The regulation and structured organisation of popular culture by media corporations is not only having a profound effect on our children but on society as a whole. Fuelled by emerging technologies, the control that these multi-billion dollar mega-organisations have over the way we behave, exchange information and consume media is changing the cultural landscape beyond recognition and in a very compressed period of time. Communication technologies such as television, film, radio, games consoles and internet equipped devices are just some of the tools used by media and communications industries to infiltrate our lives and shape our view of ourselves and the world around us.

Leading the way in this media revolution is the Disney Corporation who, through their characters, narratives and images, captivate a global audience in a way that few others have achieved.

At the heart of what makes this possible is a fast developing culture of convergence, driven by technology and the digitisation of anything that stands in its path. Technology now extends the reach of media corporations to all four corners of the earth and through it are passing western ideologies, carefully encoded messages and typically American and European values and principles.

Given the power that corporations like Disney now have, and given their ethos and agenda of profit and consumerism, should their influential control and self-regulation of the media industry go unchecked?

Ideology and Identity

In the grounds of the Disneyland theme park in Florida stands a bronze statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, hand in hand. Symbolically, this represents the all-important relationship between adult and child, a theme that continues to be central to both Disney’s ethos and marketing today. Since his conception in 1928, Mickey Mouse has been widely regarded as the face of the Disney brand and as he fast approaches his 85th birthday, he continues to be a leading role model, a cultural symbol that represents the all American ideological dream. By identifying with him, he helps us understand and make sense of our own values and beliefs and he represents a widespread yearning in westernized society for a utopia or Eden, characterized by youth happiness and innocence. Michael Eisner, the current CEO of the Disney Corporation remarks in The New Perspectives Quarterly Journal that Disney appeals to “the child within us.” (Eisner 1991, p40) and with his famous trademark ears, Mickey Mouse is not only recognized as the face of the Disney Corporation but is widely regarded and one of the largest corporate and culture icons on earth.

However, beneath the lovable smile, there is a Mickey Mouse that represents so much more. Disney is a $48 billion a year international corporation which arguably reflects less on the childhood fantasy of fun and imagination and more on consumerism and the shaping and influencing of our behaviour for capital gain.

History - Where it all began

Mickey Mouse first featured in a film called Steamboat Willie in 1928, a short black and white film, which became renowned for being one of the first animations to include an event-based audio track.

He became an instant success and encouraged Walt Disney to experiment and introduce other cartoon characters to the Disney line-up and in 1937 Disney released the world’s first feature length animated film, Snow White.

Trailer of Disney’s 1937 Snow White (MovieSpawn 2013).

This film was a great success and was followed by a series of award-winning blockbusters including Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi, all released in the early 1940s. The success of the films of this period developed into a winning formula that still resonates through the animated films they produce today.

The Disney Empire rapidly grew and in 1955, Disneyland, the first of many theme parks opened in California. At the time, Walt Disney explicitly made it clear that the Disney experience was designed to appeal to adults as well as children. Like the animated films, the theme park offered an invitation to adventure and an opportunity to escape from the boredom and drudgery of everyday life. Nostalgically, adults could relive their own childhoods through the fantasy, fun and imagination of their children but more importantly, Disney understood it was the adults, with the emotional tug and influence of their children, that were parting with their hard earned money. This was a factor that later became central to much of Disney’s strategic development. This period in Disney’s history also marked a point of diversification. In addition to cinemas and theme parks, the Disney message was spreading through other media forms like comics, radio shows, and with increasing accessibility to the American middle classes, television. Disney and the Mickey Mouse brand were for the first time appealing to audiences across multiple media platforms and these diverging formats took Mickey Mouse and the Disney story to new heights, both commercially and as a national icon.

Whether by chance or by design, Walt Disney Studios created a winning formula for the production of its animated films. Certain characteristics developed. An illustration style, friendly character personalities and light hearted narratives became a signature for all their films and a series of award winning all time greats were created in a production line format. This symptomatic process was a reflection of wider global production trends and typical of postmodern America of the time. More recently, this was characterised in a publication by Ritzer where he coined the phrase McDonaldization (Ritzer, 1993). He explains that through rigid corporate structures and practices, production was based on strict formulaic rules governing, efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Ritzer (1993, p.66) says that “great care is taken to be sure that each uncooked McDonald’s hamburger weighs 1.6 ounces, no more, no less... The precooked hamburger measures precisely 3.875 inches across”. He continues to explain that “much of the food prepared at McDonald’s arrives at the restaurant preformed, precut, presliced, and preprepared, often by nonhuman technologies” (1993, p.105). In the same way, Disney developed a controlled illustration style, an efficient animation technique and a story telling format which seemingly no one tired of and this approach went on to form a model and methodology adopted throughout much of the Hollywood film industry. It created a degree of predictability, an important component for all filmmakers, hence the string of remakes and sequels we see today.

