The silhouette of three slightly-overlapping circles is, in most cultures, instantly recognizable and unmistakable for anything but Disney's anthropomorphic mouse, Mickey.
He's been in cartoons, movies and video games, his silhouette is plastered on Disney merchandise and he's the mascot for some of the world's biggest and most profitable theme parks. Mickey Mouse is a pop culture icon, and arguably one of the biggest in the world.
But there's another rodent in popular culture that could dethrone Mickey: Pikachu.
Best known as the star of the Japanese franchise Pokémon, Pikachu has a legitimate shot at the title of most iconic animated character. It's been in a video game series that has sold more than 260 million copies globally. It's part of a trading card game that has shipped more than 21.5 billion cards. It's the star of a television series that has spanned 800 episodes (and counting), and has appeared in 17 feature films. It's also been plastered on merchandise ranging from stationery to backpacks to plush toys to food to McDonald's Happy Meal toys. And unlike other pop culture icons like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers, Pokémon has never gone out of vogue. Since the launch of the first Pokémon game in 1996, the brand — along with Pikachu — has consistently captivated an audience of kids and tweens.
"TIME Magazine said he was one of the most beloved animated characters," said Dr. Arnold Blumberg, an expert in media and pop culture studies at the University of Baltimore. "There are plenty of people that have put him in the list of most iconic, most recognizable, and yet, what's interesting about that is he's only been around since the 1990s."
Still, Pikachu has stiff competition in Mickey Mouse, because Mickey dates back to the 1920s. He's had almost 100 years to seep into the public consciousness. He's had the auspices of Disney who, through decades of branding and marketing, have turned him into a trademark and an icon. But in one fifth the amount of time Mickey has had to establish himself as an icon, Pikachu has become a globally-recognized figure that people know about even if they've never played a Pokémon game, watched the television series or bought a pack of Pokémon trading cards.
"It's quite an astonishing achievement," Blumberg said.
THE POWER OF THE ‘CHU
There are a number of factors stacked in favor of Pikachu's icon status. Like Mickey, it's had the benefit of media saturation. But there's more to characters like Pikachu and Mickey than ubiquity. Simply being everywhere doesn't make a thing iconic.
"Being cute doesn't hurt," Blumberg said. "Then there's relatability, and I know that might be weird for a character that [only] says its name, but in a way, that's simplicity."
Blumberg said when we look at characters that have achieved global power as icons, simplicity tends to be a common thread. After all, if it's going to be something so powerful in popular culture that it can translate from country to country and from one language to another, then simplicity in design and the ability to translate regardless of different cultural perspectives is important.
A character like Mickey is instantly identifiable, and the big round ears — simple as they may be — are something few people can miss. As for Pikachu, there isn't really anything out there with similarly stumpy proportions, long pointy ears, a lightning bolt tail or orange circles sitting on pudgy cheeks.
"When you look at the Pikachu or Mickey silhouette, it's cute, it's energetic, it's child-like and there's innocence to it," Blumberg said. "All those things go together and make something powerful and iconic in pop culture."
The world's biggest pop cultural icons also find a way to remain relevant, transcending time and trends.
"Think of a band like The Rolling Stones, or a character like James Bond, or a fictional creature like Dracula, or a concept like the zombie, or a comic book character like Batman or Superman, or a game like football, or a food like KFC," said Rob Weiner, popular culture librarian at Texas Tech University. "They're all iconic because they've embedded themselves in our popular culture in a way that transcends trends and history and age."
Weiner uses Batman as an example. The character first made an appearance in a DC comic in 1939, and today people are still invested in the character.
"People have lots of opinions about whether Ben Affleck should be Batman. Why? Because he's iconic. Because Batman means something to people," he said.
People don't even have to be a die-hard fan to have an opinion — they just need to know what it is and have an idea of what it stands for. That's the power of an icon, according to both Weiner and Blumberg. People have to care about it. The creation of an icon is one part emotional magic, one part alchemy, and it helps to have a corporation throwing money behind it. In the end, though, it's about whether a character can connect with an audience. That isn't something that is easily quantifiable.
"A child is going to reach out and find a particular character magnetic or interesting to them, and you can't always predict that," Blumberg said. "If you could, we'd all be out there making pop culture icons."
Mickey Mouse may have had a several-decade head start on Pikachu, but if Pikachu has been able to achieve what it has in such a short amount of time, then Blumberg isn't ruling out the possibility that it might one day be as powerful as Mickey.
"Pop culture icons tend to be characters that capture you most as a child, and it tends to be something you carry with you for the rest of your life," Blumberg said. "So a lot of the people that will one day be most responsible for making Pikachu an icon will be the kids that were first introduced to that character in the ‘90s. They're the people who will be instrumental in making Pikachu an icon that will last for decades."