21 August 2011
While the "empire of consumption" has been around for a long time, American society in the last 30 years has undergone a sea change in the daily lives of children - one marked by a major transition from a culture of innocence and social protection, however imperfect, to a culture of commodification.
Youth are now assaulted by a never-ending proliferation of marketing strategies that colonize their consciousness and daily lives. Under the tutelage of Disney and other megacorporations, children have become an audience captive not only to traditional forms of media such as film, television and print, but even more so to the new digital media made readily accessible through mobile phones, PDAs, laptop computers and the Internet.
The information, entertainment and cultural pedagogy disseminated by massive multimedia corporations have become central in shaping and influencing every waking moment of children's daily lives - all toward a lifetime of constant, unthinking consumption.
Consumer culture in the United States and increasingly across the globe, does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood: it exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children,
But corporate-controlled culture not only exploits and distorts the hopes and desires of individuals: it is fundamentally driven toward exploiting public goods for private gain, if it does not also more boldly seek to privatize everything in the public realm.
Among US multimedia megacorporations,
appears one of the least daunted in attempting to dominate public discourse
and undermine the critical and political capacities necessary for the next
generation of young people to sustain even the most basic institutions of
The American Medical Association reports that the combined hours,
Such statistics warrant grave concern, given that the messages provided through such programming are shaped largely by a $263-billion-dollar-a-year US advertising industry, which sells not only its products, but also values, images and identities largely aimed at teaching young people to be consumers.
A virtual army of marketers, psychologists and corporate executives are currently engaged in what Susan Linn calls a "hostile takeover of childhood," seeking in the new media environment to take advantage of the growing economic power wielded by children and teens.
Figures on direct spending by young people have dramatically increased in the last ten years to the point where it is now estimated that each year pre-teens and teenagers marshal,
And this is not all.
Young people also exert a powerful influence on parental spending, offering up a market in which, according to Anap Shah,
Because of their value as consumers and their
ability to influence spending, young people have become major targets of an
advertising and marketing industry that spends over $17 billion a year on
shaping children's identities and desires.
Typical children see about "40,000 ads a year on TV alone," and by the time they enter the fourth grade, they will have "memorized 300-400 brands."
In 2005, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that young people are,
There was a time when a family traveling in a car might entertain itself by singing or playing games.
Now, however, many kids have their own laptops
or cell phones and many family vehicles come equipped with DVD players.
Family members need not look to each other or the outside world for
entertainment when a constant stream of media sources is at their
fingertips. Today's kids have more money to spend and more electronic toys
to play with, but, increasingly, they are left on their own to navigate the
virtual and visual worlds created by US media corporations.
The tragic result is that youth now inhabit a cultural landscape in which, increasingly, they can only recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market.
corporations, with a commanding role over commodity markets as well as
support from the highest reaches of government, have become the primary
educational and cultural force in shaping, if not hijacking, how youth
define their interests, values and relations to others.
Once a company that catered primarily to a three- to eight-year-old crowd with its animated films, theme parks and television shows, Disney in the new millennium has been at the forefront of the multimedia conglomerates now aggressively marketing products for infants, toddlers and tweens (kids age eight to twelve).
Web sites, video games, computer-generated animation, Disney TV and pop music - developed around franchises like "High School Musical," "Hannah Montana" and the Jonas Brothers, and accessible online with the touch of a button - are now sustaining Disney fans into their teenage and young adult years.
Allied with multimedia giant Apple,
Inc. (Apple CEO Steve Jobs is the single
largest shareholder in Disney) and the cutting-edge animation studio Pixar,
Disney is beyond doubt a powerful example of the new corporate media at the
beginning of the 21st century.
Understanding Disney's cultural role is neither a simple nor a trivial task. Like many other megacorporations, it focuses on popular culture and continually expands its products and services to reach every available media platform.
What is unique about Disney, however, is its titanium-clad brand image - synonymous with a notion of childhood innocence and wholesome entertainment - that manages to deflect, if not completely trounce, criticism at every turn.
