So Disney is all upset over some slightly saucy photographs of 15-year-old Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus, but it seems in their haste to toss out accusations (Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague told the New York Times that “a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines”), the company neglected to consider the appropriateness of using obviously under-aged girls on their underwear billboards in China.
Reading McTeague’s comment over coffee yesterday morning, I couldn’t help but think of an advertisement I’d seen a few months ago while on a reporting trip to China. I was walking from my Beijing bed-and-breakfast to a nearby subway station when I was stopped in my tracks by a billboard that made the controversial 1990s Calvin Klein underwear ads look artistic by comparison. Staring down at the throngs of shoppers on Beijing’s Xinjiekou Nandajie Avenue, a busy commercial thoroughfare about a mile west of the Forbidden City, was a white girl who looked all of 12, reclining in a matching bra-and-panties set adorned with Disney’s signature mouse-ear design. In a particularly creepy detail, the pigtailed child was playing with a pair of Minnie Mouse hand puppets. In the upper left-hand corner was the familiar script of the Disney logo.
Not believing my eyes, and on an assignment that touched on images of Westerners in the Chinese consumer’s imagination, I snapped a photo:
After reading of the Cyrus flap, I e-mailed my photo to Disney’s McTeague. I was curious: How did the company square its position on the Liebowitz photo with its risqué billboard in China?
McTeague passed on commenting and forwarded the image to Gary Foster, a spokesman for Disney’s consumer-products division. He called me from a business trip (to China) to disavow the ad. “It has caught us totally by surprise,” Foster told me by phone from Guangzhou. He explained that Disney contracts with a host of licensees, who produce and market products for the Disney brand. Foster said that licensees are contractually bound to clear all advertising with Disney’s corporate offices. “We have literally hundreds of licensees making our products. They are supposed to submit any kind of imagery to us before it is used, but it’s hard to enforce that sometimes,” he said.
Disney responded by pulling the billboard. Whoops.