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Disney's marketing menagerie

David Rowan

London Times, December 19, 2005

A mouse, a dim bear, a messianic lion; they all turn children into compulsive consumers

THINK, THINK, THINK. Even a Bear of Very Little Brain could work out why Disney is replacing Christopher Robin after 80 years in Hundred Acre Wood with a “tomboyish” six-year-old girl. She may defile A.A. Milne’s literary creation, but with all that hunny to be made from merchandising, why should a childhood classic escape a shareholder-pleasing corporate makeover?

There is nothing new in Disney exploiting children’s imaginations in its quest to create ever younger consumers. Walt sold the rights to put Mickey Mouse on school writing pads in 1929; the Mickey Mouse Club followed a year later. In management speak, it was vertically integrated synergy: use the cartoons to push merchandise and theme parks, use merchandise and theme parks to flog the movies. As Walt’s brother Roy put it: “The sale of a doll to any member of a household is a daily advertisement in that household for our cartoons and keeps them all ‘Mickey Mouse Minded’.”

Trouble is, the financial stakes are now so high for the Mousehouse that children’s everyday lives are being bombarded by its inescapable promotional messages. From broadcast channels to burger bars, churches to classrooms, Disney is targeting the under-10s ever more shamelessly as malleable consumers. Since Pooh Bear was rebranded in 1966 as the American-accented, T-shirted plushie demanded by toy stores (“a complete travesty”, lamented his illustrator, Ernest Shepard), Disney’s “key pre-school property” is now worth up to $5 billion a year, thanks to everything from Pooh branded waffle irons to “Roo Juice”.

Lord knows what C.S. Lewis would make of Narnia, now transformed by Disney’s curse into a marketing extravaganza. The company’s former boss, Mike Eisner, once said: “We have no obligation to make art. To make money is our only objective.” So why wouldn’t Disney squeeze every penny from The Chronicles of Narnia? Disney’s genius has been to take its brand to magical lands far beyond conventional advertising via the various Disney channels, cereals and comics. This time Christ himself (in the guise of Aslan the lion) has been co-opted to tap into little minds.

Even the clergy have bought into Disney’s “faith and family outreach campaign” and have screened the film in churches and Sunday schools. In an attempt to emulate the church-based campaign that boosted Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, two Christian marketing companies have been hired to promote sermons designed to push the film’s “spiritual” values; the children’s department of the Methodist Church has even developed an entire Narnia-themed service, with images provided by the film’s distributors.

Schools are particularly important in the marketing drive. Even before the studio began working on the script executives were consulting teachers about how to work the plot into lessons. Every elementary and middle school in America has been blitzed with Narnia teaching guides about “an epic film set in a breathtaking world”, and libraries have received donations of new paperbacks. Oh, and then there are the displays in shopping malls of McDonald’s Narnia Happy Meals, the promotions on everything from Oral B toothbrushes to Quilted Northern toilet paper . . .

Surely, if C.S. Lewis’s intention with Narnia was to stimulate children’s spiritual development, he would not have supported the commercialisation of schools and churches like this. Nor should clergy and teachers, however well-intentioned, allow themselves to be used to boost the fortunes of Narnia “marketing partners” such as Unilever and General Mills.

You heathen, the Disney PR machine will doubtless reply: our agenda is simply to delight hundreds of millions of children, harmlessly purveying the wholesome, uplifting values of community decency. To which the Christian response would be: no, what you’re really doing is flogging, among other things, high-fat, high-sugar burgers and cereals on the back of a film. If manipulating children to pester their parents for junk is the “family magic” to which Disney aspires, then put this parent back in the wardrobe.

The truly brilliant part of Disney’s plan is its ability to bypass parental concerns altogether by targeting children when they are beyond the adults’ reach. Mum and dad might conscientiously monitor junior’s exposure to television advertising, but online he is far less likely to be supervised. So Disney is exploiting its trusted reputation to serve up “advergames” — immersive games that have inbuilt marketing messages. At its online Virtual Magic Kingdom, for instance, children are invited to “chat, play and trade with friends” for free while learning all about the benefits of persuading parents to take them to a Disney theme park or resort — neatly blurring the line between advertising and entertainment.

True, that leaves those inconvenient slivers of a child’s day when he is off-line, insulated from television and magazine advertisements, unreachable even by a Narnia-preaching vicar.

Thoughtfully, Disney is addressing those lost sales opportunities too. Next year the company intends to launch a mobile-phone service targeted at children as young as eight — a perfect way to sell those branded ring tones and logos. It also plans its own portable music and video player which, according to a patent application, might be replenished once its young owner had paid sufficient visits to McDonald’s.

All our dreams can come true, Walt Disney once said, if we have the courage to pursue them. But need his successors’ dreams commercialise childhood quite so brutally?


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