As an icon of American culture and middle-class
family values, Disney actively appeals to both conscientious parents and
youthful fantasies as it works hard to transform every child into a lifetime
consumer of Disney products and ideas. Put the Disney corporation under
scrutiny, however, and a contradiction quickly appears between a Disney
culture that presents itself as the paragon of virtue and childlike
innocence and the reality of the company's cutthroat commercial ethos.
Disney needs to be addressed within a widening circle of awareness, so we can place the history, meaning and influence of the Disney empire outside of its own narrow interpretive frameworks that often shut down critical assessments of how Disney is actually engaged in the commercial carpet bombing of children and teens.
Understanding Disney in the year 2010 requires that we draw attention to the too often hidden or forgotten corporate dimension surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of Disney culture and, in so doing, equip parents, youth, educators, and others with tools that will enable them to critically mediate the ways in which they encounter Disney.
In 1999, Disney was a $22 billion profit-making machine.
Ten years later, Disney is generating over $37.8 billion per year and quickly expanding the market for its products in countries such as China, where the latest Disney theme park - Hong Kong Disneyland - opened in 2005, and another park is slated for development in Shanghai.
Now a worldwide distributor of a particular kind of cultural politics, Disney is a teaching machine that not only exerts influence over young people in the United States, but also wages an aggressive campaign to peddle its political and cultural influence overseas. As global capital spreads its influence virtually unchecked by national governments and the international community, citizenship becomes increasingly privatized and youth are educated to become consuming subjects rather than civic-minded and critical citizens.
If today's young people are to look ahead to a
more rather than less democratic future, it has become imperative for people
everywhere to develop a critical language in which notions of the public
good, public issues and public life become central to overcoming the
privatizing and depoliticizing language of the market.
Every child, regardless of how young, is now a potential consumer ripe for being commodified and immersed in a commercial culture defined by brands.
The Walt Disney Company spares little expense in generating a coherent brand image and encapsulating its many products and services within the seductive symbolism of childhood innocence and wholesome family fun. The company's approach makes Disney a particularly useful case for understanding corporate strategies directed at youth in the new media environment.
At the same time as Disney represents nostalgia and tradition, it has become a global leader in transforming digital technologies into profit-making platforms and developing a consumer-centered discourse that deflects criticism away from, while it softens, what can only be called boldly commercial self-promotion. Disney, with its legion of media holdings, armies of marketers and omnipresent advertisers sets out not just to exploit children and youth for profit: it actually constructs them as commodities while promoting the very concept of childhood as a salable commodity.
Childhood ideals increasingly give way to a market-driven politics in which young people are prepared for a life of objectification that will simultaneously drain them of any viable sense of moral and political agency. This is especially true in the current consumer society in which children more than ever mediate their identities and relations to others through the consumption of goods and images.
No longer imagined within the language of
responsibility and justice, childhood begins with what might be called the
scandalous philosophy of money, that is, a corporate logic in which
everything, including the worth of young people, is measured through the
potentially barbaric calculations of finance, exchange value and
Mobile phones alone have grown,
Kids of all ages now find themselves in what the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy call,
Disney along with its researchers, marketing
departments and purveyors of commerce largely define and control this
massive virtual entertainment complex, spending vast amounts of time trying
to understand the needs, desires, tastes, preferences, social relations and
networks that characterize youth as a potential market.
According to The New York Times, Disney is at the forefront of finding ways to capitalize on the $50 billion dollars spent worldwide by young boys between the ages of six and 14.
As part of such an effort, Disney seeks the advice of educators, anthropologists and even a research consultant with "a background in the casino industry," not only to study all aspects of the culture and intimate lives of young boys, but to do so in a way that allows Disney to produce "emotional hooks" that lure young boys into the wonderful world of corporate Disney in order to turn them into enthusiastic consumers.
Disney's recent attempts to "figure out the boys' entertainment market" enlisted the services of Kelly Pena, described as "the kid whisperer," who attempts to uncover what makes young boys tick by using her anthropological skills to convince young boys and their parents to allow her to look into the kids' closets, go shopping with them and pay them $75 to be interviewed.
