Venereal Disease, Taxes, But Not Climate Change: Where Disney Draws The Line On PSAs

Once upon a time, Disney sent Bambi out into the world to teach children about wildlife preservation. It was 1944, and the fawn was the first animated mascot of forest fire prevention. Bambi was a hit for the Forest Service. They were so blown away by the effectiveness of the Bambi posters that, when Disney’s loan of the deer was up at the end of the year, they created a new animal to pick up where Bambi left off: Smokey the Bear. The ad was one of Disney’s earliest high-profile public service efforts, and Disney considered the campaign a success. By lending Bambi to a non-profit, Disney accomplished two goals at once: they could give back to the community that made Bambi‘s success possible and score some inexpensive advertising. A win-win.

But today, seventy years later, Disney is steering clear of environmental activism. Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. special representative for the Arctic, reportedly went to Disney in California hoping to obtain the rights to use the characters from Frozen in a PSA about climate change. He relayed his conversation with a Disney executive while speaking to an audience at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Norway, saying he’s seen Frozen more than 20 times because of his two granddaughters. A staffer from his office suggested asking Disney to create Arctic-focused public service announcements featuring Elsa, Anna, Sven and Olaf. (For the somehow still uninitiated, they’re the ice princess, the nice princess, the reindeer, and the talking snowman.)

Papp took the idea to Disney. And Disney turned him down.

What’s striking about Disney’s rejection is how it stands out against Disney’s past participation in public awareness campaigns, a history that is long, jam-packed, and very weird. Disney didn’t always shy away from the prospect of being associated with potentially unappealing subject matter. Take a look at this Disney-produced educational film from 1972 about the dangers of venereal disease. In the short, a general addresses troops about to storm into battle against the bodies of promiscuous teenagers. The troops are syphilis and gonorrhea germs; their allies are “ignorance, fear and shame.”

If gonorrhea gets the green light, why doesn’t climate change?

Papp said that he told a Disney executive that “you’ve taught an entire generation about the Arctic, [but] unfortunately, the Arctic that you’ve taught them about is a fantasy kingdom in Norway where everything is nice. What we really need to do is educate the American youth about the plight of the polar bear, about the thawing tundra, about Alaskan villages that run the risk of falling into the sea because of the lack of sea ice protecting their shores.”

According to Papp, this Disney executive dismissed the idea, saying, “Admiral, you might not understand, here at Disney it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings.”

This back-and-forth is so bizarre and revealing. If the Disney executive really did say that the company can only be associated with “happy endings,” and that this requirement means a climate change PSA is off the table, this executive is essentially saying that climate change has no happy ending. Can’t have Mickey and the gang sign off on a 30-second video spot that says “PSA: We’re all doomed.”

When reached for comment, a State Department official told ThinkProgress that “the State Department reached out to Disney about raising Arctic awareness, but it was informational only and no collaboration is planned at this time.” Disney did not respond to several requests for comment on the situation.

“I’m fascinated by the language” the Disney official allegedly used to turn down Papp’s request, said Jim Hill, a Disney historian and entertainment reporter, by phone. “‘We need to associate ourselves with hopeful stories.’ So what are you saying? ‘We’re all going to die! We don’t need to depress people, they have to see Cinderella in three weeks.'”

Climate change is one of the most polarizing political issues of our time. There are elected officials who refuse to acknowledge that climate change is even happening, despite overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is both real and dire; there are those who accept the reality of climate change but balk at the notion that humans have anything to do with it.

“In a weird way, it shows what Disney’s problem is,” said Hill. “Disney’s most diehard fans are either extremely gay or extremely conservative. The gay community has always loved Disney for the music, the color, the fantasy, the characters. They tend to have much more liberal leanings. [On] the family, conservative, tends to be Republican side, within that sphere, there are the climate change deniers.”

Disney has happily lent stars from its stable of beloved characters to all kinds of informational advertisements, including multiple campaigns about environmental issues. So this refusal, on its face, is a sharp reversal of company policy. As far as Disney experts can recall, Frozen marks the first case in modern Disney history — say, everything in the post-Cinderella era — that Disney has publicly refused to feature its characters in a PSA.

“There’s a whole segment of Disney fans that are conservative and this is just not their wheelhouse,” said Hill. “Disney, because it needs tens of thousands of people every day to go to the theme parks, to buy the movies, to get the toys, they don’t want characters associated with what they consider controversial issues.”

