Mickey Mouse Operation
Forget Miley Cyrus. Check out Disney's Chinese underwear ad.
The May issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands tomorrow, but it's already made the cover of the New York Post. The issue features a photograph of Miley Cyrus, star of the Disney Channel's mega-hit Hannah Montana, clutching a satin sheet to her otherwise naked torso. Cyrus quickly disavowed the photograph, which was taken by Annie Liebovitz: "I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed," she said in a statement. "I never intended for any of this to happen, and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about." Disney, for its part, shared Cyrus' outrage. Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague told the New York Times that "a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines."
Reading McTeague's comment over coffee yesterday morning, I couldn't help but think of an advertisement I'd seen a few months ago while on a reporting trip to China. I was walking from my Beijing bed-and-breakfast to a nearby subway station when I was stopped in my tracks by a billboard that made the controversial 1990s Calvin Klein underwear ads look artistic by comparison. Staring down at the throngs of shoppers on Beijing's Xinjiekou Nandajie Avenue, a busy commercial thoroughfare about a mile west of the Forbidden City, was a white girl who looked all of 12, reclining in a matching bra-and-panties set adorned with Disney's signature mouse-ear design. In a particularly creepy detail, the pigtailed child was playing with a pair of Minnie Mouse hand puppets. In the upper left-hand corner was the familiar script of the Disney logo.
Not believing my eyes, and on an assignment that touched on images of Westerners in the Chinese consumer's imagination, I snapped a photo:
After reading of the Cyrus flap, I e-mailed my photo to Disney's McTeague. I was curious: How did the company square its position on the Liebowitz photo with its risqué billboard in China?
McTeague passed on commenting and forwarded the image to Gary Foster, a spokesman for Disney's consumer-products division. He called me from a business trip (to China) to disavow the ad. "It has caught us totally by surprise," Foster told me by phone from Guangzhou. He explained that Disney contracts with a host of licensees, who produce and market products for the Disney brand. Foster said that licensees are contractually bound to clear all advertising with Disney's corporate offices. "We have literally hundreds of licensees making our products. They are supposed to submit any kind of imagery to us before it is used, but it's hard to enforce that sometimes," he said.
Foster said he didn't know which ad agency prepared the ad, how old the model was, or where the photo shoot took place. But he was sure it was the work of a Disney licensee: Shanghai Zhenxin Garments Co. Ltd., which makes underwear for girls and teens. China is notorious for its intellectual-property pirates, and Disney is a frequent victim, with people illegally slapping the Disney name and logo on items all the time. Could this have been the case with the billboard, I asked Foster. "No. Unfortunately not this time," he replied. He assured me the billboard would be removed immediately.
It is legitimately difficult for a company as big as Disney to keep track of all its subcontractors. Then again, Disney has learned the hard way the importance of keeping track: Disney's response to the billboard recalls its response to exposés of labor conditions in the factories of its Chinese licensees', where subcontractors were actually breaking local wage, health, and safety laws. Here, of course, it's rules of taste and propriety that are involved, and the ad may play differently to a local audience than it did to me and Foster. The age of consent in China is 14, compared with 18 in Disney's home state of California. "I don't want to make excuses for them at all because it is not anything that we would ever approve, but in other parts of the world this is not unusual at all," Foster said. "In fact, in Europe, they have similar type of taste, if you will. Here in China that's not unusual at all, but it's not usual for the Disney brand."
It may be a small world, after all, but not everyone shares Burbank's mores, and you can't be too careful protecting your brand: You never know when a Chinese licensee, or an American glossy, will deviate from the Disney way.
Daniel Brook is a journalist and author whose latest book, A History of Future Cities, was published in February.
Photograph of Disney billboard by Daniel Brook.