K-Pop fans and the seduction of merchandising

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A fan’s photocard collection of the eight-member group Stray Kids

Korean entertainment companies are well aware of fans’ parasocial relationships with K-Pop idols, and take advantage of fans’ obsessive splurging tendencies by offering a slew of merchandise marked with their idols’ images.

To book collectors, the woodsy smell of a new volume can be an emotional experience. To K-Pop fans and merchandise collectors, unsealing the plastic wrap of a newly bought album can bring a frenzy of feelings. They rummage through its inclusions – usually a photobook, postcard, CD and sticker pack – to find the most important piece: the photocard, or a small print of their idol’s “exclusive” selfie, whether in a matte or glossy finish. 

Fans usually collect only the photocard of their favorite band member, but some go all-out and include all members in their collection. Naturally, the expense involved is considerable.


But obtaining photocards is some sort of a lottery. When a fan buys an album, he or she usually gets only one or two photocards out of, say, 20 available variations. Receiving a photocard of a favorite band member is not guaranteed, thus prompting fans to buy more albums to increase their chances of winning the photocard lottery.

K-Pop group Seventeen had 260 photocards for an album alone

Related: Staying high on K-drama

It is thus no surprise that an average Filipino collector spends thousands of pesos in obsessing over completing a collection. 

Said high school senior Alex, 18: “I believe collecting is only sustainable if you have a stable income or source of money. [It] is much more enjoyable and guilt-free when you are financially secure.”

K-Pop group NCT’s “special yearbook cards” cost up to P75,000. There are only 500 copies of each card.

Alex, who asked that her surname not be used in this report, started a photocard collection in 2020 but eventually quit adding to her stash.

“Since I am a student, the only money I receive is my allowance,” she said. “I decided to spend my money on other things. I know I can always go back to collecting once I have the means to do so.”

Although photocards have been around for more than a decade, it wasn’t until recently that the collectible market grew exponentially. Consumer behavior drastically changed as photocards became more popular over time.

It used to be that the fans most valued the photobook, a magazine-like item showing off concept photos, among the album inclusions. Now they care more about photocards. Korean fans have been observed discarding other album inclusions on the side of the street after finding the photocards.


(L) EXO’s Growl photocards (2013); (R) EXO’s Cream Soda photocards (2023)

Fans enjoy collecting photocards from different eras to see how their idols have changed over the years.

Hyperfixation on K-Pop merchandise is rooted in the sense of connection. Collectors feel like “real fans” the more engrossed they become in this hobby. Their deep connection with their collection translates to a deep love for their idol.

“The merch that I collect has sentimental value. You somehow see their growth in the photocards that you have,” said Chesca Tuazon, 21.

Recognizing how emotionally driven collectors are, Korean entertainment companies release heaps of merchandise to cash in on the fans’ propensity to lighten their wallets. 

But while some fans have shown unwavering patronage, others are finding the merchandise madness unreasonable.

“In the past years, the production of merch has surged, and everything has a photocard now,’’ Chesca said. “Even Pepsi, pizza stores, clothes, cosmetics have come up with photocards for marketing. They know that whatever happens, the fans will buy the items. That’s why they release so much stuff.” 

Toxic hobby  

For this reason, certain fans have veered away from collecting, realizing that it is a toxic hobby that triggers more exhaustion than joy. But slowing down and ignoring new releases are easier said than done when one is surrounded by fans desperate to complete their stash. 

Still, many have criticized the insanity of the collecting culture. At the end of the day, after all, K-Pop is inherently capitalist: Idols are products for public consumption and objects whose worth is measured by the profit they rake in.

Hermione Chelsea S. Visto, a third-year journalism student at the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication, is an intern of CoverStory.ph.

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