Ms. Pena, with no irony intended, prides herself on the fact that "Children... open up to her."
Given Disney's desire to expand into boys' culture, the company's announcement in 2009 that it had purchased Marvel Entertainment Inc. came as no surprise. Marvel's comic book empire owns the licenses to approximately 5,000 superhero characters.
The Wall Street Journal remarked that by,
It is even more disturbing that Disney and a growing number of marketers and advertisers now work with child psychologists and other experts, who study young people in order to better understand children's culture so as to develop marketing methods that are more camouflaged, seductive and successful.
Disney claims this kind of intensive research pays off in lucrative dividends and reinforces the Disney motto that, in order to be a successful company,
Several psychologists, especially Allen D. Kanner, have publicly criticized such disingenuous practices.
Disney's recent attempt to corner the young male market through the use of sophisticated research models, ethnographic tools and the expertise of academics indicates the degree to which the language of the market has disengaged itself from either moral considerations or the social good. It is clear that Disney's only goal is to win over the hearts and minds of young people so as to deliver them to the market as both loyal consumers and commodities.
In such unscrupulous
strategies, the contradiction becomes visible between Disney's public
relations image as a purveyor of wholesome entertainment and the hidden
reality of Disney as a political and economic power that promotes ideology
conducive to its own corporate interests, thereby impoverishing the
imaginative possibilities of youth and dismantling the public foundations
for a thriving civic culture.
According to Lawrence Grossberg, children are introduced to the world of logos, advertising and the mattering maps of consumerism long before they can speak:
In fact, researchers have found that while children as young as three years old recognize brand logos, not until they are around eight years old do they understand advertising's intention to manipulate their desires.
But this has not stopped corporations from
exposing kids from birth to adulthood to a consumer blitz of advertising,
marketing, education and entertainment that has no historical precedent.
There is now even a market for videos for toddlers and infants as young as
three months old. Not surprisingly, this is part of a growing $4.8 billion
market aimed at the youngest children - an area of multimedia culture into
which Disney recently expanded.
(Disney/Pixar's 2004 film "The Incredibles" plugs the Baby Einstein franchise shamelessly when one character exclaims, "Mozart makes babies smarter.")
Despite objections against the marketing of baby videos as educational media by organizations such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Disney persists in using clever packaging for the videos that implies they are, at best, beneficial learning tools to be used in a child's most formative years and, at worst, harmless distractions for infant audiences. And the marketing strategy works.
A 2007 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 48 percent of parents believe that baby videos have,
The news that baby DVDs and videos actually impair infants' cognitive development broke in 2007 when the University of Washington issued a press release about a study published in the prestigious Journal of Pediatrics that concluded infants eight to 16 months old, who were exposed to one hour of viewing baby DVDs and videos per day, displayed slower language development: those children understood on average six to eight fewer words for every hour of viewing than infants who did not watch the videos.
Reading to a child once a day, by contrast, produced an
observable increase in vocabulary.
President and CEO Robert Iger demanded that the University of Washington immediately retract its statements on the grounds that the study's assessment methodology was faulty and the publication of the results was,
Disney's main objection was that the study did not differentiate between brands when it tested the effects of baby videos on language development.
Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, refused to comply with Iger's demand for a retraction and instead articulated a need for more,
While this research was clearly not enough to deter Disney from marketing its Baby Einstein wares as beneficial for babies and toddlers, other researchers have found that one of greatest costs associated with surrounding very young children with screen media is a reduction in the time they spend engaging in creative, unstructured play.
In a 2007 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics lamented,
Yet Disney's message to parents continues to foster the idea that parents should not only accept the ubiquitous presence screen culture in their babies' lives, but view it as an inevitable fact of life, one pointless to criticize and impossible to change.
In an utterly cynical gesture, the Baby Einstein web site cites a 2003 finding by the Kaiser Family Foundation that,
This statistic is not presented as something that should
alarm concerned parents and encourage different parenting practices; on the
contrary, it becomes simple proof of "the reality of today's parents,
families and households" and an indicator of how the American Academy of
Pediatrics, which discourages television viewing for children under two
years old, is simply stuck in the past.
