Share holders did not rally round news of his appointment, but they will be pleased to hear that he is already restoring the relationship with Steve Jobs and Pixar that Eisner did so much to damage. Blockbusters like Toy Store and The Incredibles are good for business.
But there is bad news, I think, from BusinessWeek. Apparently, Iger intends to "distribute Disney films and TV shows digitally on phones and directly to homes." This kind of distribution is desirable, not least because it is, of course, inevitable. But I think there is a failure here to reckon with the real power of the Disney product and the Disney brand.
There is something about the thing itself that we, in marketing and in anthropology, do not fully understand. There is something about having your hands on the movie, even when this comes to you in the form of a cheesy plastic package. Parents and kids want their homes stocked with Disney favorites and they want them in a material form. We’re not sure why. (But this is a small part of that larger mystery that saw people buy DVDs that they would not watch more than once.)
Is this tangibility, touchability, holdability? Is it a matter of having it there on the shelf? (DVDs do furnish a room?) Is about having to load it up instead of dial it up that makes the difference? Is it about having the DVD in the event the cable feed fails us? The marketer’s curiousity is aroused.
We got early warning of this effect from the museum world about 20 years ago. It became possible to make a copy of Champlain’s astrolab (above) so perfect that even experts are sometimes fooled. Surely, this is good enough for display. Surely, this gets the job done.
"No," said the museum visitor, "I need to see the real thing." There is something mesmerizng here about the thing itself that does not "cross over" in the moment of duplication. (People with New Age convictions believe that this irreproducible difference is to be found in the "vibe" of the object and we would periodically find people in the museum running their hands over objects in order to, as one of them put it, "hoover up the vibes." Yeah, I know.)
Clearly, a factory product does not have this "real thing" power, but still there is still something important about having our Disney favorites in their material form. Indeed, many of us would rather have limited access to the real thing than constant access to Disney-on-demand. All of this is another way of saying that there are some qualities of a commercial artifact that do not reproduce in a "mechanical age." (Poor guy, he was wrong about this, too.)
In sum, Disney creates value that does not get recaptured when things are distributed digitally. And this suggests a certain marketing naivete on the part of the new CEO. And this bodes ill for Disney’s future performance and its present share price.
Hey, but what do I know. I’m still using an astrolab.
Tonight’s the night for the launch of Culture and Consumption II. Thanks to everyone who responded to the invitation. I am looking forward to seeing you from 6 to 8. For the rest of you, if you leave now, you can just make it. (Email me for the GPS coordinates. We will clear the roof top for those of you coming by hot air balloon, light aircraft or helicopter.)
Grover, Ronald. 2005. Calming the Crowd after Eisner’s Thrill Ride. BusinessWeek. October 3, 2005, p. 37.