Roots of consumerism may lie in Disney cartoons

May 06, 2011 By Greg Hand
Eric Jenkins

The capacity of media to profoundly shape society is the focus of study by University of Cincinnati scholar Eric Jenkins. He will present an examination of the impact of Disney animation at an upcoming conference.

Did Mickey Mouse's magic transform America into a consumerist society?

University of Cincinnati scholar Eric Jenkins has explored the connections between our consumerist impulses and the animation classics of Walt Disney. He will present one aspect of this study May 18 at the Athens International Educational Research Conference in Greece. His paper is titled "Of Mice and Mimesis: Disney and the Commodity Fetish."

While it is widely accepted that we live in a consumerist society (during a recent credit binge the average American household spent more than it earned), Jenkins said there has been little analysis about the role of media in the evolution of consumerism. Most of the available analysis has focused on the content of the animated films – not on their formal and technical features.

“What I’m suggesting is that the type of animation perfected by Disney over his ‘golden age’ from 1937 to 1955 not only promotes consumerist behavior, but trains us in the habits of consumerism,” he said.

Over that period, with the release of full-length animated features like “Snow White” and “Fantasia,” Disney defined the grammar and style of animation. Jenkins, assistant professor of communication in UC’s McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, sees a connection between how viewers absorb Disney’s animation and how they relate to consumer products.

That influence, he said, is rooted in a media environment in which different media may have very different effects regardless of content. Cinema and animation, for example, appear to have much in common. Live-action cinema records moments in time, but animation compels the viewer to create the illusion of action over time from static drawings. Live-action cinema starts with reality, but animation can only mimic reality.

“Whereas the viewer might think that they experience the real Will Smith in one of his roles, the idea that they see the real Mickey Mouse is nonsensical,” Jenkins said.

It is this unreality, he said, that allows the viewer to invest more emotion into the experience of animation.

“The viewer must fill in so much of the detail that they feel they are participating in the image-world,” Jenkins said.

The person experiencing animation is experiencing something much like a childhood daydream in which inanimate objects become alive, have feelings and personalities.

“It is not only that Disney endows certain objects within the screen with a magical aura,” Jenkins said. “Disney also conveys the idea that all of the objects on the screen are magical.”

Disney’s animators invested their creations with a particular type of magic, he said, that makes a fetish of objects. Viewers “know” that the animated images they are seeing are not “real” but respond emotionally as if they are.

In this environment, viewers look to inanimate objects, not as commodities, but as magical objects providing access to the pleasures experienced through animation. Jenkins calls this viewpoint “materialized idealism” or “a collective dream of the perfectibility of our images.”

It is, he said, a state of mind ripe for commercial exploitation.

“Corporations have seized on this desire for emotional transfer and run with it, often to the detriment of democracy, labor, and the environment,” Jenkins said.

The paper is part of a larger work on animation and consumerism that Jenkins is preparing for publication as a book.

Explore further: New research shows sportswomen still second best to sportsmen... in the press

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Watch how curiosity will land on Mars

Apr 06, 2011

Entry, descent and landing is the big moment for any Mars lander mission, and the big honkin’ Mars Science Lab and its sky-crane landing system will truly be unique. This brand new video from the Jet Propulsion Lab sh ...

Modern society made up of all types

Nov 04, 2010

Modern society has an intense interest in classifying people into ‘types’, according to a University of Melbourne Cultural Historian, leading to potentially catastrophic life-changing outcomes for those typed – ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) May 06, 2011
Marketers/advertisers have known this for quite some time, hence things like Flinstones cartoons selling Winston smokes back in the 50's.
that_guy
3 / 5 (4) May 06, 2011
I actually read this stupid article. If you just skimmed it, I will sum it up here.

Cartoons make us emotionally invested in things that are not real.

Because of this, we become emotionally invested in inanimate objects.

Because of our emotional investment in inanimate objects, we have an urge to buy more stuff.

I'm not saying that this line of logic is not possible, but I am saying that this guy is throwing out conjecture with very little to back it up, and almost definitely is giving too much weight to cartoons (notwithstanding cartoons specifically made for marketing, like commercials), and pidgeon holing disney as a main cause of our consumerism is ridiculous. Disney is definitely a consumerist organization, but he is way over emphasizing them.

This is just another tool in the marketing toolbag.
Bitflux
5 / 5 (1) May 06, 2011
try reading the book: "Influence" by Robert B. Cialdini and you will be surprised how well youre being manipulated marketing strategies. Scary shit!
that_guy
1 / 5 (1) May 06, 2011
try reading the book: "Influence" by Robert B. Cialdini and you will be surprised how well youre being manipulated marketing strategies. Scary shit!

...and?
I don't think any on this site disagrees with you.

I'm talking about the unsupported extreme logical steps that this guy takes to peg disney cartoons as a main cause. The line of logic from a to z is partially flawed and unsupported, and well, there are definitely worse offenders than disney. But Marketing departments are generally evil
rwinners
1 / 5 (1) May 08, 2011
What a joke. Advertising is the culprit. Since Disney is a very old user of advertising, it is probably culpable... but no more than others.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.