Between three to four minutes out of every quarter-hour segment on the Mickey Mouse Club were devoted to commercials and sponsor messages. Primarily aimed at kids, they also targeted the moms who were assumed to be one-third of the viewing audience. What merits their discussion here is that the Mouseketeers were used in many of them.
There's Something Missing...
When watching the hour-long original shows released on DVD by the studio in recent years, the viewer gets a misleading sense of a pristine experiment in children's television. However, these seven shows (five on the first week DVD, one each for Spin and Marty and the Hardy Boys) are incomplete. A big part of them when first broadcast, nearly a fifth of the airtime, belonged to commercials. Those brief blackouts in the middle of skits, cartoons and serial episodes on the DVDs, used to be filled with ads, some of them, like the video clip above, delivered by Mouseketeers.
The Mickey Mouse Club was both educational and entertaining for kids, in a way that would not be achieved again on television for many years. But it was also very much a commercial endeavor, full of advertising, both the obvious, and for kids at least, the less obvious. The latter was the famous Disney synergy, the cross-marketing of films and the theme park built into the show. The former consisted of sponsor messages, seen at the start of quarter-hour segments on the first week DVD, and the actual commercials, which have not been included on official DVD releases.
Where The Money Came From
Before a single foot of film was shot for the Mickey Mouse Club, there had to be some promise of making money from it. The Disney Studio, as the production company, had signed a contract with the ABC network to produce one-hour of daily programming. ABC president Robert Kintner identified the target audience as three to fourteen years of age, with mothers as a secondary audience. ABC would provide Disney with a fixed amount of money per episode, which the network would then try to recoup from advertisers.
Sponsor Advertising Managers 1955
The 1950's was the golden age of advertising. The grey-flannel canyon of Madison Avenue in New York City was as famous as Silicon Valley would be in a later time. Television was the medium propelling this innovative and explosive growth industry. The major movie studios held aloft from making television shows, seeing only a threat to their films. Disney, with the Disneyland prime-time show, was the first studio to break ranks, and ABC had no trouble lining up sponsors. It seemed to be a deal with no losers. The continually cash-strapped Disney studio at last had a regular flow of income, as well as the loan guarantees to build the theme park. ABC had its first show to crack the top ten in ratings. The sponsors had a quality program on which to advertise, with an established family-friendly brand name and the studio capability to make the commercials showing their products.
The Mickey Mouse Club promised to be just as successful when it was first announced in February 1955. Sponsors were eager to sign up, but also a bit apprehensive. The studio had no pilot to show, and was close-mouthed about the format, while frantically trying to pull together the first season programming in what producer Bill Walsh described as a continual "Chinese fire-drill". An ABC executive finally had to sneak storyboards out of the studio overnight, to reassure sponsors the show would live up to its billing.
The Daily Format
In it's first two seasons, the Mickey Mouse Club was divided into quarter-hour segments. The segmented nature of the show was designed to make it both easier to produce and sell to sponsors, who were accustomed to purchasing air time in fifteen-minute blocks. (Fifteen-minute programs, now rare and confined to marginal time slots, were more prevalent in the early days of television.) Each segment featured its own type of entertainment, and each started at the same time every day.
Within each segment there was a certain amount of original programming, recycled footage, and advertising. (See the Newsreel Segment for a detailed breakdown). Advertising was divided into sponsor messages and commercials, including the more blatant Disney cross-marketing. Sponsor messages lasted no more than twenty seconds, and were usually seen at the start of each segment. They generally consisted of a few small photos of products, displayed on the show's cartoon billboard (see sidebar), accompanied by a voiceover and some simple animation. Whether the studio helped with the latter is unknown.
Commercials were shown in a large block of slightly more than three minutes length, during the middle of segments. The individual commercials varied in length, but were usually either thirty seconds or a minute. They included advertising from local affiliates, as well as from the network sponsors. Also included in the block was the local television station's identification.
