Fans offer up free publicity for Disney as a creative outlet

By Jeff Cronin
SMC Communications

Take a quick spin around YouTube and you’ll find numerous commercials for Disney theme parks.  The challenge is figuring out which were produced by the Disney Company and which were made by fans.  

Some fans put in a lot of effort to make their commercials look and sound as good as those put out by Disney, and with no expectation of financial compensation for their work. So what compels someone to invest a significant amount of time and energy in promoting a multi-billion dollar company for free?

John Edward Campbell
John Edward Campbell

That’s the question that propelled John Edward Campbell, assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, toward his latest research paper, “Whistle While You Work: Alienation, Exploitation and the Immaterial Labor of Disney Fans.” He will present his findings at the International Communication Association conference in Seattle this May and hopes to develop his work into a book on how Disney fans use social media, such as YouTube and Facebook, to share their interest in the Disney theme parks.

“Important media scholars, such as Henry Jenkins, have argued that we now live in an era of media convergence, where the lines between media producers and media consumers are blurring,” Campbell says. “I’ve found that these Disney fans are at the forefront of this participatory culture, demonstrating how the historical relationship between media producers and media consumers is undergoing fundamental changes. And as this relationship changes, it raises challenging questions about labor and exploitation, about the free flow of information and intellectual property rights, and about the role of media in our everyday lives.”

Campbell has long been a fan of the Disney theme parks; he fondly recalls his first trip to Disney World at 6 years old. But he only recently was introduced to the world of “unofficial Disney,” the term Disney fans use to distinguish fan-produced content from content actually produced by the Disney Company.

“I was absolutely fascinated by how these fans used various forms of digital and social media to become active producers in their own right, and the complex relationship they have to the Disney Company,” he says.

This fan video produced by Banks Lee has been viewed nearly 90,000 times.

As part of his research, Campbell interviewed people who produced and posted unofficial commercials for the Disney theme parks. Each of them reaped personal benefits from their work.

The commercials not only promote Disney, but the talents of the people who made them. For one fan, the accolades surrounding his videos led to a full-time career as a co-host of a weekly YouTube show. Another fan-producer is a communications student who hopes that her commercials will lead to a position in an advertising firm after graduation.

Creative outlet
All of those interviewed said that producing unofficial commercials for the Disney theme parks served as a valuable creative outlet.  This was especially the case for those who don’t get to express their creativity at their workplace.

“For creative individuals … who are not able to express those energies in their professional employment, this form of unpaid labor may serve an important function in their personal development,” Campbell writes in his paper.

Still, Disney likely reaps financial benefits from it all. Although it’s impossible to determine how much money these videos brought into Disney, the company pays a lot of money for advertising – more than $124 million for its parks and resorts division in 2009 alone, Campbell says. He suspects the company welcomes all of the free labor it is receiving since it has never asked YouTube to remove the videos that use its intellectual property.

Given that fan-producers reap a variety benefits – both tangible and intangible – from their activities, Campbell rejects arguments that these individuals are simply allowing themselves to be exploited by Disney.

“Clearly, fans are getting something out of this too, or they wouldn’t put so much work into their creations” Campbell says. Although he doesn’t see fans as dupes of some Machiavellian Mickey Mouse, the question remains as to how far fans can push the line between their productions and those of the Disney Company.

This video by YouTube user Simply DeVine uses footage from a family vacation set to the voice over from a real Disney commercial. It has been viewed nearly 40,000 times.

Media contact:
Jeff Cronin