Tuesday, February 8, 2000
He has been everything from a mischievous deckhand to a magician's apprentice.
Now Mickey Mouse - the world's most famous rodent - is making a comeback as the fun-loving cartoon character closest to Walt Disney.
After years of being eclipsed by other Disney characters, from Donald Duck to Ariel the mermaid, Mickey is back in the television and film limelight.
The mouse extraordinaire has returned to television cartoon shorts for the first time since the 1950s in the show MouseWorks, which began airing last year. He has a big role as the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia 2000, the remake of the 1940 animation classic that was released to IMAX theaters last month.
And he got top billing during the Super Bowl in his first television advertising campaign, one in which celebrities from basketball star Shaquille O'Neal to pop singer Christina Aguilera shared their thoughts on the Mouse. The ad was the first of 20 spots that will appear during the next several months.
``This highly inventive campaign is a playful way to remind Mickey's fans across the country that he's truly a mouse for all seasons,'' Disney CEO Michael Eisner said.
Disney executives say the ``Why do we love the Mouse'' advertising campaign is part of a move to fix problems in the company's struggling consumer products division, which is responsible for Disney toys, videos and apparel and the Disney Stores. Weak video and merchandise sales were the main reasons behind Disney's 30 percent profit decline last year.
Company watchers also say that recent attention on Mickey marks a natural return to Disney's roots and to the beloved cartoon character that propelled a fledgling movie studio into an entertainment juggernaut.
``Mickey is an international symbol, and I think the company, with the fall in its profits, is going back to basics,'' said Dr. Margaret King, a Philadelphia-based cultural historian and research consultant. ``Mickey Mouse is the most recognizable icon in the world. If you are a corporation and you have that kind of figure, you should really use it.''
Long before he became a corporate icon, Mickey was a mischievous deckhand on board a riverboat in the 1928 film Steamboat Willie, his debut.
Walt Disney came up with the Mickey Mouse character after losing the rights to his first cartoon star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mickey, originally named Mortimer, was based on a pet mouse Disney kept as a child.
After Steamboat, Mickey went on to star in more than 100 cartoon shorts in the 1920s and '30s. Through the years, Disney animators changed his appearance, making his body more pear-shaped, expressive and appealing to children.
He also starred in the Mickey Mouse Club television show in the 1950s.
But beginning in the 1940s, Mickey's popularity began to be overtaken by Donald Duck and Goofy. He was featured in fewer and fewer films, bringing a 30-year gap between The Simple Things in 1953 and Mickey's Christmas Carol in 1983.
Mickey became more of a corporate symbol, appearing on thousands of merchandise items and acting as chief greeter at the Disney theme parks.
Though he had appeared in two animation films in the '90s, his real comeback began last year, with the launching of Mickey's MouseWorks. The half-hour Saturday morning cartoon show marked the first time since the 1950s that Mickey had been featured in television cartoon shorts.
``Mickey was doing a great service as a corporate icon, decorating our stationery, etc.,'' said David Stainton, executive vice president of television animation for Walt Disney Co. ``What we realized was that we were underutilizing one of our star players. That's where MouseWorks came in. We said, `Let's let these guys get back together and do their magic.'''
Since airing last spring, MouseWorks has brought solid ratings, ranking in the top three of four shows among ABC's Saturday morning programs. Fifty-two new episodes are in production, Stainton said.
Mickey's successful return inspired the recent ``Why do we love the Mouse'' campaign, said Andy Mooney, president of Worldwide Disney Consumer Products.
``The campaign is a way to remind people everywhere of Mickey Mouse's special status in our lives,'' said Mooney, whose division launched the Mickey marketing effort. ``We get to hear his virtues extolled by a wide range of personalities.''
Each ad spot is filmed documentary-style in black and white, and concludes with new full-color animation of Mickey created for the campaign. Celebrities included in the ads range from Leonard Nimoy to Kelsey Grammer and LeAnn Rimes.
Said Shaq: ``He's the best entertainer in the world, very energetic, very enthusiastic. I'm just trying to follow in his footsteps.''
In addition to the Super Bowl, the Mickey spots will appear during other upcoming special-event programs, such as the NBA playoffs and Barbara Walters Academy Awards Special.
And this summer Disney will launch another round of national TV ads to promote a new line of apparel themed around Mickey.
The ads will show Mickey in more contemporary settings, such as riding a skateboard and wearing khakis. Also expect to see Pooh and his pals make ad appearances to tie with this month's release of The Tigger Movie.
It's part of a plan to turn around Disney's consumer products division, said Mooney, a 20-year Nike veteran who was hired last year.
The recovery plan also involves revamping the Disney Stores and narrowing the company's relationships with companies licensed to make its products.
In the quarter ended in December, the unit's operating profit fell 29 percent from the same period in 1998 to $207 million.
Mooney hopes the ads will help boost the bottom line.
``People's emotional connection to Mickey comes from very different places,'' he said. ``He makes people smile by entertaining them. We recognize the need to show that side of Mickey more to the consumer, not simply show him through the application of his likeness in graphics.''
The Mickey marketing effort also suggests Disney is returning to its roots. When times are tough, companies often attempt to reinvigorate the corporate icons around which they built their success, King said. StarKist, for example, has brought back Charlie the Tuna.
``The baby boomer generations buy as much for nostalgia and sentimental value,'' King said. ``There's tremendous equity in those figures.''
And reintroducing him is a way to remind consumers that Disney hasn't lost sight of its core values, which some critics have said in recent years in response to such controversial films as The Priest, King said.
``It makes absolute sense,'' King said. ``They never should have let Mickey get eclipsed by other characters. It's as if they're saying, `Remember, we're the Mickey Mouse people, not just the Tarzan people or the Toy Story people.'''