The regularity of this segmented scheme was originally perceived by the producers as an advantage, and was emphasized as such in the educational supplements Disney provided to schools. But it also enabled viewers to know when their favorite part of the show would come on, allowing them to bypass other parts, and playing merry hell with the quarter-hour ratings. When the show was cut to a half-hour during the third season, and scheduling became less predictable, viewers were forced to watch a little more closely, including the commercials, which was part of the intent.
Who Does the Selling?
For most shows in the fifties, it was assumed that the series regulars would pitch the sponsors products. This wasn't always a given; major performers often held out for additional money, or refused to do commercials entirely, and by the mid-sixties, on-camera endorsements by stars became a rarity. The Disney Studio, however, had no problems with the Mouseketeers about doing commercials.
Ipana Toothpaste Commercial 1956
Naturally competitive for camera time, the kids were eager to do commercials, one of the few opportunities they had for straight acting. Serial actors didn't take part in this, only Mouseketeers, whose contracts obligated them to do so without additional compensation. For viewers at home, this was often the best way to get to know the Mouseketeers as individuals, a fact often overlooked.
It's known how the producers used Red Team status to ensure cooperation from parents and kids alike. This is usually ascribed to the Red Team doing Roll Call and Alma Mater, which, however, were filmed only once per season. Another incentive for the Red Team was that starting in the second season, they got to do the commercials.
The Mouseketeers only pitched products aimed at children. For those ads slanted towards the viewing adults, and for some of those for kids as well, the advertiser supplied a commercial made by an independent production company.
What's the Pitch?
Most of the major sponsors were food and beverage companies. The toy industry was small back then, and would not become a big advertiser on national television until the sixties, while electronics were few and too expensive for the children's market. A surprising number of brand-name products advertised are still available today. One that isn't, Ipana toothpaste, became strongly identified with the show when Jimmie Dodd devised a catchy jingle for it.
Ipana's mascot in the 1950's was Bucky Beaver. Jimmie wrote a song called Brusha, Brusha, Brusha, which he performed in voice-over for the cartoon beaver, in spots shown on the Mickey Mouse Club and on other shows as well. So well known was this jingle, that it was parodied in the film version of Grease (1978).
Household cleansers and groceries were among the few items pitched directly to the moms in the viewing audience. Cigarettes, a mainstay of many fifties television shows' advertising, were naturally absent, even though a few of the older Mouseketeers were already experimenting with them.
Print ad 1956
Because of the number of hours it was broadcast, the Mickey Mouse Club used lots of different advertisers, a good strategy, since it avoided the problems with overbearing sponsors that plagued many weekly programs. A show with only one or two major sponsors often found them demanding script reviews to ensure there was nothing remotely detrimental to their products in the broadcast. Its hard to imagine Disney yielding this sort of power to any outside company.
Most promotion of Disney products on the show was structural, that is, built right into the show's content, rather than in the form of a commercial. Some examples of this include the various skits based on Disneyland (Flying Toad Cars, Flying Dumbo, Disneyland Calypso), the Mickey Mouse Book Club, Karen in Kartoonland, newsreel clips that visited the Magic Kingdom or Disney movie sets, and the selection of guest stars, whose ranks included a number of actors promoting their latest Disney picture. This synergy, obvious by today's standards, was very innovative for its time.
There were also some commercials for Disney products. Following each daily show would be a one minute promotion for the latest Disney True Life Adventure, live action movie, or re-release of an animated film. Within the commercial blocks shown during the show itself were a number of spots using the Mouseketeers, including their adult leaders, for Disney-licensed merchandise and Walt Disney's Magazine. The copy for these ads was created by the show's own writers, and some were as entertaining as the original programming.
Several sources have suggested that Walt Disney was unhappy with the number of commercials on the Mickey Mouse Club, and that this may even have been a factor in its cancellation. Yet it seems evident that he was perfectly willing to load it up with Disney-related commercials and cross-marketing; it was non-Disney advertising to which he objected. His ideal was not realized until long after his death, when the new medium of cable would make it possible for Disney to dispense with external advertising for its television programs.