Disney’s been in the PSA game for ages, often for causes related to the preservation of the environment. In 2010, Disney collaborated with the Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters to produce a series of PSAs about wildfire prevention. The spots, which premiered during Fire Prevention Week in early October, featured characters from Bambi, a callback to the original wildfire prevention PSA. The ads ran on TV and the radio, as well as online and on billboards and targeted elementary-school-aged kids, as well as their parents.

If you watch the 30-second TV spot, you’ll see that none of the animation is new; it’s all repurposed footage from the original Bambi movie. And, true to the response Admiral Papp reportedly heard from a Disney executive, the messaging here is thematically appropriate for Disney and one hundred percent on brand: “Allow nature to live happily ever after.”

In 2008, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment allowed Ariel and other characters from The Little Mermaid to be featured in a “Keep Oceans Clean” ad campaign. The PSAs came out in conjunction with the release of the platinum edition DVD of the movie, so Disney got some inexpensive promotion for their trouble.


But even though wildfires and ocean preservation are, at root, connected to climate change, they don’t scan that way to the average audience member. “Stop wildfires” and “save the ocean” aren’t as politically fraught as “man-made global warming is real and irreversible.”

“There’s nobody ‘for’ forest fires,” said Hill. “When you go to the beach and medical waste washes up, [everyone can say] ‘I’m not for this.’ But something like climate change, which for some people, the jury is still out, in Disney’s eyes, [they’re] a company that has to appeal to a mass audience. If this is an issue that is controversial with one audience segment, [they] have to politely say no.”

As Jim Korkis, a Disney historian and author who worked at Disney for over a decade, explained by phone, Disney has always been protective of its trademark imagery. “Mickey Mouse came out with Steamboat Willie in 1928. By 1930, he was highly merchandised,” said Korkis. “But Walt himself set the ground rules that Mickey Mouse could not be used on any item that would be bad for children or would upset children.” The written rules forbid Mickey Mouse from appearing on alcohol, cigarettes, even castor oil, because “kids find that offensive.” No matter the offer, the Mouse could not be bought; some things really are sacred. “Disney was saying no to all sorts of people who wanted to use Disney characters.”

When it came to charity, though, “the Disney company, while it was run by Walt, felt it was part of their responsibility to pay back for the success they had by making the world a better world,” said Korkis.

“Disney, up until now, really hasn’t said no,” said Hill. The company stance has generally been “it gets our characters back out into the public space, and we’re happy about that.” Walt even had Disney artists design the “Toys for Tots” logo, free of charge.

Because local affiliates are required to show a certain number of PSAs a day, the spots engender goodwill while providing cheap advertising for Disney characters. For more than 50 years, it’s been fairly common to see iconic Disney characters shilling for a good cause. And if Disney protects the reputation of its stars, these animated advocates can be powerful (and lucrative) for generations. Take Cinderella: In 2005, 55 years after premiering in theaters, Cinderella was featured in a series of PSAs for car booster seat awareness. One of the TV spots, developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shows a clip of Cinderella riding through town in her pumpkin-turned-carriage as a narrator implores parents to “Make sure your little pumpkin gets there safely.”

Disney even used to take a stance on governmental issues. Back in 1942, the company produced “The New Spirit,” a short featuring Donald Duck, for the U.S. Treasury Department. Donald Duck — who literally has American flags waving in his eyes — learns that he has to pay his income tax “to stamp tyranny from the Earth…The whole country is mobilizing for total war. Your country needs you. Are you a patriotic American eager to do your part? Then there’s something important you can do.”

“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I’ll do it!” quacks Donald.

“You won’t get a medal for doing it.”

“That’s all right.”

“It may mean a sacrifice on your part.”

“I can do the sacrifice!”

“But it will be a vital help to your country in this hour of need. Shall I tell you what it is?”

Donald, ecstatic: “Yes! What is it! Tell me!”

“Your income tax!”

Donald learns that it’s “not just your duty, but your privilege” to contribute to the war effort by providing “Taxes to beat the Axis!”

If you are a woman who attended middle or high school in the United States between 1945 and 2000, it is very possible that you were made to watch “The Story of Menstruation” video, an educational animated film that Kotex hired Disney to create.

