When 37-year-old Jack recently brought a woman back to his house after a date, she was taken aback by his spare room. Stacked in neat boxes from the floor to the ceiling, exactly 1,080 plastic figurines fill the rec room in Jack’s California home. Over the past four years, the grape farmer — who is identified here by a pseudonym — has spent more than $9,000 on the toys.
Each of Jack’s toys has a pair of large, vacant black eyes, a square head, and a disproportionately small body. They are Pop Vinyl figurines, created by the 20-year-old company Funko Inc., based in Washington state, and launched in 2011. Known to fans simply as “Funko Pops,” each toy is based on a pop culture character, and according to the official Funko App, there are now 8,366 different figures. Alongside the expected superheroes, you can buy Funko Pops of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Tupac Shakur, Abraham Lincoln, Cece from New Girl, a shark from Sharknado, and the son of the creator of Vans shoes, Steve Van Doren. Everyone, the official Funko motto goes, is a fan of something.
“We take pride in the fact that we can Popify about anything,” says Sean Wilkinson, Funko’s creative director, who has been with the company since its inception. “There’s nothing we won’t do at this point.”
Funko Pops are now available from 25,000 retail brands worldwide, from Walmart to Amazon to Hot Topic and even, somewhat bizarrely, Foot Locker. In 2018, the company’s net sales increased 33 percent to $686.1 million, with figurines accounting for 82 percent of all sales. After the company released its Q2 earnings report in early August, declaring that sales up are 38 percent compared to this time last year, CEO Brian Mariotti called his company “recession proof.”
It’s likely you’ve now encountered a Funko Pop — be it on a coworker’s desk, wrapped under a Christmas tree, or waiting, blank-eyed, in your date’s home. Why exactly are the figurines so phenomenally popular, and how did the company come to dominate the pop culture merchandising market?
“When I walk into my room full of Pops, I like to look around and just be blasted by nostalgia,” Jack says of his collection. “I like that you can have characters from an old Mexican TV show, and you can have a Care Bear, and you can have John Wick and Elvira, and they all look right together. They’re kind of uniform — you can have all these different genres together in one concise collection.”
Collectors like Jack make up 36 percent of Funko’s customers, while 31 percent are “occasional buyers.” Wilkinson says Funko Pops appeal to both markets because of the “science of cute” behind the figurines’ design.
“There’s literally a certain height of eyes a certain width apart, and the head being two-thirds the size of the body, it’s a set ratio,” he explains. “Like baby animals with big eyes that are kind of far apart. I think it’s sort of born in us to be attracted to these things.” Wilkinson says because of these strategic design decisions, there are many “reluctant” Pop collectors. “A lot of people didn’t want to like these … and they’d buy one, they’d buy two, and suddenly they’re hooked.”
Yet it’s also undeniable that many people find Funko Pops ugly or unnerving — in the past two months, a YouTube video titled “I HATE FUNKO POP VINYLS” has accumulated more than a million views. “The Dory one looks like the physical manifestation of human sin,” reads the top comment on the video, with more than 1,500 likes. (For what it’s worth, Wilkinson acknowledges that designing fish Funkos is hard — “anything with eyes on the side of its head is always a bit of a challenge.”)