Animated: BT21 expands the world of global engagement

My uncle has been gifting me BT21 merchandise ever since he found out I had interest in the South Korean boy band BTS. Even though I’m no longer as into BTS as I was many years ago, these BT21 trinkets with their cute characters have become a tradition of sorts. Every time we get packages from Taiwan, I find an assortment of BT21 items. 

Sometimes they’re socks. Sometimes they’re keychains. Either way, it’s a reminder that I have family that remembers and cares about me — as well as a reminder of the power of BT21 to appeal to fans in all their cuteness. In the airport, whenever I see people clutching BT21 plushies, I feel a fan-based connection there. Even on campus, if I see BT21 characters on backpacks, I immediately have a topic of conversation: a way to break the initial awkwardness that comes with small talk. 

For those who aren’t familiar with BT21, they’re the cute animated avatars created by BTS in affiliation with LINE FRIENDS CREATORS. BT21 consists of eight different characters. There’s bunny COOKY (Jungkook), koala KOYA (RM), alpaca RJ (Jin), puppy CHIMMY (Jimin), heart TATA (V), cookie SHOOKY (Suga), pony MANG (J-Hope),  and finally VAN, who represents the BTS fandom affectionately called ARMY. 

If you watch the YouTube video series that documents the creation of BT21, you’ll see the members of BTS sketching out their blueprint concepts for their characters. Even if you’re not a member of BTS ARMY, these videos are a wonderful glimpse into the process of creating personalized animation. 

Viewers get the opportunity to see the members’ conversations about their characters while they’re being developed, as well as compare and contrast the different iterations of the characters from start to finish. (For BTS ARMY, the members’ humorous interactions also make it a fun watching experience.) 

BT21 characters are modeled after aspects of the members’ personalities, which adds a dimension of relatability. If you already love the members for who they are, then it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll love BT21, who distill the essence of the members into unbelievably cute characters. COOKY, for example, shares Jungkook’s fondness for boxing, while RJ is also a cook like Jin.

BT21 has actively spread awareness of BTS, but mostly they’re a revolutionary form of cuteness when it comes to K-pop idols and their engagement with an international audience. Thus far, BT21 has collaborated with many relevant brands and platforms such as Facebook Messenger, skincare company Mediheal and even Incheon International Airport. Personally, there’s been many times where I’ve used BT21 nose pore strips and sheet masks — all the product of a partnership with K-Beauty brand The Crème Shop, which has been particularly fruitful for a skincare junkie like myself. 

This is an incredible testament to the implications of merchandising and marketing digital art as physical products. I know that, as a fan, I want to have a concrete means of connection. If I’m wearing a BT21 face mask (again, kudos to The Crème Shop), I’m hoping that, while being coronavirus-safe, that people who also love BT21 will resonate with it.

It might seem silly to use a mere face mask as a reinforcement of my love of the characters — and by no means do fans need to have material things to prove their love for a band, which is an idea that I find incredibly classist — but whenever I do have these items on me, I’m reminded of their visibility to fans everywhere.

BT21 and their animations are inarguably a mechanism for greater visibility. Their presence is a means of global engagement, as I’ve seen BT21 merchandise everywhere from New York to Taipei. Their animated shorts on YouTube also feel like whole television shows on their own.

My favorite part about BT21 in relation to such shorts is their promotional role for the Incheon airport. Seeing these characters engage in standard airport activities that might otherwise seem mundane — checking in bags or eating — redefines my own interactions with the airport. 

Perhaps BT21 at Incheon International Airport is also symbolic of BTS’s role in increasing awareness of South Korean culture and their groundbreaking status in South Korean entertainment. Either way, the next time I end up going to a LINE FRIENDS store, I’ll be looking out for BT21 merchandise, just to remind myself of the global power they have. 

Valerie Wu is a senior writing about animation and digital arts from a contemporary perspective. Her column “Animated” runs every other Tuesday.