Toy stories

Why corporate bosses want to get Disney into work.

James Woudhuysen

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Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales, is to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Billed by the The Times (London) as the most radical leader of the Church of England for more than a century, his book, Lost Icons, has won widespread media interest for its attack on the Disney Corporation.

The Archbishop wrote that he felt that Disney’s tie-ins, between its movies and TV programmes and its merchandise, were unprecedented in terms of the professionalism with which they encouraged ‘further consumer desires’ among children. But in fact he dismissed the example as ‘relatively innocuous’ compared with computer games (‘more obsessive, more expensive’) and advertising that he felt was designed to turn children into sexual subjects. It was the media that chose to fasten on to Disney.

Along with McDonalds, Sunny Delight and the toymakers Hasbro, Disney now personifies the fears people have about the future of society’s children. It is now not radical to say that children are corrupted by commercial interests – this is conventional wisdom. It was back in 1956 that the journalist Vance Packard first indicted American advertising for what he called the ‘psychoseduction of children’ in his famous book The Hidden Persuaders. Now, American corporations that aim their products at European children are the first target of every conservative.

But in bemoaning the commercialisation of childhood, such critics tend to miss a newer, and more interesting, feature of today’s society – the infantilisation of adulthood.

It is not just that computer games absorb more and more adult time. Today’s big corporation has come to view playfulness and childlike behaviour as a source of emotional succour, mutual support and innovation at work. Struggling to innovate in their products and inspire their staff, bosses and managers increasingly turn to promoting play and games in the workplace.

So the real Disney story this week is that Disney has held talks with Lloyds TSB, Barclays, HBOS (formerly Halifax and the Bank of Scotland) and Nationwide Building Society (1). The reason? Banks are desperate to liven up their grey counters and boring ATMs with Pirates of the Caribbean, a Disney Studios blockbuster that promises to be a bigger hit among grown-ups even than Monsters Inc and Toy Story. Forget boring things like improving services – banks would rather don a cardboard cutlass and take us back to Captain Pugwash.

In his latest movie, Minority Report, Steven Spielberg has, to his credit, moved away from the children-as-wise, adults-as-babies genre he pioneered with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He also turned down the chance to do Harry Potter and Spiderman. But in the corporate boardroom as in most movie theatres, the cult of the infantile has grown apace. Just as the magician and illusionist David Blaine came down from a world recordbeating stay atop a New York flagpole, it was reported that he has gained millions of dollars through consulting with top managers of American multinationals. His message: magic tricks can free your mind.

As it happens, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop, is also becoming a practising Welsh druid, complete with druidic white robes, chants and the celebration of solstices. He will gain his membership of the Gorsedd of Bards, whatever that is, at next month’s international Eisteddfod, to be held at St David’s. Should we really be worried about Disney wreaking its bad magic with children? I’m more bothered by the pull that the forces of superstition, ritual and song have for the elite.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(1) ‘Disney pirates to board UK bank’, David Robertson, The Times (London), 22 July 2002

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