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Friday, January 26, 2007

Disney "Dreams" up a Nightmare

Here's an interesting riddle: What do you do to revitalize one of America's traditionally strong brands when it's been left by its managers to languish for three decades? How do you jump start a company whose founders, incensed at the Caretaker Managers who nearly ran the brand on to the rocks, tried and failed to wrest back control of the company? And what do you do when attendance at your theme parks -- presumably the world's best-loved parks -- are laboring to bait more people through their gates?

If you're Disney, you do what everyone else with no clue does: Hire celebrities.

In case you haven't seen it, the brain trust at Disney has decided to run an advertising campaign aimed at getting more people into their parks. That's the good news. The bad news is that Disney isn't aiming at getting more young people in there. They're aiming at getting more old people in there.

That's right: Disney is so bad at motivating young people to nag their parents to overpay for $7 hot dogs and $4 Coca-Colas, that they're planning to hit up the folks they've been sucking into the Magic Kingdom for years: Their past customers. According to Reuters, Disney's new "Dreams" advertising campaign is designed to stick it to your grandparents. Again.

The fact that Disney, long the brand of wholesome youth and idealism, can't figure out how to capture the imaginations of America's youngsters is bad enough. To some of us, it's practically inconceivable. Remember, there once was a time when Disney couldn't keep kids away from Disneyland. Families planned entire vacations around a two or three day visit to see Mickey Mouse up close. For a while, Disney was invincible.

Not anymore.

More parks. More thrill rides. More distractions and less imagination made Disney vulnerable to just about anyone with a rollercoaster and an advertising budget. With every passing season, Disney eventually lost more of its imagination, the one brand attribute that truly made the brand "the only solution" for millions of kids. Instead, the Caretaker Managers at Disney cheaped on out park quality. They abandoned Walt Disney's vision. They started imitating their competitors -- and losing to them.

It got so bad that Roy Disney launched his own rebellion to take back control of the company. While that dream didn't materialize, it did help to end the nightmare that was Michael Eisner.

Now comes the Disney "Dreams" ad campaign. The company, still bankrupt of any truly creative ideas, has hired the likes of celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz to create print ads featuring - what else - celebrities like Beyonce Knowles, Scarlett Johansson, Lyle Lovett, Oliver Platt and David Beckham, each dressed and posed as a Disney character.

The big question is, why?

What possible value can any of these celebrities bring to the Disney brand that a good character model could not? For that matter, why Annie Leibovitz, when there are thousands of photographers just as good, lots less expensive and maybe even more talented?

I'll tell you why. Because Disney has become so confused, so distracted, so unconscious of its brand that it no longer has the capacity to do anything with it other than license the logo. The celebrities they've chosen add no value to anyone, anywhere. They relate in no way to Disney, the stories depicted in the ads or even the people to whom they're supposed to appeal. After all, if I'm the grandparent to whom the ads are aimed, do I even know who Scarlett Johannson or Lyle Lovett is? If Disney is serious about selling to grandma and grandpa, they'd best realize that nobody in that age bracket knows anything after Peter Pan and Fantasia.

But don't tell that to the folks working the Mouse House. In yet another capitulation to mediocrity, they've jumped on the Hollywood bandwagon, desperate in the hope that the stardust of actors will somehow rub off on their legendary mouse and, like Sleeping Beauty, awaken their fortunes once more. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the ad agency creative director pitched this train wreck to the Disney marketing department. The silence must have been deafening in that boardroom, as each Disney employee smiled while silently wondering how the hell any of this was ever going to work.

I could be wrong, but if history is any indication, there's a good chance that at least one of these Disney Dream celebrities will end up either arrested, in some rehab or outed by the media.

At least that would get Disney back into entertainment.

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