The commercialization of childhood
From the beginning of the development of the company history, Disney has been making used of its very own film to convey both cultural and political messages. In the 1933 The Three Little Pigs was described as an “old-fashioned moral tract about the virtues of industriousness, self-reliance and preparedness”4. Emphasizing on the historical context of its release, numerous critics have offered interpretations of the film, saying it was to provide optimism in the midst of one of the worst depressions in US history, encourage citizens to work hard by stressing self-reliance.
Not only in the above stated animation film, but in collaboration of all the media forms, Disney has become “a nation-state with its own ideas and attitudes, and you have to adjust to them”5 as Michael Ovitz, a former Disney executive expressed his view on the power of Disney. Disney has imposed a set of meanings to our children-what it means to be a male, female, that is the traditional gender behavior. In fact, Disney’s films affect much greater myth with broader implications than mere political and cultural influence.
They villainize any who do not conform, like the evil stepmothers and Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid, reversely setting up a model for the perfect family, for what it means and how it takes to be a child as well as parents. Here I am not suggesting that the other major socializing institutions such as family itself, school and religions have little to do with the socialization process, in regards to the topic of this essay, which is with commercialization of childhood.
But it is exactly the active participation of Disney in education fields and its vast impact on the definition of family and how a family should be that empower Disney as a paramount yet somehow neglected ideological institution in retelling the norms of the society as well as inventing meanings for the other existing social superstructure. Despite the many criticisms parents often make of the media, far more parents of young children (zero to six years old) think TV “mostly helps” children learn (43%) than think it “mostly hurts” learning (27%) or that it does not affect learning one way or the other (21%).
Indeed, a significant proportion of parents believe that various types of educational media are “very important” to children’s intellectual development. 6 The whole scheme of norms conveying by Disney are accepted and internalized by the general audiences without much less critical reflection than there should be. One of the reasons for that is exactly the company strategy of fusing entertainment and education, which has blurred the boundary between educational public culture and commercial interest of the company.
Parents are convinced of the educational value lying within the Disney products and animation films, therefore are less sensitive of the content and more readily perceive the information being told as positive and righteous. As previously stated on the consumerism, the Disney enterprises have made use of all possible means to implant the ever growing desire to consume in our hearts. In the World of Disney, no one seems to have to work in order to produce. It is said to be “a carousel of consumerism.
Money is the goal everyone strives for because it manages to embody all the qualities of their world. “7 There is a constant round of buying, selling and consuming, but to all audiences, none of the products involved has required any effort from whoever to make. All employment is a means of consumption rather than production. No matter it is in the classic Mickey Mouse animation or the fairy tales series, the emphasis on consumption is evidenced by the Disney characters’ constant quest of money, which is revealed and produced magically as portrayed in the comics.
Though as a matter of fact, many Americans do not address the ideological messages presented in the Disney world at all as a problem or an issue, for those values may indeed widely shared by the majority in the society. Walt Disney was certainly not the first person to develop animation as a technique or to make a children’s film, but he may have been the first film maker to specialize enthusiastically in the production of cultural products for children.
Under constant influence of the money story told by Walt Disney, children were made to believe that consuming is the only key to the carefree, happy and fun childhood. They are shaped into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas, for “they will directly spend an estimated $20 billion this year (1998), and they will influence another $200 billion. “8 In the Disney world, play and entertainment is highly valued. “Play itself, in itself, was valuable for the child. “9 And the concept of play has somehow tied to toys and products.
Like all the other participators of the market, recognized that innocence of childhood as a cultural metaphor for home entertainment and product consumption. During 1930s, Herman Kamen, an advertising executive, suggested the animated creatures of Disney’s could be the foundation of the everyday life of children, not only when they were playing, but also while they were eating and dressing and even going to bed. So there came the smile of Mickey Mouse’s on almost every household product that could be named.
By 1933, Disney was selling over $10 million of the merchandises of all Disney’s famous characters. By 1988, the licensing of cartoon and fantasy world characters had helped to make $3. 44 billion worldwide for the Disney enterprises. 10 But this substantial income was not the only thing these products brought to the company. The Disney Company was also benefit from “the publicity value of these items as much as the substantial royalties they would generate. “11 The household products are a daily advertisement to the family which keeps them all “Mickey Mouse Minded”, as Roy Disney noted.
12 The Disney stores promote the consumer products, which promote the theme parks, which promote the TV shows. The TV shows promote the company. 13 Living in the pinwheel of consumerism specially designed by the Disney Company, instead of the traditional healthy preoccupations of street play, peer conversation and just wandering in the garden, weekly trips to the movie theatre, video games and television programs, plastic toys, cartoon accessories and stationeries are now the major associations with a happy childhood.
Not only the meaning of childhood has been substituted, the traditional patterns of family relations has also been substituted and displaced by the market’s goods. Presents for birthday and special occasions such as Christmas and Easter, rewards for hard work in exams and schoolwork, occasional surprise or making up for absence, it seems that buying products is the basis of the parent-children relationship. Parents are used to express their love by consuming and children are taught to feel beloved when received those.
Instead of sing to or with them, we hand a child the Disney sing along video; we give them a Mickey Mouse colouring book as a substitute for drawing; we let them watch fantasies and adventures on the Disney Channel, without reading to them or exposing them to the intimacy of personal story telling; we let them play video games, but fail to teach them the finger games or craft skills like knitting, carpentry or gardening, that have been traditions within our families. The substitution does not come in the form of consuming by itself.
