This Old Mouse

At the age of 74, can Mickey still manufacture the magic™?

Despite accusations of market saturation, cultural homogenization, and unethical labor practices, Disney still holds most of the cards in the image-making game.<br>
<i>©MCMLXXXIV Walt Disney Productions</i>
Despite accusations of market saturation, cultural homogenization, and unethical labor practices, Disney still holds most of the cards in the image-making game.
©MCMLXXXIV Walt Disney Productions

As an Irish-Catholic kid from Boston, I've never been to Disney World. It's just not done. Even if my pasty-faced family had ever braved the hot sun and the bright colors of Florida, we would have turned back when we saw the ticket prices. "Well, I think there's a lot of fun we can have right here in the parking lot," my mom would say, and she'd mean it, too -- she grew up with games like "Sidewalk Olympics."

In contrast, my best friend Tommy was a Disney kid through and through. When I played at his house, we designed models of vomit-inducing amusement park rides with a dashing disregard for the frailty of the human condition and the steadfastness of laws of physics. We watched the Disney Channel or played Mickey Mousecapades on his Nintendo while sitting on his Winnie the Pooh blanket. When Tom got out his Disney World brochures, I secretly wished that my family would go on vacation somewhere a little more adventurous than nearby StoryLand, with its short lines, petting zoos, and a roller coaster that lumbered around a nearly level track.

Disney has a powerful effect on the hearts and minds of American kids from a very young age, an effect that stays with us as we grow older. For many people, it turns into nostalgia; for others, sour grapes. Either way, the company's image is so powerful, it's nearly impossible to cut through the mythology, to figure out what's real and what's simply a part of Disney's skewed reflection of our own self-image.

The House the Mouse Built

According to the October 2001 cover story in Wired magazine, the value of the Walt Disney Company's brand image now represents 60% of its market capitalization. That means the Disney name, logo, and reputation are worth more on the open market than the combined value of its physical assets and intellectual property. It's one of a handful of corporations in the world -- like Coca-Cola -- whose identity has been elevated to the level of a cultural icon, a symbol that is so well-understood across a society that it could be considered a part of the collective unconscious.

How did it get to be this way?

Uncle Walt is often quoted as having said, "I hope we never lose sight of one thing: that it all started with a mouse." That mouse was born in 1928, and Disney began licensing his image for use on school writing tablets the very next year. Shrewdly pursuing new markets has been a cornerstone of the Disney success story ever since. During World War II, when the box office wasn't keeping pace with production costs, Disney made military training films. When television came along, they began making TV shows like The Mickey Mouse Club, an hourlong Disney promotional tool. With cable came the Disney Channel, following in the footsteps of The Mickey Mouse Club prototype.

The company that started with a mouse is now the world's third largest media conglomerate, with holdings that include Miramax Films, ABC, ESPN, Hollywood Records, two sports franchises, and a seemingly endless supply of companies with licensing agreements, from Nestle to McDonald's. The five divisions of Disney -- Consumer Products, Media Networks, Vacation Resorts, Studio Entertainment, and Internet -- are presided over by cantankerous CEO Michael Eisner, who during the past 20 years has done his best to unite these five silos into one synergistic bundle of cross-promotions. The empire is so ubiquitous that a Disney movie is never just a movie. A simple trip to the multiplex is pre-lived and relived through an infinity of promotions, coloring books, Happy Meals, and home videos.

A case in point is Hercules, Disney's 1997 lackluster Ancient Greece-themed animated feature. Several months prior to the film's summer release, Disney went on a MegaMall promotional tour to promote the film, a traveling show featuring games and attractions. The same month, Hercules on Ice opened. Hercules product tie-ins were unveiled by McDonald's, Nestle, Quaker Oats, and GM. A promotional Web site was set up, and Disney-owned TV properties ran promotional content. For instance, A&E (partially owned by Disney with Hearst and GE) aired an episode of Biography devoted to the mythological figure Hercules that included clips from the animated film. The soundtrack was released by Disney Records. And then, of course, there were the toys. By the time Hercules made it to theatres, audiences knew all of the characters by sight and name. They probably seemed like old friends.

Through the Looking Glass

These days, the real Disney magic is the magic of market saturation. After consecutive flops with Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney has put much of the force of its brand and marketing machine behind films made at another studio, Pixar. Under an agreement between the two companies, Pixar produced Monsters, Inc. while Disney was in charge of the marketing and distribution. Following the success of Monsters, Inc. (more than $500 million worldwide so far and four Oscar nominations), Disney and Pixar have planned to continue to collaborate until at least 2005.

One has to wonder how Uncle Walt would feel about the arrangement, with Pixar making the magic™ and Disney creating the hype. Has the Mouse been demoted to the level of a huckster, slapping the Mouse ears on a movie and dispensing it to the masses like so much PEZ? It's unlikely that anyone who saw Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. complained that the films lacked that special Disney je ne sais quoi. In the case of these films, perhaps that quality is the Disney brand itself, a brand that adds a magical element to a film regardless of who actually made it.

And why not? Humans have a tendency to elevate otherwise ordinary symbols and objects to a transcendental level, from religious icons to precious metals. Many Americans reserve this special place in their heart for brand names. A Mickey Mouse watch isn't just a watch. It embodies all the things we associate with Disney -- happiness, childhood, innocence ... magic. To some, these feelings are worth the extra money, regardless of how unreal they may seem -- after all, what's Disney good for, if not making you believe in the unreal?

The Walt Disney Company has taken this concept to the extreme with the construction of its housing development Celebration USA, a small, 8-year-old community located in Florida on the cusp of Disney's theme parks. An excerpt from the promotional literature for Celebration USA, quoted in Andrew Ross' book Celebration Chronicles, paints a vivid picture:

"There is a place that takes you back to that time of innocence. A place where the biggest decision is whether to play Kick the Can or King of the Hill. A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts, and hopscotch on the streets. That place is here again, in a new town called Celebration ..."

Like everything Disney, this unabashedly idealized vision of Americana has a dream-world unreality to it. The difference is, this is an inhabited unreality, a carnival funhouse where people have taken up permanent residence.

In a famous response to the September 11 bombing, theorist Slavoj Zizek surmised that "the ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show." Celebration embodies this Truman Show-like fantasy; since its inception, residents and visitors have suspected that children are paid to fish in the lake and extras are paid to walk their dogs around town to lend to Celebration's idyllic quality.

Image Is Everything

Paid extras perhaps not, but that pixie-dust image is definitely Disney's No.1 product, worth its weight in gold. With such a valuable brand identity, Disney has had to go to extraordinary lengths to protect its bread and butter, its central asset: the Mouse. Disney's empire is built on intellectual property, particularly the images of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, who still account for half of Disney's merchandise sales. But under the law, copyright does not last forever (in 1978, it was extended to 75 years of protection on works-for-hire), and in 1998 the copyright on Mickey's image was running out. With the full force of Disney's political clout behind it, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act was rubber-stamped by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton, guaranteeing Disney another 20 years of rightful ownership of Mickey. He'll be 95 before he sees the light of day. Meanwhile, a slew of lesser-known works that had already entered the public domain have suddenly reverted back to the copyright holders, hurting small publishers and individuals who hoped to breathe new life into forgotten books and recordings from the roaring Twenties and before.

In addition to behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, controlling media perceptions has played a major part in the protection of the Mouse's reputation. How skewed is the news -- be it on ABC, E!, Us Weekly, the St. Louis Daily Record -- when it's owned even in part by Disney?

Sometimes, though, all the pixie dust, political clout, and journalistic license in the world aren't enough to keep away the mud. Disney set itself up for an iconoclastic backlash by positing family values as the central belief of its sprawling multibillion-dollar enterprise. It came in the late 1990s, when the religious right, angered by Disney's policy of providing equal benefits for same-sex domestic partners, staged a nationwide boycott of all Disney products. Conservatives also pointed their collective finger at the newly uncloseted Ellen (an ABC property) and the perceived moral lassitude of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, produced by Miramax.

In addition to the debate over the perceived decency of the company's products and business practices, there are also ongoing labor controversies. When overseas sweatshops came under increased public scrutiny in the late 1990s, Disney established a code of conduct for all its manufacturers, but did not implement any kind of oversight to make sure it was followed. Watchdog groups insist the new code is still largely ignored. Even in relatively labor-friendly nations, violations exist. Last fall, a toy manufacturer that produced Disney-licensed plastic wands was found by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to be paying employees $1.35 an hour and employing a number of children as young as 7. The company, called KTBA Inc., wasn't in Honduras or China. It was right under Mickey's nose, in Laguna Hills, Calif. Luckily, this is the U.S., where labor laws are supposed to be followed, and Disney paid the firm's employees $900,000 in back wages.

Growing Pains

Even while making their fair share of enemies, Eisner & Co. have successfully injected Disney into foreign markets, even in countries like China, where workers labor under questionable conditions to produce Disney products they will never be able to afford to buy. It's quite fitting, though, that China is seen as such a promising new market. With heavy investment in Chinese products coming from overseas, a middle class is beginning to emerge, and they're eager to latch on to brand icons to help create a new class identity. So one Disney export -- licensed manufacturing -- will have paved the way for future cultural exports, such as films and theme parks.

But even in a promised land of one billion people with increasing access to disposable income, there's no such thing as a sure bet. Exporting culture is no easy matter -- pretty much everybody's got one of those already. Making Disney's Americana-steeped image appealing to the overseas middle class is tricky. In France, the EuroDisney theme park was at first wildly unpopular with the locals, who were offended that the American family-values-oriented theme park refused to serve wine (although park officials later relented). During the initial uproar, theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine coined the phrase "cultural Chernobyl" to describe the park, and it stuck.

Xenophobic Francophones aside, Disney's more-American-than-America identity is the attraction, not the turnoff. Disney's brand is strong overseas. In Japan, a nation with its own cadre of animated pop culture superstars, more than two million subscribers pay premium rates to download Disney images onto their cell phones. In Hong Kong, the government offered Disney massive subsidies in order to land a theme park deal that is expected to bring in five million visitors a year. According to an article in Business Asia ("Toon Town," Nov. 15, 1999), Disney is financing 10% of the $3.6 billion dollar Hong Kong theme park project in return for a 47% stake. The article commented that "The U.S. entertainment conglomerate demanded -- and received -- a wonderful deal from a reeling, recession-plagued city badly in need of a psychological boost."

In Hong Kong, the Disney brand wields a lot of power, enough to make level-headed civil leaders give Disney the kind of sweetheart deal one normally reserves for a city that is rebuilding from natural disaster. But in Mickey's native land, it's unclear if the Disney brand can sustain the kind of selling power it's held onto for 80-odd years. The market for animated features -- the kind Uncle Walt invented -- has grown cutthroat-competitive, and baby-boomer nostalgia for classic 1950s-era Disney has given way to a generalized mistrust of brands.

In a saturated market, even Disney is finding it harder to compete for consumers' attention. So in the 1990s, most brand marketing became increasingly geared toward shareholders rather than consumers. The average American stockholder is a lot less jaded than the average American consumer. In bull market delirium, investors would buy shares in companies based on a glossy prospectus and the faith that many more would follow suit.

These shareholders have since weathered major hits to the stock market as well as several of the largest bankruptcies in history (Enron Corporation, Global Crossing, and Kmart), and brand names have fallen into ill repute with anyone who was caught with their pants down in the New Economy room. This year, Americans followed the Enron debacle more closely than the brand-ridden Olympics, and with much narrower eyes, feeling duped by stock-option laden CEOs who seemed to care more about NASDAQ than the bottom line. These are times of disillusionment in America, and Disney's vaunted castle-in-the-air appears vulnerable.

But even in times of disillusionment, the Mouse remains a childhood friend, a familiar and comforting image. This is what makes him the most valuable asset of the world's third largest media conglomerate. Being a cultural icon is big business, measured in billions of dollars, but what drives this business are the unique relationships that form between each one of us and the Mouse.

For Eisner, though, all that matters are the billions. Mary Rolfe's The Keys to the Kingdom cites a 1981 staff memo in which Eisner writes: "We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective." For most of us, it's not so easy to reduce a childhood icon to a commercial tool. How can Disney get away with it, not once but millions of times over? With such a valuable and self-serving image, how many times can Disney package its version of innocence, magic, and optimism before people get wise?

Unlike the aforementioned Truman -- a real man living unwillingly in an unreal world -- we don't necessarily want to find the way out of our consumerist paradise. In fact, when it comes to Disney, much of the world seems to want in. Some of us are willing to pay $200,000 for a two-bedroom apartment in Celebration so we never have to leave it once we get there, a stone's throw from Mickey and Winnie and the rest. Who wants to believe his childhood friends were manufactured in a PR firm? Nobody, that's who. Faced with a choice between No-Fun Land and NeverNever Land, most of us choose the latter.

And that's the Mouse's trap. end story

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Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Pixar, Michael Eisner, Celebration USA, Disney World, ABC, E!, Miramax Films, Us Weekly, the St. Louis Record, ESPN, Hollywood Records, EuroDisney, Pulp Fiction, Ellen, Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, Hercules

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