When Jonathan Field was a journalist, he traveled the country talking to people about what was on their minds. He still does. The difference is that today his audience is not primarily the reading public, but clients such as the Disney Channel. As the roving anthropological researcher for Mullen Advertising, the Disney Channel’s brand-planning partner, Field flies from city to city, searching out key species in the consumer’s natural environment. In one town he might point his video camera at housing contractors who know the inside of the American home; in another he might speak with psychiatrists who know the inside of the families who live in those homes. Even as you read this, he’s on the road—like a reporter without a deadline, investigating a story that never ends.
In the beginning of qualitative consumer research, there was the focus group, the pillar of our Consumer Republic. But as the number of products grows, and as consumers have become more unpredictable and more changeable, savvy marketers are finding new methods to make sense of their moving target. Instead of bringing consumers into a focus group—where “marketing perverts sit behind the one-way mirror in their white lab coats,” as Ted Nelson, Mullen’s director of account planning, puts it—researchers such as Field are out on the street, looking for discontinuities that “linear” techniques such as focus groups ignore. “Focus groups tell you where the consumer has been,” says Nelson, “but they tell you very little about where the consumer is going.”
The Disney Channel’s attempt to find out where the American family is going began at the end of 1996, soon after Anne Sweeney became the channel’s president. Sweeney, who holds a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is a veteran of Nickelodeon and the Fox channel FX, authorized Field’s work as part of a “very far-reaching research project” to explore the wants and needs of the Disney Channel audience. Over the next three months, while crisscrossing the United States, Field sent back hundreds of hours of videotape—records of conversations with contractors, shrinks, marriage counselors, clergy, family activists, producers of community theater, local disc jockeys, and small-town newspaper columnists. “We’re not looking for a consensus. We’re not trying to quantify. We’re not trying to find out what housewives in Des Moines think,” explains Nelson. “We want to know where the thinking of, say, a leftist feminist activist intersects with what housewives in Des Moines think. We’re looking for the gaps, the breaks, the fissures in consumers’ lives.” All the better for Disney to fill them.
In the lexicon of new science, Mullen’s research is an example of tracking “discontinuous feedback.” Only by being aware of discontinuities in the marketplace, says Nelson, can the cable channel, as well as the other divisions of Disney for whom the agency works, connect with the consumer, and understand what the average wayward consumer wants—even before the average consumer knows it.
Founded in 1983 as a pay service and marketed since 1991 as a basic cable channel as well, the Disney Channel serves a target audience in flux, as the verities of “Leave It to Beaver” domesticity have yielded to the realities of dual-income families, single-parent households, gay parenthood, and all the disruptions wrought by divorce and remarriage. It’s chaos out there in the marketplace, and even the Walt Disney Company, whose scrupulously scrubbed theme parks are stock metaphors for corporate control, must confront it.
How does a feedback loop work? Consider the behavior of a swarming beehive. Bees, along with ant colonies and slime mold, are favorite metaphors for society among the economy-as-ecosystem crowd. In this scenario, as recounted by Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly in his manifesto Out of Control, a few bee scouts fly off to check new locations for the hive. Upon returning home, they report their findings by dancing on the resting swarm. The more suitable the place, the more ecstatic and compelling the dance. The most compelling dancer convinces deputy bees to check out the spot it has found; those bees then return to express in dance their own endorsement of the site. As more and more bees go to see it, more and more follow. A feedback loop has been set in motion, increasing in strength until the entire swarm takes off en masse for its new location. The hive has chosen.
Now imagine, as forward-thinking marketers do, the consumer marketplace as a hive, a metaorganism that behaves not like a machine, as classical economists have conceived it, but as a complex living system. Envision consumers not as cogs in this machine of inputs and outputs, supply and demand, and cause and effect, but as members of the hive, each occupying his or her own niche in the honeycomb and displaying no more sense of collective purpose than your average worker bee. Then think of a marketer as a bee dancing frantically to get the hive’s attention. The jig of this marketplace bee may not catch the audience’s fancy. But if it does, the law of increasing returns kicks in. One day a small bunch of trendsetting bees in Seattle are sipping decaf mocha latte nectar in a local coffeehouse, and before you know it, Starbucks is a national chain with 1,500 stores and counting. The hive has chosen.
Like most trendy terminology, “discontinuous feedback” is not a new process, but a new way of talking about a phenomenon that’s already visible. The most successful brands of the last 20 years—not to mention the metastasizing Disney empire itself—aren’t aiming for a “passive consumer waiting to be jolted into choosing,” says Mark Barden, an advertising account planner. They “work with the energy of the market,” inviting consumers “to actively consume the message and create their own interpretation.”
After working on the Nike account at Wieden & Kennedy, Barden, now a partner at San Francisco ad shop Black Rocket, saw Nike become an “autopoietic system, one that changes by referring to itself.” In the beginning there was “Just Do It.” Then in the early ’90s Nike moved to target women with print ads featuring soliloquies of self-affirmation and the “If You Let Me Play Sports” TV campaign, which won laurels from feminist organizations. These ads allowed “women to interpret the ‘Just Do It’ theme in a way that was appropriate to them,” Barden says, creating feedback that “forever changed the nature of the brand, but within the confines of some basic principles. That’s how Nike has been able to sell shoes to the jocks and their moms at the same time.”
