 YEARS OF BRUCE MITCHELL – DAY 10 (1999): Titled “Children” – Looking at WWE marketing

Vince McMahon (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


This month marks the 25th Anniversary of Bruce Mitchell becoming a Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter columnist. No single person has influenced the editorial tone and direction of the Torch brand over the years than Bruce, who brought a hard-hitting, supremely well-informed, speak-truth-to-power approach to his writing. He went after sacred cows out of the gate, such as the beloved among “smart fans” (today’s “Internet fans” or “IWC,” I suppose) Eddie Gilbert and Jim Cornette. He also went hard after people in positions of authority and power who were abusing or misusing that power, or just not delivering a worthy product. He has also applauded and paid tribute to the greatest moments and movements in pro wrestling over the last 25 years, with a style of writing that has yet to be matched anywhere, I contend (despite Bill Simmons’s arrogant and uninformed contention last year that no one wrote at a high level about pro wrestling until his “Masked Man” columnist came along).

To celebrate and highlight Bruce’s stellar 25 years of influential and eloquent truth-telling about this fascinating industry, we’ll be featuring a single column from each of the last 25 years each of the first 25 days this month. His long-form columns were a pioneer approach to pro wrestling journalism, and the next 25 years you’ll experience a slice of what it is that has earned Bruce Mitchell widespread recognition within the industry over the years as being “Pro Wrestling’s Most Respected Columnist.” We began on Oct. 1st with his very first column, from Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter #89 (cover dated Oct. 5, 1990).

Today we feature his column from the Apr. 10, 1999 edition of the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter titled “Children” looking at how not only does Vince McMahon have a knack for promoting to and attracting children as viewers, but he deals with controversy like a child too.

NOTE: VIP members can access hundreds of Mitchell columns instantly in the BRUCE MITCHELL LIBRARY here, part of the massive unmatched online archives of insider wrestling coverage from over the past 28 years.

Originally published April 10, 1999″Children”

Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #543

“Last Monday night on Raw, every parent held their child just a little bit closer, just a little bit tighter…”

—Kevin Kelly, Sunday Night Heat

“The WWF would cease to exist without children.”

—Phil Mushnick

Children have many wonderful qualities.

This column is about none of them.

The WWF is the consummate children’s promotion. No one knows and promotes to children’s real tastes like Titan Sports. Rugrats, Teletubbies, Sesame Street, Nickelodeon et al appeal to children’s better nature, teaching them sharing, caring, and peace.

The WWF appeals to children’s real nature.

And after getting a pass from the mainstream media for over a year and a half, the WWF finds itself in yet another media scandal. Vince McMahon’s defiant attitude during appearances on NBC’s “Dateline”, Fox News, and ESPN “Outside the Lines” has marked him and his company as easy targets for media outlets and politicians on the prowl to be on the “right” side of the collective social conscience.

As an educator with a Master’s in Elementary Education and several years in the primary classroom, and a writer with too many years watching wrestling, I may be uniquely qualified to comment on why the WWF’s Attitude appeals as much to younger fans as to the 16 to 35 year old males.

Where I teach, pro wrestling has shot past traditional sports in popularity. Students may know Michael Jordan plays for the Chicago Bulls but they don’t know he retired and they don’t know the difference between the Denver Broncos, the New York Yankees, and the UNC Tarheels. Only Rugrats and Chucky the Murderous Doll are in pro wrestling’s same league.

But they know Stone Cold. They roll their eyes like the Undertaker and cock their eyebrows like the Rock. They wear more wrestling shirts than any other kind. They play Raw is War and WCW/NWO video games. They bring Sting, Kane, and Randy Savage dolls to school. They give each other Diamond Dallas Page Valentine Cards. Nine year old girls want to be Sable and can imitate her pelvic “dance.” Children spear, stun, and diamond cut each other on the playground if no one is watching. One afternoon I watched, half–amazed, a fervent fan complete Steve Austin’s entire pre–ring ritual, including the one finger salute at each imaginary ring post of a soccer goal.

