Better living


DESPITE A PASSIONATE OPPOSITION to socialism and to any government meddling with free enterprise, Walt Disney relied on federal funds in the 1940s to keep his business afloat. The animators strike had left the Disney Studio in a precarious financial condition. Disney began to seek government contracts and those contracts were soon responsible for 90 percent of his studios output. During World War II, Walt Disney produced scores of military training and propaganda films, including Food Will Win the War, High‑Level Precision Bombing , and A Few Quick Facts About Venereal Disease . After the war, Disney continued to work closely with top military officials and military contractors, becoming Americas most popular exponent of Cold War science. For audiences living in fear of nuclear annihilation, Walt Disney became a source of reassurance, making the latest technical advances seem marvelous and exciting. His faith in the goodness of American technology was succinctly expressed by the title of a film that the Disney Studio produced for Westinghouse Electric: The Dawn of Better Living .

Disneys passion for science found expression in Tomorrowland, the name given to a section of his theme park and to segments of his weekly television show. Tomorrowland encompassed everything from space travel to the household appliances of the future, depicting progress as a relentless march toward greater convenience for consumers. And yet, from the very beginning, there was a dark side to this Tomorrowland. It celebrated technology without moral qualms. Some of the science it espoused later proved to be not so benign and some of the scientists it promoted were unusual role models for the nations children.

In the mid‑1950s Wernher von Braun cohosted and helped produce a series of Disney television shows on space exploration. Man in Space and the other Tomorrowland episodes on the topic were enormously popular and fueled public support for an American space program. At the time, von Braun was the U.S. Armys leading rocket scientist. He had served in the same capacity for the German army during World War II. He had been an early and enthusiastic member of the Nazi party, as well as a major in the SS. At least 20,000 slave laborers, many of them Allied prisoners of war, died at Dora‑Nordhausen, the factory where von Brauns rockets were built. Less than ten years after the liberation of Dora‑Nordhausen, von Braun was giving orders to Disney animators and designing a ride at Disneyland called Rocket to the Moon. Heinz Haber, another key Tomorrowland adviser and eventually the chief scientific consultant to Walt Disney Productions spent much of World War II conducting research on high‑speed, high‑altitude flight for the Luftwaffe Institute for Aviation Medicine. In order to assess the risks faced by German air force pilots, the institute performed experiments on hundreds of inmates at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. The inmates who survived these experiments were usually killed and then dissected. Haber left Germany after the war and shared his knowledge of aviation medicine with the U.S. Army Air Force. He later cohosted Disneys Man in Space with von Braun. When the Eisenhower administration asked Walt Disney to produce a show championing the civilian use of nuclear power, Heinz Haber was given the assignment. He hosted the Disney broadcast called Our Friend the Atom and wrote a popular childrens book with the same title, both of which made nuclear fission seem fun, instead of terrifying. Our Friend the Atom was sponsored by General Dynamics, a manufacturer of nuclear reactors. The company also financed the atomic submarine ride at Disneylands Tomorrowland.

The future heralded at Disneyland was one in which every aspect of American life had a corporate sponsor. Walt Disney was the most beloved childrens entertainer in the country. He had unrivaled access to impressionable young minds and other corporations, with other agendas to sell, were eager to come along for the ride. Monsanto built Disneylands House of the Future, which was made of plastic. General Electric backed the Carousel of Progress, which featured an Audio‑Animatronic housewife, standing in her futuristic kitchen, singing about a great big beautiful tomorrow. Richfield Oil offered utopian fantasies about cars and a ride aptly named Autopia. Here you leave Today, said the plaque at the entrance to Disneyland, and enter the world of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy.

At first, Disneyland offered visitors an extraordinary feeling of escape; people had never seen anything like it. The great irony, of course, is that Disneys suburban, corporate world of Tomorrow would soon become the Anaheim of Today. Within a decade of its opening, Disneyland was no longer set amid a rural idyll of orange groves, it was stuck in the middle of cheap motels, traffic jams on the Santa Ana freeway, fast food joints, and industrial parks. Walt Disney frequently slept at his small apartment above the firehouse in Disneylands Main Street, USA. By the early 1960s, the hard realities of Today were more and more difficult to ignore, and Disney began dreaming of bigger things, of Disney World, a place even farther removed from the forces hed helped to unleash, a fantasy that could be even more thoroughly controlled.

