Disney Goes Retro; Old School Animation Returns!

Looking for a holiday gift suggestion? Why not put aside that latest iPod and invest in a classic Victrola?

The Victrola, of course, was the Victor Talking Machine Company‘s (and later the Radio Corporation of America‘s) flagship phonograph product throughout the early 20th century, a necessity for those who wanted to listen to music in the privacy of their own homes. At a time when many houses in the United States were not even wired for electricity, Americans were buying Victrolas and powering them with mechanical hand cranks.

The Victrola’s speaker system was similarly primitive, and thus the recording devices of the time were primitive as well. Instead of creating stereo sound tracks, musicians recorded their songs on mono-audio plastic disks that spun around on turntables at a rate of 78 Rotations Per Minute (RPM).

The technology was certainly impressive for its time, but it’s hard to believe that today’s 21st century music audience would want to experience early 20th century sound technology. And yet the Disney Corporation believes that today’s film audience is eager to experience the animated film technology of the Great Depression!

The Princess and The Frog

This weekend, Disney released its new animated film The Princess and The Frog, and it quickly became the most popular movie in the nation. But the film does not utilize the computer animated graphics that have now become commonplace in the industry, and that motivated Disney’s $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar (makers of Toy Story and many other animated classic films) in 2006. Instead, for The Princess and The Frog, Disney returned to the hand drawn animation techniques that it first employed for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

Huh? Why would Disney do such a thing? And how often have other firms reverted to obsolete products, technologies, or marketing strategies after having progressed to more modern practices?

Media Darlings

Somewhat surprisingly, many firms over the years have adopted that same strategy, and have often succeeded because of it. In fact, it isn’t very difficult to think of several examples of this practice!

For instance, do you remember the classic brrring! sound of the heavy black Western Electric desk phones of the mid 20th century? They’re now back in the form of digital ring tones, available for downloading onto mobile handsets. How about the Chuck Taylor sneaker brand of the 1950s and 1960s?  They live again as highly successful footwear products for Nike.

Nintendo’s Wii video game system succeeds against Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s X-Box with inferior visual graphics and a significantly lower price tag. And marketing historians around the world still tell the tale of how Coca Cola Classic was brought back from the beverage graveyard when Coke’s customer base staged a revolution against New Coke.

Media advertising campaigns have also been known to return from the dead and delight their audiences. Kentucky Fried Chicken, for instance, once resurrected its spokesperson Colonel Harland Sanders after he had been dead for several years … in animated form, fortunately.

Connecting The Dots

Music and movies and phone calls, sneakers and games, food and drink … what do these products all have in common? What is the common thread that has their consumers so eager to desert superior modern practices and embrace obsolete ones instead?

Two particular common characteristics come to mind. First, all of these products are often associated with “good times with friends and family” in the minds of consumers. We are all nostalgic for family entertainment and conversation; these products have all played important roles in helping Americans remain connected with our loved ones. It’s not that we dislike the new versions of these products; it’s just that we enjoy reminiscing about previous times in our lives when we have enjoyed using the old versions.

Second, these products have brand names that have been burned into our memories by decades of mass marketed advertising campaigns. Very few people are nostalgic for obsolete corkscrews or kitchen knives, even though we use them to pop wine bottles and carve holiday turkeys at family celebrations, because they aren’t consumer branded products. But the very sight of a McDonald’s Big Mac can still cause people who remember the 1970s to chant “two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.”

Will It Work?

So we’ve endured decades of media bombardment about these products, items that we’ve used to remain connected with friends and family … is it any wonder that we simply don’t want to let go of them? Disney has been exhorting generations of grandparents, parents, and children to visit the same theme parks and enjoy the same rides over and over again; they now hope that we’ll enjoy the same animated movie technologies that have existed for generations as well.

Will it work? Will audiences flock to an animated film that is technologically comparable to those released during the Great Depression? If this opening weekend’s box office receipts are any guide to the future, it appears that Disney has another hit on its hands!