115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Monetizing the Child Spectator: Early Mickey Mouse Shorts and Character Merchandising

Stephanie Mastrostefano, University of Oregon

My work conceptualizes the audiences that early Mickey Mouse films targeted through an examination of character merchandising. I argue that Disney’s early move towards the child audience was one that developed out of economic need, and it is a move that is crucial to examine because of the studio’s capacity to shape and influence how children understand what they see and how they negotiate with the world around them.

Proposal: 

My project traces the origins of Disney animation marketing and merchandising by revisiting the company’s early years. By the 1940s it was estimated that nearly one in three inhabitants on the planet had seen a Disney film. With early beginnings as an independent studio in a marginalized Hollywood market, the Disney Studios would expand into a global media conglomerate by leveraging lucrative partnerships and implementing creative business strategies. Among these business strategies was the development of cartoon-character merchandising to supplement their film revenue. Through character merchandising Disney was able to define the child audience as a new targeted consumer demographic, while simultaneously building a fan-base for the studio’s signature character-driven short films – among the most notable were those that featured the studio’s iconic star Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse made his screen debut in 1928 in a film that has been called the most important animated short in the history of cinema. The animated short was responsible for introducing Mickey Mouse as a star, and subsequently established the Walt Disney Studios as a serious contender in Hollywood film. Steamboat Willie would become the aesthetic model on which future animated films were fashioned. As such, this film serves as a critical starting point for investigating a history of the early animation industry, and the decisions that influenced the shift away from a broader consumer demographic towards targeting a child market. My work investigates questions such as: When did the Disney Studios shift their cultural productions away from adult audiences and begin to target children in their marketing strategies and their storylines? How do these changes materialize in the film’s aesthetic? And, how does the Disney Studio leverage character merchandising to construct a fandom around their films? To do this, I consider a decade of Disney’s Mickey Mouse animated shorts, beginning in 1928 with Steamboat Willie through 1939, which features the first appearance of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in their current designs. This range of animated shorts captures the aesthetic transformation of Mickey and Minnie Mouse from their original designs, which featured narrower, pointed facial features, and black eyes, to the rounded faces, oversized feet, and large anime-inspired eyes that modern audiences have come to recognize. These aesthetic developments are significant because they are also a visual indicator of the studio’s shift towards the child demographic, as Mickey and Minnie Mouse also become more childlike in appearance.

By seeking to understand how merchandising decisions were made at the start of the Disney Studios I attempt to conceptualize the audiences that these films targeted. Merchandise and film are intimately connected in their relations to the audience, and the merchandise is intimately connected with the process of establishing the audience as a fan base. I argue that Disney’s early move towards the child audience was one that developed out of economic need, and it is a move that is crucial to examine because of the studio’s capacity to shape and influence how children understand what they see and negotiate with the world around them through the their visual media and consumer merchandise.