Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Underwhelming World of Disney

A few years ago I worked at a small ad agency headquartered in Denver, but with creative offices here in San Francisco. Walt Disney World Resorts was one of our clients, and the challenge I faced as creative director was injecting their promotions with a level of excitement that matched the ravenous appetite for anything Disney that their executives seemed to think the public possessed.

One campaign, for example, invited visitors to vie for a chance to spend a night in Cinderella's castle. I struggled to see the appeal of this offer, or to put a spin on it attractive enough to get people to enter the contest. I could only imagine some poor soul lying awake in a sleeping bag behind the false facades and wallboard of the prop throneroom or mead hall, listening to the rustlings of mice most definitely not of the Mickey variety.

This all came to mind last night when I saw a commercial for this season's Disney promotion "Summer Nightastic!" It left me with a familiar sense of what a friend of mine used to call de ja view -- the feeling that you'd seen basically the same marketing campaign before, with little renewed effort. Nightastic -- really? That's the best the internal creative minds at Disney -- so notoriously hard to please when you're an agency hired to work with them -- could come up with? Here's how the program is described in the company's press release:

After the sun goes down, our Walt Disney World parks will light up the night with 'Summer Nightastic!'

That's pretty much what you can expect just about any night at any Disney venue: the Main Street Electrical Parade, the floats, the bobble-headed characters concealing sweaty, disillusioned actors, the anemic fireworks pulsing overhead.

You'd expect more from a company with a legacy as long and established as Disney, especially since their media arm still produces compelling entertainment content like the animated film How to Train Your Dragon.

Personally, I've never understood the appeal of the Disney theme parks, and it's not just because my friends and I were once escorted out of a tunnel beneath Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel in 1980 for smoking a joint -- early victims of video camera surveillance. In a world where even the average shopping mall is a complex blend of visual stimulation and artificial environments, I don't see the impact of a phony main street and year-round Christmas lighting. Yet I still know adults who love nothing more than a day with Goofy and Mickey -- perhaps just an attempt at reviving a happy childhood memory. To me the whole thing seems wheezy and hopelessly dated, a wholesome but impossibly bland source of distraction parents force on their children to offset the more frightening influences of modern life.

It may also be the unique nature of the theme park business that limits the robustness of the campaigns they can support. I also once worked on the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park business in an effort to increase summer membership. The challenge was that, with any theme park, membership is limited to the geographic area -- approximately a 50-mile radius -- surrounding the venue. It's a simple equation of how many people or families within driving distance are likely to attend often enough to make a membership cost-effective. Universal Studios Hollywood membership isn't cheap -- at the time of the campaign, about ten years ago, it was about $49 a person -- so I proposed cutting at least $5 off to drive up sales. The Universal executives shaved down the offer again and again, until we finally launched -- wait for it -- Free Lanyard Day. Yes, they ended up giving away those shoelace-like strings conventioneers wear around their necks to hold their badges. I tried to convince the powers that be at Universal that the target audience of lower-middle-class Hispanic families from East L.A. didn't even know what a lanyard was, let alone want one, but my cries fell on deaf ears. And so another theme park marketing effort bit the dust.

I doubt very much I'll be visiting any Disney parks this summer. But I certainly hope that, for those that do, their experience is totally Nightastic.

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