In 2007, Disney launched an educational web site for parents, DisneyFamily.com, which offers parenting advice,
The web site taps into the growing parenting industry, claiming to target "the more than 32 million moms that are online in the US."
Given Disney's attempt to refute work by leading researchers in children's health, it is unclear what the web site intends to publish as "articles from experts in the parenting field." But if the so-called expertise is not useful to parents, they can at least download a coupon from the "Family Tool Box."
The web site also features the "Disney Family Learning Center," developed in collaboration with Sony Electronics and Powered, Inc., an online education provider that also happens to specialize in social marketing.
Disney finds ways to promote
Sony's and its own products when advising parents on child development,
entertainment options and other "family-relevant information" in its online
courses, such as "Traveling Light with Kids and Technology" and "Contact
Management for the Busy Mom and Dad."
Harnessing the power of virtual space is a strategy openly championed by CEO Robert Iger, whose stated goal is for the company to establish,
Disney views online media as an opportunity not so much to enhance children's lives as to make money for shareholders, enjoy low overhead costs and keep the company's film and television franchises profitable.
The Disney.com site, redesigned in 2007, includes video games, social networking, customized user content and videos on demand. As of the summer of 2009, approximately 16 million users have designed customized fairy avatars that inhabit Pixie Hollow at DisneyFairies.com.
Internet sites offering cooperative games and social networking to children seem like a relatively innocuous option in a media culture currently exploiting every imaginable angle to populate reality television's competitive worlds of winners and losers. It is far less innocuous, however, that these web sites help Disney collect and use personal information to assail consumer groups with targeted, cross-promotional advertising.
Web-based social media not only acculturate
children to being constantly bombarded with advertising, but give them the
illusion of control while they are actually being manipulated.
Disney's Club Penguin targets kids ages six to fourteen and provides each user with an animated penguin avatar that interacts in a snow-covered world, chats with other users and earns virtual money to purchase items such as pets, clothing and furnishings for an igloo home. Users can play for free, but must pay $5.95 per month for access to certain features of the game.
As an interactive and "immersive environment," Club Penguin enables Disney to train children in the habits of consumption - merchandise, such as stuffed penguins, is advertised on the site - while making direct contact with its global consumer base through the online network. Similarly, Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean," for children under ten years of age, lures kids into a virtual world of consumers that is predicted to include 20 million children by 2011.
As Brooks Barnes points out in The New York Times, these electronic malls are only superficially envisioned by developers as entertainment or educational sites.
Their main purpose, she states, is to enable media conglomerates to,
In order to tap further into the youth market, Disney's recent strategy has involved spending $180 million on video game development. Disney-branded online space includes the Internet's first multiplayer game for kids, "Toontown Online."
As Sara Grimes points out, multiplayer online games
Another product, the video game "Epic Mickey," revamps the character of Mickey Mouse in an alleged effort to make him more appealing to today's generation of youth.
The mouse will no longer embody a childlike innocence and generosity, but will instead be "cantankerous and cunning" and will exhibit "selfish, destructive behavior."
With Mickey's popularity in decline in the United States, Disney's market-driven agenda is visible not only in its willingness to transform the hallowed icon upon which its corporate empire was built, but also in the very way it has transformed Mickey Mouse's character.
Although Disney's representatives suggest that this reimagining of Mickey Mouse merely reflects what is currently popular among young people, it seems more aligned with the current ideology of a ruthless economic Darwinism (also evident in reality TV shows) that has little to do with the needs of children and a great deal to do with a survival-of-the-fittest view of the world perpetuated by market-centered culture.
The recent moves by the Walt Disney Company to darken the
characters it incorporates into its cultural offerings should be seen as
less a demystification of the brand image of Disneyfied innocence and more a
signal of the company's desire for a growing compatibility between its
public pedagogy and a commercial culture's ethos of egocentric narcissism,
social aggression and hypermasculinity.
