Friday, June 13, 2008

Wonderful World of Disney Gets Back to its Roots: Product Placement

Back in the mid-1950s, Walt Disney came up with an ingenious idea about how to promote his upcoming Disneyland theme park via the then new medium of television -- product placement! His first attempt, simply entitled Disneyland (1954-1990?, ABC), combined animated cartoons with documentary footage of the Disney studios, clips and behind-the scenes footage of recent and upcoming Disney film productions (e.g. 2000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sleeping Beauty), and "sneak peaks" of the theme park itself.

The show won several Emmys and continued on (in one form or another, and under various names) until 1990 (says imdb)... Although as we all know, the Sunday night Walt Disney Presents tradition is still alive and well on ABC, CBC and various other networks around the world. The most famous Disneyland spin-off The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959, ABC) is widely cited as first ever example of "program-length commercials." Like its predecessor Disneyland, Lynn Spiegel writes, The Mickey Mouse Club was "created as one big advertisement for Walt Disney’s theme park" promising children that the fantastic "never-never land" setting of the show could be theirs if they could just persuade their parents to bring them to Anaheim, California.

Flash forward fifty-four years and the House of the Mouse is still up to its oldest of old tricks. Watching Finding Nemo on last Saturday's installment of The Wonderful World of Disney, I was shocked at the intensity and sheer number of the "bumpers" (short, usually network-produced segments that appear before and/or after the ads during a television programming block) included in the programming, heavily promoting Disney's upcoming animated film Wall-E. Through bumps and ancillary marketing, Disney was able to stretch a 100 minute film into a three hour cross-promotional extravaganza...don't "we" (not sure where I should situate myself here - I was watching an American channel through a Canadian service provider) have restrictions on this kind of thing?

Well, sadly, yes and no. Because Disney was using the program to promote another film, and not to promote Finding Nemo DVDs or tie-in toys, it doesn't technically count as a program-length commercial. And those annoying "bumpers" are actually required by US media policy...originally meant to provide a separation between content and advertising, but as McAllister and Giglio point out, "Although their existence is mandated, bumpers can become tools for, rather than against, 'connected selling' in a medium dominated by corporate branding."

Unfortunately, last week's display was not a one-time deal. ABC has similar "events" planned for the duration of the summer. Here's the schedule (courtesy of Cynopsis!Kids):

* Monsters, Inc. (June 14, 8-11p) - hosted by John Goodman (the voice of Sulley), who will be promoting Pixar, by way of animated shorts, as well as Pixar movie-themed attractions at the Disney parks.

* Camp Rock (June 21, 8-11p) - hosted by the Jonas Brothers, who will promote an array of Disney offerings, including the upcoming High School Musical: Get in the Picture, the Cheetah Girls and the One World music video. They will also promote themselves, by premiering their new music video Burnin' Up, complete with a "making of" promotional documentary....let's call it an adumentary. Camp Rock is gearing up to be the High School Musical of 2008, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

* The Haunted Mansion, Saturday June 28 (8-10p) - featuring a behind-the-scenes adumentary of Miley Cyrus' new music video 7 Things, along with, of course, a premiere of the actual video.

* The Princess Diaries 2 (July 12, 8-10p) - in conjunction with lots of promotion for the 50th anniversary DVD re-release of Sleeping Beauty, via an adumentary which will examine the restoration processes that went into getting the film (a beautiful piece of animation, by the way, and the last Disney feature to use hand-inked cells) ready for HD.

* Freaky Friday (July 19, 8-10p) - hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis (who stars in the movie), who will spend a couple of hours promoting her new Disney movie (and serious WTF inducer), Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

* Peter Pan (August 2, 8-10p) - hosted by Raven-Symone, who will be promoting her new animated movie (and Peter Pan spin-off) Tinker Bell...and I would guess the tie-in MMOG Pixie Hollow as well.

I like how they're using the term "host" to describe the actors hired to do the cross-promotions during these programming makes them that much more susceptible to accusations of "host-selling". Host-selling, by the way, is defined by the FCC as "any character endorsement that has the effect of confusing a child viewer from distinguishing between program and non-program material." We have a similar rule in Canada (Which states that "Puppets, persons and characters (including cartoon characters) well-known to children and/or featured on children's programs must not be used to endorse or personally promote products, premiums or services" and that "puppets, persons and characters may not handle, consume, mention or endorse in any other way the product being advertised"). Sounds like a good description of Disney's summer line-up to me!

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