Back in 1996, I reviewed the brand-new computer game, Tomb Raider, which featured the curvaceous Lara Croft as the chief gun-toter. In doing so, I stumbled across a comment made by one of the game's programmers:
"The simple reason for having a main character as a woman is that if you are looking at a character all the way through a game, the more pleasing on the eye it is, the better. Plus, psychologically, a male playing the game will be more involved with a woman character, in some macho, protective, little farty way."
Who would have thought that a "little farty way" would have spawned the global marketing colossus that is Lara Croft, the bosomy, narrow-waisted brunette with a penchant for munitions?
We have since left behind the novelty of cross-media migrations, having watched the Super Mario Brothers, Street Fighter and Final Fantasy computer games, among others, all transfer to the big screen. But Lara Croft in the recent movie "Tomb Raider" is a spectacular example of the species.
The marketing has reached a new 'maturity', or at least a new ubiquitousness. It has gone beyond the action figure dolls, burger promos and corporate "tie-in partners" - in the case of Tomb Raider, Lara's mates are Taco Bell, Ericsson, Land Rover and Pepsi. Lara has gone on to conquer the mainstream media, triggering a wealth of general interest stories and, therefore, marketing dreams.
For starters, consider that Lara Croft has been appointed ambassador for UK science and technology. I kid you not. British Science Minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville said Britain should show the world that it was at the cutting edge of new developments.
"I want people when they think of this country to think of such scientific achievements as Thrust, the first supersonic car, and the Psion palmtop computer. I want Lara Croft to be an ambassador for British scientific excellence."
Second on the weird-ometer is that British actress Rhona Mitra, one of the official real-life Lara Croft models chosen by Eidos Interactive, the game's developers, was reported to have had her breasts enlarged by her plastic surgeon father. (Mitra denied the bit about dad being involved.) You know consumer awareness is booming when a computer-generated woman begats a human model who in turn makes it into the magazine gossip columns.
The most bizarre twist in the Croft tale is that the media, all over the world, have demonstrated no qualms in discussing Lara's - um - breasts. Apparently this is the "pleasing on the (male) eye" marketing technique that our programmer friend mentioned. It is as though a movie studio mogul has dictated that Lara's chest is not a marketing angle, it is the marketing angle of this movie.
I innocently typed "When was Tomb Raider first released?" into the Ask Jeeves search engine, expecting to get a straight answer. Instead Jeeves suggested the question I really wanted answered was "What size breasts does Angelina Jolie have in Tomb Raider?"*Oscar-winning Angelina Jolie plays Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider", and she does nothing to dissuade the busty questions. Jolie was interviewed by Empire magazine on the movie's set, where she glanced down at her padded breasts and said, "These babies have grown too, I can tell you. Boy, am I now popular at home!" Ironically, Jolie had played the Tomb Raider game well before she was chosen as the big-screen Lara, and had remarked, "Oh, that's ridiculous. How is she possibly jumping with that chest?"
Is this mammary-based marketing just the male teenager demographic wagging the dog? Well. probably, but at least one male I found on the Net was willing to claim higher virtues for Ms Croft.
"She's young, fairly good-looking, and has a pair of, um, to quote Hemingway, 'hills like white elephants'," but "anyone who considers Lara Croft a bad role model just because of her looks is a fool. She is strong, intelligent, and she knows what she is doing."
Ah yes, but can she do it if you take away her breasts, guns and knives?
In the US, "Tomb Raider" had the largest ever weekend cinema opening for a movie headlined by a woman, and the demographic for that weekend's screenings was encouraging: only 55 per cent male, split evenly between the lucrative under-25 mob and the not-so-lucrative over-25s.
No matter what you think of Lara and her twin marketing dynamos, you're going to see a lot more of her (and them). Jolie has signed for two sequels to the movie, there's the upcoming TV documentary, and Eidos and Nokia are working to cram Lara into your mobile phone as a WAP game.
And it was all once just a twinkle in a computer programmer's eye.