Wednesday, January 16, 2008


The businessman who misses what is “really important” about life, such as the nurture and admonition of his own children, has been a stock figure in the arts not only in the last hundred years, but back through Moliere and Shakespeare, at least. It was certainly a repeated theme of the entertainment of my childhood, from Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins” – don’t we all know how much jollier the life of a chimney-sweep was than a banker in Edwardian London – through Ray Stevens’ “Mr. Businessman.” This stock character is himself an advertising gimmick, playing off 1) the fantasies of children who can’t understand why Daddy has to leave the house and go somewhere clearly less important, 2) the stereotype from the Victorian era of the sacred home, presided over by a saintly and pure mother, protected from the corrupting outside world by a husband who endures this jungle everyday, and 3) envious people who make less money in other professions and want to feel superior. That’s quite a market.

It is something to note the hypocrisy of one of the largest entertainment conglomerates peddling movies that sneer at money-makers, but there is an even deeper self-serving motive for Disney here. Let’s look at what that Poppins woman brings to the table. Young Michael, now won over completely to her point of view, wants to spend his tuppence on feeding pigeons. It’s a lovely sad song – my mother, a city girl who despised pigeons would get teary at “Feed the Birds.” – and it would seem to be helping out an impoverished street vendor who showers such love on God’s feathered creatures. The eccentric bird-woman could perhaps do better proffering food to be given to the starving progeny of chimney sweeps than to the rats-with-wings that are the Rock Doves. But it’s sung sweetly, so you know it must be noble and true.

In contrast, Michael’s father and the entire board of the bank want the boy to invest it with them, so that it can be part of

Railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile
Fleets of ocean greyhounds
Majestic, self-amortizing canals
Plantations of ripening tea

These are implied to be unworthy and somewhat ridiculous. Residents of Africa who might wish to travel to see a doctor or sell their wares, or Egyptians who want electricity might see it differently.

But it works great for Disney. Buy sentiment, not durable goods. Boy, that ended up working out great for them, didn't it? All the McDonald’s-haters and anti-globalists, with their exquisite disdain for the supposed homogenization of culture due to American advertising have it backwards: Redneck Bubbas take the family out for Thai food now, but the antiglobalists remain unchanged in their thinking since the entertainment industry advertised values to them in childhood. They like anti-brands, such as the strange bottled beverages at Starbucks, or listener-supported public radio (brought to you in part by a grant from...). Anti-branding, much like the meticulously-disheveled little boys in Disney, is one of America's most powerful brands.

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