Tuesday mornings I take a quick, quiet look around the classroom at the children I know most likely stayed up past eleven to watch a show that leaves them too stimulated to get much sleep. I listen to the discussion of the night’s last angle, invariably from Raw, that tells me they saw the whole show. One week these viewers saw the crucifixion of Austin, another week they saw the Sexual Chocolate three–way, another week Mankind pouring out thumbtacks, and every week they can see the blood and hear the language. Every week all of the children in the class are affected by Monday Night Wrestling, whether they watched it or not.

Vince McMahon plugs right into the Kiddie Id, right at the time when the traditional protectors of children are overwhelmed by a cultural storm. Parents, teachers, and anyone else interested in the best interests of children have to make sense of a bewildering onslaught: absent fathers, absent mothers, single parents with two and three jobs, crack, crime, abject poverty, and a splintered media that offers children access to everything from Barney to Snoop. Many parents and guardians are too consumed with the struggle for survival to offer much resistance to any television programming that keeps their children occupied at home.

Parents should monitor what their children watch, for their protection. Many do. Many can’t, for various reasons. Many don’t, for no good reasons. Most of their children go to school together. Despite what you may see on public service commercials, in our society it’s hardly Children First. This has created a unique opportunity for Titan Sports.

Ask Vince McMahon, it’s all about opportunity.

After all, Vince Jr. made his national breakthrough in the early ’80s by marketing Hulkamania and its attendant toys, cartoons, and ice cream to a children’s audience. Children were told to model themselves after a blonde–haired, blue–eyed steroid freak. McMahon is an old hand at the exploitation of children.

This time things were different. Desperate to win the ratings war, with an audience ravenous for wilder and more vulgar entertainment, Titan kept pushing. Fans loved it and even McMahon was surprised to find that none of the movers or shakers in our society seemed to care. So he kept pushing, and cashing in.

Why aren’t kids watching soap operas like NYPD Blue, the shows McMahon keeps comparing his product with? What makes a product that claims, and seems to be, marketed to young males so exciting to children?

Because while the WWF Attitude has adult elements like hardcore violence and language, at it’s core—it’s rotten heart—is a childish show.

Like Sesame Street and Dr. Suess, Raw has rhythmic chant–along segments simple enough for the youngest child to memorize (“…if you smellala what the Rock… is cooking”). Like T–ball, Raw has easy to learn hand signals and arm movements (“And if you’re not down with that, I got two words for ya’…”)

Children respond to ritual and structure, and are comforted by the familiar. Every WWF Superstar has a verbal, auditory, and visual schtick that defines them, a simple code that makes it easier for kids to relate (“Oh you didn’t know?” “Whatta’ We Want? Head!”).

For all of the pride WWF script–writers take in their storylines, Raw is rife with the type of plot holes that drive adults crazy but kids hardly notice—as long as something wild is happening. Or did you think the WWF would bother to explain how Bossman survived his lynching? Chyna betraying DeGenX, Hunter fighting her, then turning on his friends to rejoin her reminded me of nothing more than the transient alliances that crop up and dissolve on the playground every day.

And if there is anything kids understand, it’s hitting back. Part of parents’ and teachers’ responsibility is teaching children how to deal with conflict and frustration in positive ways. A child’s first instinct, when provoked, is to hit back. Posted somewhere in every elementary classroom is a list of rules, and somewhere high on that list is a rule that boils down to “No Hitting.”

WWF Superstars hit back.

Also on that list of rules is something about “appropriate language.”

WWF Superstars swear.

For that matter, if kids, particularly boys, were allowed to drink beer and go to strip clubs there would be no room at the Platinum Club for the rest of y’all. Billy Gunn showing his ass and Sable teasing tittie has little to do with adult sexuality and everything to do with a childish fascination with private parts. Who’s more fascinated with Playboy Magazine than a pubescent boy?

And then there’s the Ultimate Boy, Stone Cold Steve Austin. No one tells Stone Cold how to dress, how to talk, what to drink, or what to do. Austin takes what he wants. If Principal/Teacher/Parent Mr. McMahon tries to stop him, Austin just gives him the finger and beats him up. Why not, he’s smarter than any authority figure.