Adult existence, according to Zygmunt Bauman, involves,
Whether or not this is a dramatic departure from the way life was lived in the past, it is nevertheless becoming clear that today's youth also are now caught up in negotiating shifting identities through processes that involve a constant engagement with educational sites throughout the culture.
How much more
challenging, then, will young people who are just embarking on the process
of identity development find the navigation of a commercialized culture that
appears to offer limitless choice in terms of selfhood, yet, effectively
limits the choices that both children and adults can make in extending their
sense of personal and collective agency?
The Disney store refurbishment project's "goal is to make children clamor to visit the stores and stay longer" and will cost approximately $1 million per store.
By enabling visitors to generate a narrative for their own consumption, the stores will offer the illusion that kids are the producers of meaning and have the capacity to customize their identities through the stories that are created around Disney products and places.
Such power is
not necessarily false and it is undoubtedly seductive in a world of
narrowing opportunities for agency and expression - perhaps even more so for
children and youth for whom such opportunities are few and for whom the
spectacular has not yet lost the appeal of novelty. At the same time, it
confines the imagination and any corresponding sense of community to the
narratives on offer, which ultimately all lead back to immersing the
individual in fun, conflict-free processes of consumption designed to
generate corporate profits.
Elayne Rapping observes a similar thematic message in the design of Disney World, which, not unlike the world of the "High School Musical" films, is,
The Disney celebrity factory has long been masterful at churning out clean-cut teen idols who symbolize these wholesomely bland American values. Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) is one of the latest incarnations of Disney's star-making power.
According to a New York Times article, for many people, but especially for those,
Cyrus plays the character Miley Stewart in the Disney TV show "Hannah Montana" alongside her real-life father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
The show focuses on the story of a teenage girl, who wants to lead a totally normal life at home and school and, therefore, decides to keep it a secret that she is also the superstar pop singer Hannah Montana. She achieves this goal by changing her clothing and hair color. On the show, then, the lead character, Miley Stewart, has a rock-star altar ego named Hannah Montana and, in real life, Disney aggressively markets Miley Cyrus as a pop icon by producing her music CDs and funding a 2007 concert tour, called Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds.
As one reporter for The New York Times commented, Disney's public relations' ingenuity ensures that consumers get "three girls for the price of one."
It seems that in a world increasingly defined by fragmentation and instability, "Hannah Montana" taps into the fantasy of celebrity, offering young people the lure of agency through an endless reinvention of the self. A tween girl might identify with the family dynamics depicted on the show, but need not stop there when she can also transform herself among her classmates and achieve the chic look of a rock starlet merely by purchasing "Hannah Montana" clothing at Wal-Mart.
According to the Disney formula, self-expression is once again reduced to what a young person can afford to buy. And Disney is expert at reinforcing such cycles of brand promotion by generating relationships between its media offerings and consumer products.
As Mike Budd explains, the company exhibits,
The comment from The New York Times about Cyrus being a good role model for kids should be considered within this context of consumerism and what it teaches young girls in terms of their identities, values and aspirations.
Hannah Montana is not a superhero, but merely a superstar whose only responsibility in life is to entertain her fans and make money. Miley Stewart's raison d'ętre is to deceive the people around her so that she can live her life unencumbered by the social responsibilities attendant on being a well-known public figure.
does not Cyrus, as the real life embodiment of "three girls for the price of
one," represent the most commodified of role models, severely and
insidiously proscribing the imaginative possibilities for a generation of
young women who are sadly being encouraged to view their bodies as objects,
their identities as things to be bought and sold and their emotional and
psychological health as best nurtured through "retail therapy" (shopping)?
Spaces that were once constructed through "forms of public culture," as noted by Sharon Zukin, have now become privatized, controlled and framed by corporate culture.
These spaces, from suburban shopping malls to tourist spots to city centers, encourage leisure while also "priming the young for consumerism." While colonizing multiple cultural spaces, corporations like Disney are increasingly looking to virtual space in order to provide "enhanced" experiences for a consumer class that wants to maximize its leisure time.