Animation continues to be central to Disney’s success and seven of the top ten best selling videos in the world are Disney animations. The latest big success was the Lion King, which grossed over $1 billion alone in video and merchandising sales.

Understanding the Disney Corporation mechanics helps us decode the relationship between ideology and social economic practice. A common theme across all Disney animations is the careful selection of themes intentionally selected to promote an ideology consistent with Disney and the capitalist society it surrounds itself with.

Translating the Disney Story - Encoding and decoding

Only by deconstructing the Disney myth and studying the semiotic and subliminal messages hidden in the narratives, can the ideology, values and beliefs it upholds be exposed. The control over the story that is told, and the accuracy in which its meanings and messages are decoded are expertly managed by Disney through the animation process.

Animation has considerably more representational latitude than non-animated media, with more control of symbolic and semiotic messages made possible through the use of image, colour, light and movement. Body language through video based film is harder to decode and may result in differing messages to different people. But with animation, the desired meanings are easier to create and control. Disney are masters of communication through animation, and their characters’ looks, personalities and movements are based on the same formulae of the 1940s and 1950s. Good characters like Simban, the Sultan, Pocahontas and Ariel are characterised by soft, round, child-like faces with oversized eyes and western facial features (Lawrence, 1986) while villains exhibit angular, heavy set features using dark shadows and black thick lines.

Illustrations of classical Disney character styling

Disney not only employs these fomulaic techniques through their animation style but do so through the narrative of their films.

In Stuart Hall’s research encoding and decoding, he explains the process of encoding production-end and decoding consumer-end isn’t a simple linear process of ‘sender/message/receiver’ but thinks of it more as a “process in terms of structure produced and sustained through the articulation of linked but distinctive moments - production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction” (Hall, 1980 p.52). He explains that “the codes of encoding and decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical” (1980, p.54) by which, he means the decoding is not a mirror image of the encoding. The encoding and decoding process is in fact subject to distortion and misinterpretation depending on individuals’ backgrounds.

To ensure the messages in Disney animated films are as free as they can be from misinterpretation and are decoded in a way Disney intends, they intentionally steer clear of controversial subject matter. Instead they focus on themes of friendship, love, equality, loss and a sense of belonging; attributes identifiable by all social groupings. By avoiding subjects like politics, sexuality, ethnicity and religion, the risk of marginalizing minority groups is minimalised. For example, introducing an openly gay character into a Disney narrative illustrates the risks described in Stuart Hall’s theory. On one hand a gay character could be viewed as supporting inclusion and acceptance of gay people. On the other hand the gay community might be offended by the stereotypical representation and interpret this as ridicule and exploitation. This is further complicated when viewed from a global perspective. Disney animated films are designed to appeal to a global audience. The gay community is not equally accepted in many non-western cultures whose religion and laws are different and where prejudices still exist.

Disney the ‘Lion King’ of brand marketing

One of Disney’s unique attributes is the strength of its iron clad brand, synonymous with childhood innocence and wholesome family entertainment. The decoding of the Disney brand and how this translates into these values and principles is central to its success. Today Disney is one of the world’s ‘mega’ corporations. Its learnings from the past has helped it develop into a multi-media conglomerate which consists of animated and non animated films, television shows, retail stores, communication networks, video games, pop music, holidays and a host of web and other online services. Its focus on popular culture and the continual expansion of its products and services across every multi media platform is seemingly unstoppable. However, why when so many other organisations are shunned for promoting a culture of greed and consumerism, do Disney avoid such criticism from the media and its audiences?