Just like real boys, Austin likes to play with guns and the Big Trucks. Just like real boys, he doesn’t like to play with girls.

Most attractive of all, liking Raw can give younger children a way to bond with the teenagers who love the fast paced violence of wrestling. No stigma of Baby stuff like RugRats or the like. Little kids like nothing more than to be cool like the big kids.

Vince McMahon has finally created a real marketing revolution (Okay, he stole part of it from Paul Heyman) that transcended anything he ever did with wrestling. McMahon skipped right over what until now has always been thought to be a requirement for anything televised for children—The Lesson.

Children’s programming is meant to teach—how to read, how to get along, and to live a happier, more constructive life—and then it tries to sell something. Titan Sports appeals not to the child in everyone but to the childishness.

McMahon didn’t plan it this way. It just comes naturally to the Titan President and his brain–trust. McMahon has been acting like a 53 year old kid ever since the wrestling boom started. The Inner Child in Vince McMahon shows itself constantly on Raw when he plays Wrestler and proves he’s one of the boys even if his over–expanded skin is beginning to turn a strange, unhealthy pallor as a result.

Playing on television is one thing. It is, after all, his show and his fans certainly love it. But Vince McMahon acts like a kid in a more dangerous way to the future of his business.

Like a kid, Vince doesn’t think about the future before he mouths off. His quote to TV Guide about drug testing (“No one cares”) took an ominous turn with the ESPN revelations about the death of Brian Pillman.

More, he uses children’s logic to defend himself against criticism of his product. McMahon is clearly someone not used to defending himself on the merits of his arguments. His excuses should sound familiar to anyone who deals with children on a regular basis:

•“Why are you picking on me? Everybody else does it!”

This one used to be reserved for kids caught smoking. McMahon adapted it for his own use, whining about NYPD Blue, Soap Operas, Jerry Springer, and Arnold Swarzenegger movies.

•“Castration? What castration? It’s just, uh, a guy trying to chop off another guy’s penis. Nothing happens.”

No one can split meaningless hairs like kids, or Vince McMahon.

•When all else fails, deny everything.

Also a favorite of Hollywood Hogan (“Dr. Chen? Who’s Dr. Chen?”). Every teacher knows the student who immediately starts denying everything in a loud voice. He did it. Guaranteed. Vince McMahon says Titan doesn’t market to children. Never mind the beanie babies, candy, foam heads, action figures, toy trucks, ad nauseum…

•Talk about their mamas.

Nothing makes Vince McMahon look like a child more than his inane attempts to get TV Guide and New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick into a personal feud by calling him a “coward” in at least three venues (Fox News, Raw Magazine, and the WWF website). Except for further bonding with short–sighted WWF fans, it’s hard to see why McMahon would do this or why Mushnick is a “coward” for continuing to write well–reasoned attacks on a business that can’t seem to police its excesses. Mushnick carries weight in the all important New York media, media always on the prowl for a new scandal. Why alienate them? Unless…

•“He hit me!”

Ever wonder why Vince McMahon was so mad when he realized Phil Mushnick was not going to be in that Fox studio and yet he wouldn’t debate him on the phone? McMahon has been sending poison pen letters to Mushnick for months trying to goad him into a live confrontation. If he had some dirty secret to unload on Mushnick (“Phil asked us for Sable’s phone number, and we taped the call…”) he could have done it on live TV without Mushnick’s presence. But when you consider the last smudge left on Vince McMahon in “Wrestling with Shadows” after a year and a half of Raw white–washing is that Bret Hart knocked him out with one punch, the plan seems clear. In absence of Bret, who better to punch than Wrestling’s Enemy, Phil Mushnick?

The childish side of Titan Sports has brought the company to its financial peak. If Vincent McMahon doesn’t curtail his Inner Kid in favor of his inner–CEO, however, some politico is going to make Titan Sports an election issue. Now is when we’ll find out whether Vince McMahon is a businessmen, or a 53 year old child.



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