It’s seldom an accident. It’s not a lightning strike or a shooting star — more like a mad science. It’s specifically designed to make viewers weak in the knees and unable to suppress an “Awwwww” while held in its thrall. (Resistance is futile.) It’s the art of manufacturing mass-produced, all-consuming Pop Culture Cuteness — and it’s huge business.
For the most part, the cuteness-industrial-complex runs parallel to the zeitgeist, but sometimes — when the stars align to shine a certain twinkle down upon us — it violently butts into the mainstream. The recent arrival of Minions, the Despicable Me spinoff that focuses on the instantly iconic and possibly inbred creatures that exist to serve history’s greatest villains, typifies how such incursions refuse to be ignored. The $593 million promotional blitz leading up to the release of the film made the little yellow agents of death more ubiquitous than any celebrity in the world: There were Minions Tic Tacs, Minions Chiquita bananas, Minions Twinkies, Minions McDonald’s fries… for a brief period of time, the average American diet was basically just eating various shapes of Minions. And the marketing didn’t stop at food products — Amazon got in on the action as well, shipping their items in boxes that looked like coffins for the balding Doctor Moreau rejects on their sides.
But there’s a good reason why Comcast and its partners felt comfortable spending such an ungodly amount of money to publicize a movie that features Jon Hamm voicing a character named Herb Overkill: It’s undeniably cute. And cuteness, as the $625 the film has earned at the international box office so far might suggest, is the universal language (we used to think it was math, but we’ve since evolved from such an ignorant and naïve understanding of the world). It’s also immediate. Cuteness instills brand recognition without requiring any, relying on particular shapes in order to trigger the biological impulse for affection that Nobel Prize–winning physiologist Konrad Lorenz referred to as an “innate releasing mechanism.” As if it wasn’t already clear before Minions opened to more than $115 million, the culture of pop cuteness is real — call it “Pop Cute-ture” — and there may be nothing we can do to stop it.
The most surprising thing about such aggressive adorableness is that these phenomena don’t happen more often. Perhaps that’s because America has erected barriers to protect us from such things, making cuteness one of the few areas where high and low art are encouraged to stay in their respective pens and every niche knows its place. But when the pop world is so rigidly segregated, the rare instances of spillover can have a profound effect. By looking at several landmarks of both foreign and domestic Pop Cute-ture, perhaps we can learn something about how they occurred, what they became, and why some forces might remain beyond our control.