In a study by Henry Jenkins, in his book Convergence Culture, he describes the emergence of new people engagement strategies, which are more focused around managing the relationship between brand and audience. He explains that entertainment networks should be focused more on the quality of audience engagement and less on the quantity of viewers. Increasingly, advertisers and networks are coming to more or less the same conclusion. “Marketers seek to shape brand reputations, not through an individual transaction but through the sum total of interactions with the customer - an ongoing process that increasingly occurs across a range of different media ‘touch points’. They don’t simply want to get a consumer to make a single purchase, but rather to build a long-term relationship with the brand.” (Jenkins, 2007 p.63) By focusing more on the quality of the Disney experience at the various touch points across media channels, long-term brand commitment is cultivated in a more sustained fashion. Through more interactive media experiences, audiences are made to feel like they have more control, more voice and choice and that rather than Disney accessing them, they are accessing Disney. However, at no point during any of this are they exposed to less advertising or fewer branded statements. Jenkins further explains that “New models of marketing seek to expand consumers’ emotional, social, and intellectual investments, with the goal of shaping consumer patterns. (2007, p.63). He adds “Corporate convergence strategies may be reshaping the branding process. Early evidence suggests that the most valuable consumers are what the industry call ‘loyals,’ or what we call fans” and fans is one thing Disney has plenty of.

Disney expands these new marketing concepts even further by introducing their brand to children as young as two, either through parental control, or via floating media consumption in our environment. This first point of contact forms the start of life-long brand commitment and through fandom is being passed down through generations. Is it not then surprising that Disney’s marketing is focused more towards 3 to 14 year olds? Like Walt Disney discovered in the 1950’s, the route to the pot of gold is via the innocence of our children.

Building brand communities through these more advanced marketing forces requires differing methods of measure. Foot fall at theme parks and totals at the box office still are ultimately any corporation’s bottom line but measuring emotional engagement and levels of brand exposure is a much more complicated task.  Google do this very well through their analytics. Not only do they measure website visits but they also measure the amount of time viewing individual web pages. In addition to a measure of quantity now there are opportunities to measure quality. Disney do much same by measuring the time spent engaged with games on websites and other interactive media.

This new form of intelligence marketing has only been made possible through developments in technology. For Disney, and for the media industry as a whole, the real opportunities for audience penetration and global expansion came with digitisation.

From Pixies to Pixels

The digital revolution has given rise to a mass of new technologies, which marked the beginning of what we now recognise as the ‘information age’. With digitisation and technological advances in channels like the internet, media content can from a single source of origin, be re-purposed and made available across multiple media platforms or ‘cross platform’. Nicholas Negroponte in his book ‘Being Digital’ describes the process of the digitalization of all media content as being the defining threshold. He states, “When words, images and sounds are all transformed into digital information, we expand the potential relationships between them and enable them to flow across platforms”. “The change of Atoms to Bits is irrevocable and unstoppable” (Negroponte, 1995 p.4).

As well as the emergence of new platforms, the digitization of media content has driven more conventional formats like the television and radio to jump on the digital bandwagon. Today Disney maximises its opportunities across every media platform including cinema, television, radio, computers, games consoles, tablets and smart phones. All its popular films from years gone by have been digitally remastered so they are seamlessly accessible across every device. Disney was the first company to sell its films and television programs online for download via Apple’s iTunes, challenging the domination of other media formats like DVD and the more historically VHS video.

These digitally converging forms are at the centre of and driving the information and social society we live in today. They are changing the nature of entertainment, education and communication and aiding the global reach of media corporations such as Disney.

This expanding global reach of the world’s media giants will invariably lead to greater integration of societies and economies around the world. The remarkable thing is we can all participate in these evolutionary changes from the comfort of our armchairs. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985 p.238), a professor of communications at the department of Communication at the University of New Hampshire, said “TV now escorts children across the globe even before they have permission to cross the street”. Mechanical technologies like smart phones, tablets, laptops, television, and radio combined with communication technologies like the internet, television and radio broadcast can now keep people in touch with the world without having to step through their front door.

Without doubt, technological convergence in the media industry has brought with it many benefits. However, as well as the benefits there are also potential loopholes in this huge explosion in media technology. Is it not possible through mass exposure that Disney and the other media giants are misusing their power and brainwashing, misleading and influencing our behaviour in favour of their financial gain?

It was estimated that in 2013 the average American spent as many hours in front of a screen each day as they did asleep. For children, looking at televisions, video games and mobile devices it represented the largest single chunk of time during their waking day (Hazen and Winokur, 1997 p. 64).

Given this, and given the fact that the media consumed through these devices is influenced by a $263 billion a year advertising industry (Bryce, 2005) should we be concerned about the short and long term effects this is having on us and society as a whole? Are we at risk of being completely consumed by consumerism? Disney are masters at marketing and with the power and influence they wield should they be left to freely capitalise on their ever expanding empire at the expense of the commodification of our children’s childhood. In a global society where should the ethical boundaries be drawn?