Developing virtual online worlds gives Disney, to a greater extent than at any previous point in history, more global corporate control over the,
Paradoxically, though, Disney gains access to children and adults by selling the illusion of fixity.
Disney not only represents "one of the best-known symbols of capitalist consumerism," but also claims to offer consumers a stable, known quantity in its brand-name products.
In other words, Disney culture acts as a temporary
salve to growing feelings of uncertainty and insecurity produced by economic
dislocations and social instability on a national and global scale. It is no
small irony that, while offering people the "swindle of fulfillment"
promised by rampant consumerism, multinational corporations such as
Disney are one of the globalizing forces largely responsible for the
instabilities and upheavals facing contemporary nation states.
Given these conditions, it is no wonder that individuals find comfort in the stable meanings they can ascribe to Disney and turn to consumption for even the semblance of personal agency.
Multinational corporations such as Disney have become "the aristocratic articulations" of a global monopoly of power and coercion that is imposed from above and that achieves control through circuits that do not reveal themselves because they operate on the "terrain of the production and regulation of subjectivity" itself  - that is, in the realm of cultural production and consumption.
According to Jeremy Weber, capitalism adapts to local cultures and conditions in ways that secure its profit-making power:
Consequently, everything potentially becomes a commodity, including and perhaps most especially, identity.
Global capitalism manages
and controls diversity by commodifying and selling different identity
positions, while also encouraging self-commodification - particularly of
youth - through various marketing trends and technologies that become
increasingly ubiquitous in the lives of the adults, teens and the very
youngest children alike.
Their identities have to be actively directed to assume the role of consumer. If Disney had its way, kids' culture would become not merely a new market for the accumulation of capital, but a petri dish for producing new commodified subjects.
As a group, young people are vulnerable to corporate giants such as Disney, which makes every effort,
Virtually every child is now vulnerable to the many advertisers and entertainment providers who diversify markets through various niches, most recently evident in the use of mobile technologies and online social media.
Complicit, wittingly or unwittingly, with a global
politics defined by market power, the American public offers little
resistance to children's culture being expropriated and colonized by large
multimedia conglomerates and Madison Avenue advertisers. Eager to enthrall
kids with invented fears and lacks, corporate media culture also entices
them with equally unimagined new desires, to prod them into spending money
or to influence their parents to spend it in order to fill corporate
Wrapping itself up in the discourse of innocence and family-oriented amusement in order to camouflage the mechanisms and deployment of corporate power, Disney uses its various entertainment platforms that cut across all forms of traditional and new media in a relentless search for young customers to incessantly bombard with a pedagogy of commerce.
In the broader society, as the culture of the market
displaces civic culture, children are no longer prioritized as an important
social investment or viewed as a central marker for the moral life of the
nation. Instead, childhood ideals linked to the protection and well-being of
youth are transformed - decoupled from the "call to conscience [and] civic
engagement" - and redefined through what amounts to a culture of
excessive individualism and the numbing of public consciousness.
As one of the most influential corporations in the world, Disney does more than provide entertainment: it also shapes in very powerful ways how young people understand themselves, relate to others and experience the larger society. It is not difficult to recognize tragedy in the fact that a combination of entrenched social inequality and a lack of resources means that kids disappear literally into foster care institutions, teachers are overwhelmed in overcrowded classrooms and state services are drained of funds and cannot provide basic food and shelter to growing numbers of kids and their families.
Yet, corporations such as Disney have ample funds to hire a
battalion of highly educated and specialized experts to infiltrate the most
intimate spaces of children and family life - all the better to colonize the
fears, aspirations and futures of young people.
The values Disney produces as it attempts to commandeer children's desires and hopes may offer us one of the most important clues about the changing nature of our society and the destructive force behind the unchecked economic power wielded by massive corporations.
Strategies for challenging the corporate power and the consumer culture Disney propagates in the United States and increasingly across the rest of the globe must be aligned with a vision of a democracy that is on the side of children and youth.
It must enable the conditions for young people to
learn and develop as engaged social actors more alive to their
responsibility to future generations than those adults who have presently
turned away from the challenge.