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Marketing magic

Building the new Disney empire, one tween at a time
By SHARON STEEL  |  August 15, 2007

VIDEO: "You Are the Music In Me" from Disney's High School Musical 2

When you dial the Disney Channel headquarters in Burbank and ask to be transferred, the operator, before connecting you, will cheerily instruct you to have a “magical day.” It happens every time you call, and, if you listen closely and ignore the crisp, upbeat tone of the receptionist’s voice, sometimes you can detect the smallest shred of soul-killing acquiescence.

It wouldn’t take much convincing, though, to get even the most cynical of Disney-haters to admit that there is at least one aspect of the company that truly is magical: its golden synergistic touch. That touch has been in blitzkrieg mode the past few weeks, as Disney prepares to release the sequel to the enormously popular High School Musical, a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie about Troy Bolton, a handsome jock, and Gabriella Montez, a brainy cutie, who co-star in a student play. The first HSM took in nearly 8 million viewers when it debuted on the Disney Channel, and more than 170 million international viewers have seen it since. The soundtrack was the best-selling album of 2006. High School Musical has spawned plays (musicals, natch), apparel, and new careers for its original cast.

Now, Disney’s brilliantly executed marketing and publicity campaigns guarantee that High School Musical 2 — which will, like its predecessor, debut on the Disney Channel (August 17 at 8 pm) — is hyped nonstop on all of the company’s myriad properties: during commercial breaks for the Disney Channel’s hit series Hannah Montana; featured on the cable network’s corresponding XD Web site; pitched on Disney Radio; introduced on Good Morning America (ABC’s parent company is Disney). The list goes on. If it’s owned by Disney, it’s pimping HSM 2. Resistance is futile.

Disney has been working overtime to reshape itself, with the Disney Channel now one of the most important extensions of the overall brand. While Disney once reigned supreme for the commercially triumphant feature-length animations (they haven’t had a notable hit in that arena since 1999’s Tarzan, despite Disney CEO Robert Iger’s purchase of Pixar and a string of 3-D animation releases), “tween”-targeted live-action programming and calculated merchandise branding have become the company’s new lifeblood. Their secret weapon is targeting an age group that’s as passionate about trends as it is inexplicably fickle about the ones it’s loyal to. Tapping into that X-factor is the Disney Channel’s main survival skill, and the folks there are ridiculously good at it.

“In pulling in ‘tweens,’ to use an odious phrase, we’ve made Disney hip and on the radar to a bunch of kids that, in the past, had already outgrown it, or been too young to be nostalgic about it,” says Michael Healy, the senior VP of Original Movies at the Disney Channel.

Indeed, once HSM proved its paydirt potential, Disney began developing it as a long-term brand so it could be sufficiently milked for everything it was worth. The HSM plot will continue through HSM 3 (slated to debut in theaters, not on TV, in 2008). And there is no end to the different HSM-themed products on which tween fans — or more accurately, their parents — can spend their money. From HSM bedroom sets, iPod lockers, and dolls to HSM DVDs (Encore, Remix, Boardgame, The Concert, Collector’s Edition), books (High School Musical 2: The Junior Novel), and video games, if a potential tie-in existed, Disney churned it out, stuck an HSM logo on it, and put it on sale.

“You can see from the way they’ve exploited the High School Musical franchise that there are few stones left unturned,” says Kim Masters, who has covered Disney for Slate, Vanity Fair, and NPR. “They seem to be pretty enterprising about coming up with ways to exploit the properties that they have. As a business writer, I have to somewhat admire it. As a parent, I’m somewhat afraid of it.”

But now that the corporate course for Disney’s foreseeable future has been set, it would piss off quite a few suits if one of their new living, breathing talents did anything to taint the franchise. Because that wouldn’t be magical at all.

The kids aren’t all right
Since Disney projects such a goody-two-shoes image, catching the company with its little red shorts down has always been an incredibly satisfying diversion for peck-happy culture vultures. Examples include everything from costumed Disney theme-park characters humping each other in raunchy YouTube videos to scholarly books by media experts that point out the ways in which Disney turns people into zombie consumption freaks. And it makes sense, especially considering the exquisite elegance of Disney’s split-personality — this idea that a company long obsessed with the veneer of its own innocence and whitewashed, family-friendly, primary-color, entertainment-pushing reality is actually just a profit-hungry monster with dollar signs for eyes.

So while Disney can keep its animated adolescents frozen as straight-edge prudes, and roll out a massive product line for every new storyline, its real-life cast of characters can’t be trusted to carry on the fantasy forever. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera — all former second-generation Mouseketeers — dragged their careers through the Page Six fishwrap before they were purged of a nostalgic association with a certain cartoon mouse.

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Related: High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Tuned out, Can Britney rise again?, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Ashley Tisdale, Britney Spears, Celebrity News,  More more >
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