It is carefully planned by the toy industry. Disney, being certainly one of them, has launched mass production toys according to the age-grading schemes. Numerous marketing researches have been carried out by the company in order to cater every consumer group. As Disney once introduced his philosophy by stating that he thought his mission was to produce for kids of all ages, the marketing strategy of the Disney Company pay hug effort on addressing the needs of every age group, as well as shaping their desires and identities.
The three very distinct lines of Winnie the Pooh’s products are all in itself specifically directed to be appealing to a certain consumer group, so as to bring about the child in everyone, which of course leads to the consuming of their very own products. Another illustration of this would be the set up of Radio Disney. It all started by a national scaled research on children’s access to radio. Disney found out that most children had their own radio set in their room and had the final say on determining which channel the family should be listening.
What Disney saw underlying all the findings was the urge of children to have the own channel, broadcasting programs specially designed for them and the virgin land of the market of children radio channels. Radio Disney of course turned out to be a great success but more importantly in here is that it offers us an example in how Disney deliberately planned its every move in the children’s market, however dreamy and innocent the surfacing image of the company might be.
Another key insight of Walt Disney’s lies within its strategy to reconstruct and transform the educational field into a brand new space for leisure, new electronic technologies and new global markets. The most remarkable illustration for this would be the launching of Disney’s Magic English, which is a set of teaching materials with VCDs and books, allowing children to learn the daily use of English and cultivate the sense of the language, while watching their all-time favorite cartoon characters.
This expensive kit, which is originally priced over twenty thousands,14 apart from bring enormous amount of income for the company, through repetitive presentation of the mainstream American values, especially of family and childhood, has become yet another tool for Disney as a socializing intuition all around the world market. The well known success of the Mickey Mouse Club can help us to understand how Disney makes use of consumer community to promote the company’s interest.
The Mouse’s Club is a social community that allows children’s drama, nature tales and musicals to interact with Disney’s own cartoon characters and form a kind of children’s variety show. The mouseclubbers themselves, singing the Mouse Club song with their special mouse ears on, provided a sense of organization and belonging, with Mickey as its centre idol. The same marketing strategy is used in many other products of Disney’s in a smaller scale, like the above mentioned learning kit of Disney World of English, which also has its own World Family Club15.
The community brings all the mouselovers together, generates and consolidates the loyalty to Disney characters and hence its products sharing among the peer culture. The picture drawn here is far from complete, but it does give some sense in how children was recognized, targeted and transformed as consumers through the use of its ideological power and many marketing strategy by the Disney Company. In their relentless pursuit, all the threads of our daily life have woven into the fabric of our world of goods.
Given that merchants’ attentions are increasingly focused on childhood, it is reasonable to expect that the concern with children’s consumerism will grow stronger and stronger. As to redress the situation, we have to acknowledge the marketplace as a part of the contemporary socialization in how children learn the roles, attitudes and sentiments that reinforce the consumer culture, no matter how the subject company advertises itself as the place that dreams come true. Whose dreams are those? Enterprisers’ or our children’s?
Bibliography: On Disney:Edited by Eric Smoodin, Disney Discourse, Routledge, 1994. Edited by Brenda Ayres, The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Peter Lang, 2003 Henry A. Giroux. , The mouse that roared : Disney and the end of innocence, Lanham, 1999. Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: the Manufacture of Fantasy, Polity Press, 2001 Douglas Brode, From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney created the Counterculture, University of Texas Press, 2004 On Consumerism and Childhood: Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults and swallow citizens whole, Norton, 2007.
Stephen Kline, Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing, Verso, 1993 1 Aries, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, Alfred Knopf, 1962. 2 Sahlins, Marshall, Culture and Practical Reason, University of Chicago Press, 1976. 3 Roberts DF, Foehr UG, Rideout V. Generation M: media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005. 4 Neil Sinyard, The Best of Disney, Portland House, 1988. 5 Peter Bart, “Disney’s Ovitz Problem Raises Issues for Show-biz Giant”, Daily Variety, 1996.
6 Victoria J. Rideout, Elizabeth A. Vandewater and Ellen A. Wartella, Zero to Six: Electronic Media in The lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003. 7 Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: the manufacture of fantasy, p. 144, Great Britain Polity Press, 2001 8 “Hey Kids! Buy This! “, Business Week, 1997. 9 Richard deCordova, “The Mickey in Macy’s Window”, Disney Discourse, Routledge, 1994. 10 Stephen Kline, Out of the Garden, Verso, 1993. 11 Richard deCordova, “The Mickey in Macy’s Window”, Disney Discourse, Routledge, 1994.
12 Letter from Roy Disney to Carl Sollmann, 1941, the Borgfeldt Files, the Walt Disny Archives. 13 Cited in Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse That Roared: Disney And the End of Innocence (p. 1), Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Said by Michal D. Eisner, chairman, CEO, and president of the Walt Disney Company 14 The website of Disney World of English: http://www. worldfamily. com. tw/WfcService. aspx? Page=index200507 15 The website of World Family Club: http://www. world-family. com. tw/WfcService. aspx? Page=survey&no=1.