That’s not to say Disney said yes to everything. Hill has heard stories about “the folks who are anti-ivory and anti-elephant poaching who have approached Disney about using Dumbo, and it’s like, ‘No, we are not getting Dumbo involved.’ But that was a private conversation; it didn’t make it outside the company.” As a general rule, though, Disney was game to sign on to all kinds of public awareness campaigns.

But no more. Gone are the days when Disney could freely associate its precious mouse ears with everything from income tax to gonorrhea. We are a more litigious people now, and our corporations are more careful because of it. If Disney made a climate change PSA, “Immediately, you would be alienating a significant part of your audience that would go to the theme parks, that would see a Disney animated film, that would purchase Disney merchandise,” said Korkis. “Because Disney would then be perceived as the enemy of their opinions, their philosophy, and their lifestyle.” Climate change is just too dicey, and Frozen is too valuable.

How valuable is too valuable? The sheer moneymaking power and cultural ubiquity of Frozen is unprecedented, even for Disney. It is not just the highest-grossing animated film of all time; it is the fifth-highest grossing film in the world, behind only Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, and the final installment of Harry Potter. On its first day of Blu-ray and DVD release, Frozen sold 3.2 million discs and has, to date, raked in over $348 million in domestic video sales. Early last year, the Frozen soundtrack dethroned Queen Bey at the top of the Billboard Top 100, knocking Beyonce’s self-titled album out of peak position and becoming only the fourth animated film soundtrack in history to claim the number one spot, a ranking it held for 13 non-consecutive weeks. It has sold nearly four million copies in the U.S.

On an earnings call last spring, Disney CEO Bob Iger said Frozen “is definitely up there in terms of our top, probably, five franchises. So you can expect us to take full advantage of that over the next at least five years.”

Models dressed up as (from left) Anna and Elsa from Disney's "Frozen" at Disney Consumer Products' VIP Halloween Fashion Show on Oct. 1, 2014 in Glendale, Calif.

Models dressed up as (from left) Anna and Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” at Disney Consumer Products’ VIP Halloween Fashion Show on Oct. 1, 2014 in Glendale, Calif.

CREDIT: Jordan Strauss/Invision for Disney Consumer Products/AP Images

“When you do one of these fairy tale films and you do it right,” said Hill, you have a kind of magic on your hands: a 90-minute movie transforms into a decades-long cash cow. Frozen took ten years to make, and no one, not even its creators, had any idea it would be such a hit. They could be a dozen duds away from another smash like this one, and until then, the princesses need to remain profitable.

“This is a multi-billion dollar franchise for the company. They’re very, very protective of these things, because they’re evergreens,” said Hill. “Disney has been making money off The Little Mermaid for 25 years, Cinderella for 50. Snow White still makes money.” All of these “legacy properties” can mint money for generations, as long as Disney doesn’t tarnish the brand-within-the-brand.

So prepare yourself for a Broadway musical of Frozen, which is already in the works. “Right now, Disney Theatrical is walking around, looking at theaters where shows will end their runs within the next year or two, looking for a particularly deep orchestra pit. The gimmick is, that’s where they’re going to keep the ice palace. At the end of Act One, people are going to want to see ice magic. This giant ice palace has to rise up out of the stage, which means a deep orchestra pit that can store tons of plexiglass,” said Hill. He added that “I can confirm that they are at least kicking the tires of a Frozen 2.”

Meanwhile, the inevitable touring production of Disney’s Frozen On Ice is still on the road, and it’s “the biggest success they’ve ever had,” said Hill. “They’ve had to add extra dates at every stop.” All of which could be jeopardized by an association with a contentious issue like climate change.

“It’s kind of cut-and-dry why Disney is doing it: ‘We’re protecting these characters for future generations,'” said Hill. “Who, ironically, will be dealing with this weather.”

The closest analogue that Disney has to Frozen, success-wise, is The Lion King. The haul from the Broadway musical and international touring productions of Lion King is over $6 billion, making The Lion King the top-grossing title of all time. The animated feature that introduced Simba and Co. to the world came out over 20 years ago. That’s the kind of staying power Disney hopes to achieve with Frozen, and that’s why they can’t play fast and loose with Anna and Elsa’s image.

“They really, honestly do view Anna and Elsa as this resource that has to be used very, very carefully, because they want to make big bucks off of it for at least five years,” said Hill. “Putting them in a position where they’re supporting an issue that is considered controversial to at least one market segment of Disney is not doable at this time.”

