Disney pisses off fans after copying popular album art
// Michelle Plaschinski

The commodification of alternative culture happens everywhere in our society. People rely on Hype Machine and Pitchfork to find unique music, or shop at Urban Outfitters and H&M to indulge in the latest fashions. Through these individual activities, the marketer doesn’t need to approach the consumer anymore: instead, the consumer subconsciously approaches the marketer to find the new cool.

This past year, there has been turmoil between the clothing store Forever 21 and Kurt Cobain’s own hand drawn “Flipper” t-shirt. Nirvana’s front man made it as tribute to the original band in the early 1990s, but it was mass-distributed in Forever 21 stores in 2011. Turns out that Forever 21 did have the rights to distribute and sell their “Flipper” design, but Kurt Cobain’s inspiration for creating the shirt was not passed along to its new owners.

Another controversy has recently occurred between Disney and the band Joy Division. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Disney took the abstract “wave-form” design from Joy Division’s 1979 Unknown Pleasures album cover from the public domain without discussing it with the remaining band members. The image was molded into an outline of Mickey Mouse’s head and made into a t-shirt. It was made available for sale online and at Disney stores worldwide for $24.95. The release of the t-shirt caused a stir amongst Joy Division fans, and according to the Toronto Star, a few days after its unveiling, the “Waves Mickey Mouse” tee was taken off the website. By mainstreaming the “Flipper” and Unknown Pleasures graphics, the deeper meanings of the images are lost, and so does their originality that made them iconic in the first place.

The 2001 Frontline documentary Merchants of Cool features correspondents who talk with top marketers, media executives, and critics to see how teens respond to marketers’ messages. They also observe if it results in the success of a trend. Marketing moguls conduct surveys and host friendly focus groups to access the teenage goldmine. The use of these research methods allows marketers to get inside teenagers’ heads.

A segment of the documentary involves the work of “Look-Look”, a research company that specializes in youth culture co-founded by Dee Dee Gordon and Sharon Lee. Lee sees the trend-setting phenomenon as having a triangular shape. She explains it from top to bottom: “At the top of the triangle there's the innovator, underneath them is the trend-setter … who pick[s] up on [innovators’ ideas] and kind of claim[s] them as their own.” At the next tier, she describes “the early adopters … [who take the idea] and make it palatable for mass consumption. That's when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and … eventually kills it.”

Joy Division’s waves graphic originated from the groundbreaking pulsar image of the '60s. It was turned into a trend by the band selling it as its album cover, and kept evolving over the years. When Disney tweaked it and made it a mass commodity this year, its meaning was lost; it became another collectible Mickey Mouse t-shirt. If loyal music fans had not outraged and defended Joy Division’s relationship to the image, the pulsar waves would have been worn by unknowing fashionistas all over the globe.

No matter how obscure or insignificant an independent design may seem, it has the potential to be mainstreamed. Whether it is achieved through a marketer’s cunning techniques, by the influence of the media, a major corporation, or developed into a phenomenon by persistent “cool hunters”, Merchants of Cool proves that anything can be turned into a commodity and made into a global trend. As Disney’s famous saying goes, “It’s a small world, after all.”

//Michelle Plaschinski, writer
// Graphics by Shannon Elliott

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: