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That’s So Disney
Sunday July 31st 2005, 1:39 am
Filed under: entertainment,media
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There’s a show on the Disney Channel called That’s So Raven. And though I should really know better, I’ve watched it. More than once. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about an oracular African-American girl in junior high. She gets into your average sitcom problems, ends up seeing a glimpse of the future, and because of this makes the problem worse before solving it. Space-time continuum issues notwithstanding, the only excuse I have for watching it is that if you look slightly beneath the surface of the show, it has a dark sense of humor. I’ve found myself laughing at it more than once. Parents are inept, white people are exceedingly stupid, and little kids are severely over-sexed, greedy hustlers. I can’t say that’s exactly how I felt in junior high, but hey.

But I can’t watch Raven’s antics anymore. Not because of the show, as stupid as it is, but because of the commercials. There is a sinister brilliance to the marketing that drives the Disney Channel. I defy you to just sit and watch it for an hour or two, and see what you walk away with. It’s a very interesting picture, and I can’t help but wonder how well it truly reflects the lives and aspirations of the kids watching it, and what that means about American culture and its future.

The vast American marketing industry that makes sure we’re in a constant frenzy to buy buy buy has a number of tools up its sleeve. One of them is called “aspirational marketing”. It’s about tying your product to an image, idea, or thought that appeals to the viewer’s sense of self, or who they want to be or what they want to accomplish. The usual aspirations involve rising in the social ranks, expressing oneself, or finding fame and fortune. You’ve seen the techniques everywhere. How about the beer commercial where everyone was surrounded by hot bikini babes the minute the cap shot off the ice cold bottle? Or that time the salary man bought the right car, impressed his boss and got a promotion? Or how about the one where the parents bought their kid a computer and suddenly he became a college-bound genius, excelling at school?

We’re all looking for something in life. Some of us have a better idea of what it is than others. Those people that believe they have the best idea, and should make everyone else share it, are known as marketers. They know that some of us need a little help figuring out what we want and how to get it. We’re flooded with their messages every day, everywhere we look. It has become a part of who and what we are, to the point where our aspirations can only be reached through some purchase. Only a product can inspire us. Most people don’t think of it in those terms, of course, which is good for marketers. But you need only look at the commercial, consumerist nature of our culture to see that one way or another, we’re trained. We believe the message, and our actions prove it.

But Disney, they take it to another level entirely. It’s important to understand that the Disney Channel is purely a Disney vehicle. I’ve watched it for probably 10 hours this year, and in that whole time I can only remember seeing two commercials that were not for a Disney product. The shows support the actors support the movies support the music videos support the recording artists support the theme parks, and so on and so on and so on.

Almost all these commercials go behind the scenes. They’re about the kids who are involved in making the music, shooting the video, voicing the animation and realizing their dreams. Through Disney. Many of the stars talk about their love for Disney and the Disney Channel. Some are interviewed in the theme parks, talking about all the cool things going on there. Others talk about the important issues kids like them face (and sometimes, their parents). All of it occurs in the context of a Disney product.

But this is just good capitalism, right? Well, it gets a little more interesting when we start bringing kids that aren’t Disney employees into the mix. Many of the commercials are like micro-shows, and a short list of some I’ve seen include a piece about a kid who’s excelling at golf and winning trophies, one about a young rock star in the making who’s writing music in his bedroom and performing on stage, and another on a girl and her fabulous snow globe collection. There are many more. Often, the announcer will say things like “every day, kids like you are sharing their stuff on the Disney Channel” or “every day, kids like you are doing what they love”. Kids are getting the things they want, finding what they are looking for, reaching their goals and realizing their dreams. And the Disney Channel is there. It’s a part of their lives.

To the untrained eye, I believe these micro-shows about kids going for it and making it happen might look inspiring, healthy, almost educational. But I wonder if all they inspire is a drive to find your dreams through a product, through a cavalcade of marketing, through the incredibly bland brain-draining sitcoms that make up the bulk of Disney programming. After all, if you do nothing but sit on your ass watching shows about rich, happy kids getting what they really want, and commercials about other, “real” kids getting what they really want, will you ever get what you really want? Instead of watching a commercial about a kid excelling at golf, how about hitting the driving range? Instead of zoning out while images of a successful child musician float through your semi-consciousness, how about you strap on that guitar and practice your scales?

When I looked slightly beneath the surface of That’s So Raven, I saw a show within a show that had a wicked sense of humor. When I look slightly beneath the surface of the Disney Channel marketing, I see something truly wicked, and truly worrisome. It’s endemic in our culture, of course, but Disney has it down to a frightening science, and the veneer of “kids like you are trying their best and reaching their goals” gives Disney a plausible deniability that companies like McDonalds only wish they had, a great excuse for shoving their product into the dreams of children.

Personally, I think it’s pathetic.

6 Comments so far
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OK first I have to say I love the word “Oracular”. Thanks for using it.

Secondly, have you read Fast Food Nation. Check it out and you will see how close Disney and McDonalds are.

Finally I have wrestled with an issue I would love to discuss with other people at some point and maybe this is as good a forum as any. At heart I am an anarchist, but I know that in my life I will not live in an anarchist society. If I am watchful and courageous I might create some of this in my family, community and the company(s) I help start and grow.

I also believe that capitalism (including the evolution of the corporation), socialism and social democracies have key roles in our social evolution towards such an ideal situation as anarchy. The Disneys of the world are creating cultures much like other corporations, and I believe there are some virtues here as well as some detriments. One virtue is that Disney crosses cultures and socio economic boundaries like few other cultures. As cheesey as it is – “It’s a Small World” was one of the first multicultural experiences I remember and to see the harmony of song and dance across these cultures has always stayed with me.

Don’t get me wrong I had friends who worked at Disneyland in college and I remember the stories of the oppressive and exceedingly strict environment, and I agree with your statements about the ruthlessness of advertising and marketing fields. In time I believe we will see lawsuits much like those currently being aimed at the tobacco industries and that will emerge against the fast food industries. When we reach a place where the psychological aggressiveness of these global advertising and marketing firms and their associated research firms is truly considered, there will be a massive backlash. Look a few blogs down and you can see one of the current areas where this is already happening – body image.

So my struggle lies in how to embrace what is good in our current system of capitalism and the corporations that are so prevalent in our day to day lives, without succumbing to the abuses. How do I encourage, through my purchases and my voice, the virtues and constructive values of these organizations and systems, without becoming too attached to them as to depend on their continuance?

I would be curious to get others perspective here. How do we encourage one another to act responsibly within the system while trying to improve it?

Our family is going to Disneyland in October and we are going down for a few days to watch our nieces and nephews run around the park. I know the joy on these kids face and the memorable experience will draw me back to my own memories of the park, though I understand it has changed since then. I will go both to experience and to observer – even more so since I read your blog Eric. Thanks for the ideas – very well thought out and crafted. I would love to hear how you and others wrestle with these challenges.

Comment by andrei hedstrom 08.01.05 @ 9:45 am

I’ll have to see That’s so Raven, just out of morbid curiosity. It does sound pathetic, which is what Disney has been for so many years in one way or another. Under the cutesy mask this corporation is still an ethnocentric, sexist nightmare. It’s subtle but powerfully heady stuff for young racists and misogynists to be. “It’s A Small World” is barely window dressing up against the consistent Disney reality of a world consisting of the wonderfully brave and axiomatic white, blond white guys (the good guys) —fighting (“the bad guys”) represented by grossly stereotypical sounding, sinister looking, dark haired, people of color, otherwise known as “evil-doers.” Now substitute an Iraqi man into the Disney picture. What role does he play?

Once Disney has primed you for “aspirational marketing”, you can grow up and watch the Nightly News, get freaked out by terrorism, and then blithely segue into the ultra smooth, high volume, car commercial every few minutes. It’s that super sleek, yet sensible sports car, with the age-demo nostalgic rock-op soundbytes, that will bring you inimitable safety—in stark contrast to the news-worthy fear just put into your heart. It’s a scary world with random acts of violence, but these products can protect you, right the inbalance you feel,make you feel happy again, the tacit packaged message.

Comment by Tao 08.06.05 @ 7:43 am

Some interesting comments. Thank you both! You bring up some important points. I have to say it is an issue that is very complex, with tendrils in so many areas of life. And it embodies such a dichotomy: I love Disneyland. I love Disney animation (I guess it can’t all be anime). As much as I bitch about Disney, I would LOVE to be an Imagineer. Still, they scare me.

Comment by eric 08.07.05 @ 12:06 am

I agree Eric – it is a dichotomy.

Here is a list of movie titles Disney has played a role in http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/browse/-/300382/1/ref=br_lpsp_pg/002-9100186-8906415?

Here are just a few of the titles:
Never Cry Wolf
Sister Act
Anne Frank
Rember the Titans (takes racism head on with Denzel Washington)
Nightmare before Christmas
James and the Giant Peach
The Black Hole
Pixar projects
Countless stories of animal adventures that are sympathetic to endangered species and animal rights and treatment issues
Spirited Away

Not exactly black and white by any means

Comment by andrei hedstrom 08.08.05 @ 1:34 pm

I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed aspects of Disney, but there are serious underlying issues to be conscious of in many movies in their library. Here are only a few links that take a deeper look at what I am talking about.




Comment by tao 08.08.05 @ 7:33 pm

There have been quite a few Disney movies I’ve loved. One of them was “Song of the South”. I think I was 8 when I saw it. I don’t remember it well enough to make my own judgement of whether it was racist, but the question is still asked today. I do remember the songs, though. I know artists, people who make the films, are doing what’s necessary to do what they love and get paid for it. And I can respect that. I also respect how they continually push their boundaries.

Yet still it is that today more of the substance of our environment and by extension our consciousness and our experience of life is being manufactured, and done so with very specific purpose. The Disney Channel is the shining example of the notion that to be successful an ad need only satisfy one condition: You must remember it. It’s an art form that has moved from persuasive to invasive. You remember your dreams, your ambitions, and The Disney Channel invokes this wonderful frame that is so central to us and quietly hangs a pair of mouse ears on the corner. It’s utterly brilliant, like so many weapons are.

Comment by eric 08.16.05 @ 10:44 pm

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