Across North Asia, the murky, semi-closeted 2D world of ACG (Animation, Comic, Game - and now also 'N' for short novel) is aggressively taking territory from the 3D world of traditional culture by breaking down the walls that have kept them apart. And it is profoundly changing the way that brands are behaving.
The world of cosplay - anime that originated from Japan - is not new. Living in Shanghai as I do, from time to time I see adult elves and fantasy warriors somewhat self-consciously waiting in line for taxis and trains. But it was always a subculture, operating below the glow of the big-business billboards and the massive malls that set the pace of mainstream consumerism in the major cities of China and North Asia.
These two worlds were kept apart by a chasm of demographics and the spending power that goes with that. Cosplay and the like was for kids with time on their hands, while the mainstream were the white collar workers who expressed themselves through luxury brands, cars and other things that cost serious money.
About 200 million people in China were born in the 1980s. And those born in the 1990s and in the first few years of the 21st century total another 330 million. Put these two groups together and you have the majority of China's internet users. Unlike the previous generations, most of these people are accustomed to paying for services online, including things like movies, music and various items of random entertainment.
Highly educated, internet-worldly and with a preference for rich plot lines, they eschew the typical TV show format where weak stories rely on big-name stars to attract an audience. The internet-going youth of today's China and North Asia are watching the TV shows that are highly imaginative and conceptual - elements that fail with the mainstream demographic.
The mainstreaming of ACGN culture is proven by the swelling numbers. From only 89 million users in 2013, this year an estimated 270 million Chinese will join in. That's one fifth of the population. And the fact that the hitherto marginalised ACGN culture is experiencing a 'demographic dividend', by riding on the rising buying power, hasn't been lost on the brands and investors.
KFC recently collaborated with a major ACGN platform called Bilibili to live-stream two anime-styled girls - complete with cute maid outfits - as they attempted to eat their way through 50 pieces of fried chicken. They failed on the 49th piece. But 200,000 'players' watched them in real time. I think we can call this sub-cultural.
A major local technology brand called Meizu invited some of the famous online ACGN identities to give a speech at their developer conference earlier this year. Its mobile phone brand worked with them to create special fantasy earphones with special characters carved on them, signalling membership of the ACGN community.
And even Louis Vuitton - a name associated with timeless, classical design -has an ACGN campaign running. It has used an avatar called 'Lightning' from the Final Fantasy video game as spokesperson for its spring 2016 collection launched in China and globally. The appearance of the avatar dumbfounded photographers who, for the first time, were capturing someone who did not exist in the real world, but was simply a representation of an online entity. For LV, a brand for which Asia represents 36% of sales, it is simply fishing where the fish are. Animated or otherwise.
The commercial activity has attracted China's big boys too. acfun.tv, the other big ACGN platform in China, received an RMB50 million investment from Youku, which is China's YouTube. Following the infusion of cash and cross-promotion, the platform's daily active users increased by 400% over the ensuing six months.
As the young, educated youth of China emerge as independent consumers, they are bringing their tastes and wallets with them. And the brands and the business community at large are swiftly responding. It looks like we will be seeing many more elves about.