By Josh Golin
Wall-E, Disney's smash hit about the last remaining trash-compacting robot on an abandoned and pollution-saturated Earth, has inspired a lot of adult conversations for a kids' movie. Progressives love its prescient ecological message and its critique of expanding corporate influence. Some conservatives decry its "fear mongering" and "leftist propaganda". Others see the film as a cautionary tale about big government run amok.
If Wall-E were only a movie, I'd put myself squarely in the first camp. As an anti-commercialism activist, I cheered Wall-E's explicit linking of corporate marketing, consumption, and environmental degradation. Of course, it didn't hurt that the film is both visually stunning and genuinely moving. Or that, as a fan of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I was enthralled by the film's audaciously silent opening sequence.
But Wall-E isn't merely a film. Like nearly all media produced for kids these days, it's also a brand. There are dozens of Wall-E action figures and electronic toys, as well as video games for eight different systems. There are Wall-E backpacks, lunch bags, clothing, sheets, baking tins, dinnerware, plastic cups, invitations, thank-you notes, piñatas, and tattoos. There are already 28 Wall-E books. Adults can debate the movie's meaning all they want, but for kids the takeaway message of the entire Wall-E experience is buy, buy, buy.
It's incredibly hypocritical for Disney to simultaneously profit from a film about a world overrun by garbage and from the toys and merchandise that will fill tomorrow's trash. It's sad to think of those Wall-E action figures (Collect them all!) stuck in landfills long after the film has left theaters, with any associated positive messages forgotten. It's hard not to envision a moment in the future where Wall-E stumbles into small mountains of his own branded merchandise.
Those who celebrate Wall-E's green message can only do so by turning a blind eye to the impact of the Wall-E brand in the real world. That means not only overlooking all that Wall-E stuff, but that one of the film's corporate partners is BP, one of the world's largest oil companies. Visitors to the Wall-E website (another part of the Wall-E experience that resides outside the theater) can click through to BP's special website for kids, where they transfer their warm feelings about the movie and any messages they've internalized about saving the earth to BP.
As adults, we may be able to separate media texts from their attendant commercialism. But that's not how kids experience media programs and characters. In children's increasingly commercialized and media-saturated worlds, Shrek is Shrek—whether he's on-screen charmingly teaching lessons about inner beauty or on a cereal box hawking sugar and calories. Marketers understand this; that is why they are so eager to use popular characters to sell kids on almost anything. Ads for kids' films and their licensed products run continually on children's television, reinforcing each other and promoting the idea that the way to express love for a character is to own it in as many forms as possible.
That is a particularly frightening idea. The commercial pressures on kids continue to increase. If we are to have any hope of reversing the consumer-driven destruction of our planet, we need to teach young children—the targets of all the Wall-E merchandise marketing—that play and love do not equal consumption.
Josh Golin is the Associate Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.