“Maybe five years down the road,” he added. “When the Jack the Beanstalk movie comes out, and the water has risen up high enough to swallow Miami. Then they can do it.”

The strange thing about Frozen is that the villain in the story is, technically, extreme weather. The movie is without a true, human villain: there’s a good guy who reveals himself to be a bad guy, sure, but the baddest guy — the thing that threatens the lives of every character in the story — is wild changes in climate. The eternal winter puts all of Arendale in peril; the summer Olaf longs for would, unbeknownst to him, leave him a lifeless puddle.

A monster made of ice and snow (and magic) attacks our heroine and her trusty steed in "Frozen."

A monster made of ice and snow (and magic) attacks our heroine and her trusty steed in “Frozen.”

CREDIT: Disney

Disney acknowledges this, sort of, in their endless merchandising of the movie. At last year’s Holiday Showcase, Disney revealed a line of beachwear keyed off the song, “In Summer.”

“So it was Olaf with his straw hat and cane, almost melting,” said Hill, who attended the event. “That’s kind of the irony. They’re willing to hit this button hard in the movie — ‘What happens when it gets very warm? What happens to snow?’ — but that’s all to be ironic and entertaining within the movie. Whereas, if you’re going to make a point about the issue, it’s like: no, we need Olaf around to do the candle lighting ceremony in Disneyworld twice a night.”

Disney, incidentally, “is one of the most environmentally-friendly companies in the world,” from the highest levels of wildlife preservation in and around the parks to encouraging guests at all their property hotels to make the eco-friendly choice of not having their towels laundered every single day, said Hill. “Disney has not just been talking the talk but walking the walk for decades.”

But there are limits to that kind of thinking; when tree-hugging and money-making go head to head, Disney is not going to speak for the trees. A PSA isn’t as expensive as a full-on ad campaign for a feature film, but it isn’t free, either. Disney would have to pay to create an ad — the non-profit organizations with which they partner don’t sponsor the production — and if the video used new animation, “that requires a crew, lighting, equipment, all of that,” said Korkis. “And you want to make sure that the character is presented on model, so it looks like the character, it sounds like the character. That’s another cost, to pay the performer to do that, and the performer might not want to do that.” Even if the ad consisted of clips from the feature film, “There’s still royalties involved.”

Frozen is bringing in unfathomable amounts of revenue, but still, “there’s never enough money,” said Korkis. “In fact, Disney uses the term ‘obscene profit,'” to describe the amount of money they aim to make from an business venture: it’s several steps above a “healthy profit,” and leaves plain old “profit” in the dust. “Everybody thinks of Disney as one happy magic kingdom, but it’s actually a bunch of separate fiefdoms that all report to the same king,” said Korkis. “No matter how much money Disney makes, it’s never enough…It comes down to, who is going to pay for that? Which department is going to pay for that [PSA] out of their budget?”

“Walt Disney is very serious about the environment,” said Hill. “But they’re really serious about making money, which is why Anna and Elsa can’t be advocates for climate change.”

Though unofficial Anna and Elsa gear abounds — it would be impossible for Disney to prevent party planners and parents from constructing D.I.Y. princess gear and games — “Disney is trying to take control where they can,” said Hill. He referenced the conversations Disney had with the producers of Once Upon a Time, the live-action fairy-tale-themed drama on Disney-owned ABC. Anna and Elsa were included in a story arc for the first half of the current season, but there were rules: the girls could not be villains. They could be “misunderstood and temporarily viewed as villains,” Hill explained. “But when they exit the story, they have to be the way kids know them from the movies.”

“If they’re being that protective with one of their hit series,” said Hill. “You can see why they hit back on the folks from the Obama administration.”

Disney’s M.O. in cases like this is to quietly wait out whatever backlash may ensue until people move on to the next controversy. “Disney is very much a believer in the news cycle,” said Hill. “If you just tough it out, some other story will come along that will knock that one down… And I think that’s why Disney put the spin on it that they did. ‘Hopeful stories,’ for a lot of parents, it’s like, okay, I’ll buy into that.”

“Disney just keeps its mouth shut,” said Korkis. “And as a result, that controversy just disappears.”

Besides, Disney has their hands full with a more buzzed-about, panic-inducing news story: measles outbreaks at the theme parks.

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