Globalisation and Cultural Imperialism

This global reach of information through audio-visual media is thought to be shrinking the world and bringing people closer together. In the late 1960’s McLuhan coined the expression ‘Global Village’, which he used to describe a system of electronic and digital communications, providing an ‘“environment in which people are involved with, and responsible for each other” (McLuhan and Fiore, 1968 p.24). It might be argued that since McLuhan expressed this ideological view of the bringing of people together, Disney, as with other media giants has used the digital renaissance of the past 45 years purely for its own financial advantage. Under the guise of the ubiquous, lovable Mickey Mouse, rather than uniting the world, it has created a consumerist ‘now now now’ culture. Furthermore, many political economists cast further doubt over McLuhan’s positive outlook of the age, as technical infrustructure has unequally been developing around the world. “For example, by the early 1990’s, 75% of the world’s landline telephones were located in just nine countries, while less than 10% of the world’s telephone, telex and telegram traffic occurs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where two thirds of the planet’s population live.” (Hamelink, 1995).  The effects of this have been profound, giving many western societies a huge headstart in the media wars. Whereas the last 15 years have very much turned the technological landscape on its head again with mobile and satellite technology now reaching all corners of the earth, where it is newly emerging it is carrying with it a mass of rich westerised media content.

Where countries like India, China and Africa are gaining ground technologically, they still lag behind where the creation of media content is concerned. America however, with its rich history in the film industry, has over the last 50 years developed an efficient, effective and economical media creating machine. This kind of expertise and back catalogue of content is appealing to broadcasters around the world as recycling American and western produced content is quicker and cheaper than creating their own. In a very short space of time, western media, with all the consumerist and capitalist conventions that come with it has spread through multiple cultures. Essentially, this has resulted in the west, particularly America through its news and entertainment networks, dominating the flow of information and content across the planet. With this, unequal exchange of views, opinions, values and ideas, McLuhan’s vision of a utopic global village where we expand on and share information for the common good can be further criticised.

What are the effects on non-western cultures, who might not have the experience and knowledge necessary to filter out the reality from the fiction? While questions like this and others go unanswered, the speed and spread of global media continues to challenge many individuals, communities and nations who see their culture and individual distinctiveness as constantly being under threat.

While the West’s domination of the flow of media content across the world goes unchallenged, should it be assumed that the likes of the Disney Corporation are operating in the best interests of the people it serves? Are differing cultural sensitivities, religions and ideologies being respected? Increasingly America’s cultural imperialistic behaviour is being criticised for trying to create an agenda of “economic and political dominance by impressing its views, values and philosophy on the rest of the world” (Vidyarthi, 1988 p.13). Is it intentionally sneeking subliminal messages through the back door via news, entertainment and education? Despite proclaiming to be a global organisation, Disney films continue to be packed with subliminal messages supporting Christian themes, racial white supremacy and western cultural symbolism. In his book The media are America, Tunstall comments on the Media Imperialism Thesis with “the media being used as a vehicle for the transfer of western values and attitudes” and “authentic, traditional and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States” (Tunstall, 1977 p.57).

This cultural blending effect of the global reach of media corporations such as Disney is causing controversy in many parts of the world. Emerging global media players like Televisa in Mexico and Globo in Brazil are hitting back by advocating an environment of cultural resistance. In other areas, audiences are simply educating themselves and choosing to filter out the blatant attempts to influence behaviour and only take from media the messages they want and that are appropriate to their circumstances and conditions.

Disney media content profoundly influences childrens’ behaviour and its technology, production and marketing processes are playing a huge part in the transformation and means in which we produce, circulate, exchange and consume information.

Through its media network, the Disney Corporation is fast becoming a pivotal force in the shaping of large parts of youth and popular culture, and with gross earnings in 2013 of $44.87 billion (Zara, 2013) is one of the world’s largest media producing companies. However, with such power and influence, do they stand accused of intentionally infiltrating and subjecting their views and values on other cultures? Are they spearheading a campaign of cultural convergence with an agenda of western ideologies at its heart and, closer to home, are they commodifying and exploiting our children for profit and financial gain?

Closing thought

In 2009, Disney setup a secret research facility in Austin, Texas designed specifically for testing childrens’ biometric responses to internet advertisements (Barnes, 2009). The use of neuropsychology to mine the inner thoughts and experiences of children is just part of the now scientific world of strategic marketing. How exactly does this fit with those Disney values of fun, adventure and fantasy to which we all subscribe? For Mickey Mouse and his pals can we truly assume a fairytale ending?


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