Among other cultural innovations, Walt Disney pioneered the marketing strategy now known as synergy. During the 1930s, he signed licensing agreements with dozens of firms, granting them the right to use Mickey Mouse on their products and in their ads. In 1938 Snow White proved a turning point in film marketing: Disney had signed seventy licensing deals prior to the films release. Snow White toys, books, clothes, snacks, and records were already for sale when the film opened. Disney later used television to achieve a degree of synergy beyond anything that anyone had previously dared. His first television broadcast, One Hour in Wonderland (1950), culminated in a promotion for the upcoming Disney film Alice in Wonderland . His first television series, Disneyland (1954), provided weekly updates on the construction work at his theme park. ABC, which broadcast the show, owned a large financial stake in the Anaheim venture. Disneylands other major investor, Western Printing and Lithography, printed Disney books such as The Walt Disney Story of Our Friend the Atom . In the guise of televised entertainment, episodes of Disneyland were often thinly disguised infomercials, promoting films, books, toys, an amusement park and, most of all, Disney himself, the living, breathing incarnation of a brand, the man who neatly tied all the other commodities together into one cheerful, friendly, patriotic idea.

Ray Kroc could only dream, during McDonalds tough early years, of having such marketing tools at his disposal. He was forced to rely instead on his wits, his charisma, and his instinct for promotion. Kroc believed completely in whatever he sold and pitched McDonalds franchises with an almost religious fervor. He also knew a few things about publicity, having auditioned talent for a Chicago radio station in the 1920s and performed in nightclubs for years. Kroc hired a publicity firm led by a gag writer and a former MGM road manager to get McDonalds into the news. Children would be the new restaurant chains target customers. The McDonald brothers had aimed for a family crowd, and now Kroc improved and refined their marketing strategy. Hed picked the right moment. America was in the middle of a baby boom; the number of children had soared in the decade after World War II. Kroc wanted to create a safe, clean, all‑American place for kids. The McDonalds franchise agreement required every new restaurant to fly the Stars and Stripes. Kroc understood that how he sold food was just as important as how the food tasted. He liked to tell people that he was really in show business, not the restaurant business. Promoting McDonalds to children was a clever, pragmatic decision. A child who loves our TV commercials, Kroc explained, and brings her grandparents to a McDonalds gives us two more customers.

The McDonalds Corporations first mascot was Speedee, a winking little chef with a hamburger for a head. The character was later renamed Archie McDonald. Speedy was the name of Alka‑Seltzers mascot, and it seemed unwise to imply any connection between the two brands. In 1960, Oscar Goldstein, a McDonalds franchisee in Washington, D.C., decided to sponsor Bozos Circus , a local childrens television show. Bozos appearance at a McDonalds restaurant drew large crowds. When the local NBC station canceled Bozos Circus in 1963, Goldstein hired its star Willard Scott, later the weatherman on NBCs Today show to invent a new clown who could make restaurant appearances. An ad agency designed the outfit, Scott came up with the name Ronald McDonald, and a star was born. Two years later the McDonalds Corporation introduced Ronald McDonald to the rest of the United States through a major ad campaign. But Willard Scott no longer played the part. He was deemed too overweight; McDonalds wanted someone thinner to sell its burgers, shakes, and fries.

The late‑1960s expansion of the McDonalds restaurant chain coincided with declining fortunes at the Walt Disney Company. Disney was no longer alive, and his vision of America embodied just about everything that kids of the sixties were rebelling against. Although McDonalds was hardly a promoter of whole foods and psychedelia, it had the great advantage of seeming new and there was something trippy about Ronald McDonald, his clothes, and his friends. As McDonalds mascot began to rival Mickey Mouse in name recognition, Kroc made plans to create his own Disneyland. He was a highly competitive man who liked, whenever possible, to settle the score. If they were drowning to death, Kroc once said about his business rivals, I would put a hose in their mouth. He planned to buy 1,500 acres of land northeast of Los Angeles and build a new amusement park there. The park, tentatively called Western World, would have a cowboy theme. Other McDonalds executives opposed the idea, worried that Western World would divert funds from the restaurant business and lose millions. Kroc offered to option the land with his own money, but finally listened to his close advisers and scrapped the plan. The McDonalds Corporation later considered buying Astro World in Houston. Instead of investing in a large theme park, the company pursued a more decentralized approach. It built small Playlands and McDonaldlands all over the United States.

The fantasy world of McDonaldland borrowed a good deal from Walt Disneys Magic Kingdom. Don Ament, who gave McDonaldland its distinctive look, was a former Disney set designer. Richard and Robert Sherman who had written and composed, among other things, all the songs in Disneys Mary Poppins , Disneylands Its a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow and Its a Small World, After All were enlisted for the first McDonaldland commercials. Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese, and the other characters in the ads made McDonalds seem like more than just another place to eat. McDonaldland with its hamburger patch, apple pie trees, and Filet‑O‑Fish fountain had one crucial thing in common with Disneyland. Almost everything in it was for sale. McDonalds soon loomed large in the imagination of toddlers, the intended audience for the ads. The restaurant chain evoked a series of pleasing images in a youngsters mind: bright colors, a playground, a toy, a clown, a drink with a straw, little pieces of food wrapped up like a present. Kroc had succeeded, like his old Red Cross comrade, at selling something intangible to children, along with their fries.


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