1994, Seoul, Korea. Staring wide-eyed at the colorful screen that lit up both my living room and my face, I learned my first English words as I sang my A-B-C's with Mickey Mouse and his friend on my precious collection of Disney sing-along VHS tapes.
Well then, have you ever wondered how does the little guy do it?
How has the Walt Disney Co. been able to market this anthropomorphized talking-rodent into a billion dollar profit? How do these mouse-related merchandises make up for 40% of the company's consumer products revenue even after he has been out of work for more than 30 years? Are there ways that we, as artists and designers, can follow Walt Disney’s footsteps to achieve nationwide success in promoting our own products and concepts through a figure like Mickey?
The secret lies in the magic of animation and anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism, the seemingly inexhaustible propensity to ascribe human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, plants, or to God, is something we as humans do everyday. Walt Disney says so himself.
“When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity” – Walt Disney
We, as humans, are emotionally drawn to human-like characteristics and we find ourselves applying them to every non-human around us. A number of theories on why we anthropomorphize are primarily based off the studies of human-to-nonhuman relationships. A profound amount of studies implies that humans seek social and emotional connection from non-human agents, thus anthropomorphizing them. Disney adds to the power of anthropomorphism the use of animation, creating a universally desirable—and real—character that talks and laughs with the viewers.
Flowers and Trees - Disney Silly Symphony - Classic Cartoon
Post-modern technology allowed reproduction of imagined scenarios through animation, a technology Disney took full advantage of when creating Mickey Mouse and his friends. The illusion of life through moving images created “hyperreal animals and plants…(who) act independent of such distinctions between human and nonhuman." According to DoRozario, author of The Consequences of Disney Anthropomorphism: Animated, Hyper-Environmental Stakes in Disney Entertainment, Mickey Mouse and other Disney’s characters are becoming more real than their counterparts, creating an illusion that make us believe that he is a real-life character, and a friend.
As human as he is, Mickey Mouse is also able to activate emotional responses from humans, maybe even more than humans themselves. With big, round ears, pear-shaped body, a big button nose, a cheerful face, and his instantly recognizable high-pitched voice (voiced by Walt Disney himself), Mickey Mouse and his aesthetically cute traits provoke specific emotions. According to The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde written by Sianne Ngai, “formal properties associated with cuteness—smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy—call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency."
Furthermore, Lorraine Daston, author of the book that investigates patterns of anthropomorphism and culture, Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, suggests that “images of animals do not facilitate age, race, class, and culture and eliminates interference with identification and the desire to acquire,” thus, another reason behind Mickey’s global popularity. And because of this, anthropomorphized animals are in popular demand in advertising and are used in commercials for numerous companies. These characters such as, the gecko for GEICO Auto Insurance, the Kia hamsters representing the Kia Soul’s “hamster car”, and the Coca Col’s polar bear, are constantly manipulated to “bring their brands to life.” If so, is Mickey Mouse doing the same? Absolutely!
Walt Disney World - "Talking" Magician
Mickey Mouse at Magic Kingdom meets guests
Disney Corporation is one of the largest, most profitable companies in the world. They use their cute, harmless, anthropomorphized characters to hide a corporate juggernaut. Characters like Mickey appeal to young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. They are the great equalizers. As Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney once explained, Disney entertainment responds to “the child within us." Mickey Mouse most of all embodies this concept and that is why even now, I am as fascinated with Mickey as I was when a child.
- by Shelly Hong -