If Nike’s success was the result of intuition, the remaking of the Disney Channel ensues from a systematic attempt to apply the lessons of marketing’s new tool kit—or at least its new terminology, specifically, the feedback loop. The raw material could not have been more appropriate: The Disney Channel is itself a kind of Möbius strip of brand identity. The channel carries no advertisements; it is one single-minded, 24-hour-a-day advertisement for Disney, where products from Bambi to Jungle 2 Jungle, from “Growing Pains” to classic black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons, are resold and recycled. For the 35 million subscribers who receive it, the channel is their most intimate and regular connection to the wonderful world of Disney.
If, as Nelson says, the point of discontinuity research is to expose cultural ruptures, then the channel’s research team struck gold. From the focus groups, which represented only about 20 percent of the project, and from Jonathan Field’s and other researchers’ conversations emerged a picture of the American family in disarray—and discomfort. In late 1996, families and the institutions that served them were still reeling from the “family values” battles of the early ’90s. “We found people were very disturbed by it,” says Sweeney. Single mothers and parents in two-income households, in particular, “felt judged by the politicians, like they were being told they weren’t good enough, that they just didn’t measure up.” Family life is hard enough nowadays, they said, without their being criticized. “What they wanted from us was to be celebrated, to be inspired. They wanted opportunities to come together and be a family,” says Sweeney. A strategy was born: The Disney Channel would be a haven in a heartless world for the American family in all its permutations.
In 1997, they began to revamp the program schedule. One goal was to make the channel more interactive, or, as Sweeney says, “the beginning of an adventure, not the end.” The old logo, a faceless Mickey Mouse silhouette framed by an abstract TV, went first. In its place there is now a cartoon of a TV set wearing mouse ears. From inside the set pops out Mickey, fully rendered, belly bouncing Steamboat Willie-style, almost leaping from the TV right into the viewer’s living room. Explains Sweeney: “The logo is like your window on Disney and Disney’s window on you.”
The Disney Channel also started to lard its programs with interactive invitations, ploys to break down the fourth wall between network and viewer. Tune into the channel in the morning and see Bear, the star of “Bear in the Big Blue House,” do it in the tradition of Mr. Rogers and Big Bird. “What’s that I smell?” asks Bear, a Barneyfied, Big Bird-sized puppet from Jim Henson Television, as he ambles to the camera and presses his out-of-focus nose to the lens. “Oh, it’s you I smell. You smell good.” And what works for kids works for adults, too. In a promo for Toy Story, the channel flogged the film as a “celebration…happening in your home!” Sweeney and her staff made the programs not only more interactive but more diverse, dividing them into consumercentric zones, each with its own social agenda and cartoon-character-bursting-from-the-screen logo: Winnie-the-Pooh for the wee ones, Goofy for the after-school crowd, and the cross-generational icon Tinkerbell for the family hour.
Its shows reflect the corporate philosophy of the Disney that owns “Ellen” and that refused to bow to pressure from Southern Baptists when a gay group held an event at Walt Disney World: No one is excluded. The channel’s nature shows stress ecological responsibility. It marked last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day by presenting a “celebration of his living legacy” with a multiculti cast of kids. And it is surely the only channel this side of public access to title a program in Swahili: “Omba Mokomba,” or “Ask Mokomba,” another ecofriendly entry, in which the host of a fictional African television call-in show answers questions about animals.
So far the results are good. In 1997 the channel earned its highest average prime-time rating ever. Viewing by kids ages 9 to 11 jumped 107 percent during prime time and 75 percent on a 24-hour basis, while 33 percent more adults ages 18 to 49 tuned in for the total day. And although a 107 percent leap in viewership among kids still translates into a relatively small rating, it’s a number likely to catch a cable operator’s eye.
Only one thing can stop the consumer-bee dance: marketers themselves. Nelson’s advice to Disney and Mullen’s other clients is: “Don’t ask, ‘Where do we want to go?’ Ask, ‘Where do we have permission to go?'” This ceding of control makes a lot of clients understandably nervous. Observes Barden: “It’s a tough admission for those who have built their careers around the notion that their job is to coerce and control.”
But there is less to this kind of consumer empowerment than meets the eye. The consumer is no longer a passive recipient, but instead an active accomplice in the marketing process. In a well-functioning loop, says Barden, “consumers are doing the marketing themselves,” like the women who respond to the “If You Let Me Play Sports” campaign and recast the Nike brand in their own image.
That’s the same deal the Disney Channel wants its viewers to strike with it: to invest Disney with their own yearnings. Disney promises to answer our deepest desires for security, support, love, involvement, and good times—all the things an ideal family would supply. All we have to do to enjoy the benefits is to watch, to participate, to clap as if for Tinkerbell, because, like Tinkerbell, the Disney brand will not survive and prosper unless we believe.
For all the Disney Channel’s attention to the upheaval that’s changing the American family and to the discontinuities of the marketplace, a sense of chaos is exactly what its programming lacks. In a series of “family service announcements” that began airing earlier this year, celebrities such as Celine Dion and Michael J. Fox make warm and fuzzy testimonies to family that manage to snuggle up to a sense of empowerment without actually advocating anything. Bear’s kiddie viewers don’t just smell, they smell good. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the occasion for all God’s children to hug themselves, not a reminder of political struggle. The channel gives voice to a multicultural chorus, but its members all sing the same tune.
Since the days of Walt, the genius of Disney entertainment has been to strike the deepest chords of myth while at the same time sweetening them for easy mass palatability. The Disney Channel, with its abundance of viewer celebrations and affirmations and inspirations, unfolds in the same sunlit world. Except this time the object being Disneyfied is not Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. The product of discontinuous feedback is the Disney version of you.
Debra Goldman writes a column on advertising and culture for Adweek magazine.