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I know that manga publishers such as Weekly Shonen Jump hold character popularity contests for mangas such as Naruto and Bleach. Where did this originate and why is it done?

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    It probably has at least a little to do with using them as marketing tools to see what characters are popular among what demographics
    – Jon Lin
    Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 20:48
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    I expect it also makes for good feedback for the author to know which characters are working and which aren't. For example, in Negima, Makie Sasaki topped a popularity poll when she hadn't even had a story devoted to her and had never done anything particularly noteworthy. A little while later, there was a story that focused on her. Somehow, Makie was working for the readers, but it probably would have been hard to see that from an author's perspective.
    – Torisuda
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 7:48

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This is such a common marketing strategy that I doubt it has an origin, but as for why it is done, it is to cater to the audience.

In the manga Bakuman, a popularity poll placed a side character named Kazuya Hiramaru in fourth place, immediately afterwards several chapters were devoted to him, which were very popular.

This implies that this practice is equally beneficial, and probably smiled upon by both readers and editors alike.

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