Intellectual Property as a Tool for Marking Physical Space and Performing Corporate Identity

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“Every second of every minute in every corner of the globe someone is experiencing the Disney difference.” – Video Billboard over The Disney Store, Times Square New York

Introduction: Investing in a Corporate Vision of Scope

Disney is almost necessarily the central figure for any work done on corporate theatre since the early 1990s. As legislation limiting concentration of media ownership dissolved in the 1990s, and cultural production increasingly became one of the most important sectors in the American economy, Disney–already a cultural powerhouse–saw an ascendancy across a wide spectrum of media that for the first time included Broadway musicals. This ascendancy was in large part due to then CEO Michael Eisner’s programmatic expansion of the horizontal and vertical integration of Disney’s interests throughout American culture. This included not only the expansion into theatrical production (Beauty and the Beast in 1993) and real estate development in the Times Square area (with the renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre),1 but also investment in two sports franchises in the Anaheim area close to Disneyland (the Mighty Ducks of the NHL in 1992)2 and the Anaheim Angels of Major League Baseball in 19953 and the acquisition of Capital Cities/ ABC Inc. (which included the ESPN and Lifetime networks) in 1995.4

The investments from this era in Disney’s development are notable in that they represented significant developments away from Disney’s historic comfort zone of children’s entertainment and theme parks and instead were high-cost attempts to horizontally integrate across often unfamiliar territories. Many of these investments required the development or maintenance of expensive infrastructure, and in this period Disney built a stadium, renovated a historic theatre, and took on a huge television network. The combination of huge initial investment and/or high maintenance costs made the success of each investment more risky. In the end the net gain of the investments did not bear out. While the expansion into theatre has been a resounding success and one where Disney’s brand enable a strong platform from which to work, it could not carry the unlikely expansion into sports and the company no longer owns the Ducks5 or Angels.6 And while ESPN has matured into a commercial powerhouse, ABC struggled early on and has faced stiff competition from CBS, NBC and Fox.

In the end, the lack of solid successes in these major investments and an increasingly contentious relationship with the board of directors cost Eisner his job.7 Coinciding with this change in leadership there has been a noticeable shift in the manner in which Disney horizontally integrates its operations. Since Robert Iger took over in early 2005,8 Disney has acquired Pixar Animation Studios(2006)9, Marvel Entertainment(2010)10 and Lucasfilm(2012)11 for a combined cost of over $15 billion. What is noticeable about these investments is that while they require some costs for infrastructure, their true value in the long run will lay in the valuable library of intellectual property each company brings with it. From Woody the Cowboy to Spider-Man to Darth Vader, the Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm stories and characters are some of the most recognizable in all of entertainment. Combined with Disney’s already immensely valuable library of properties, the company now has a remarkably diverse collection of historically successful properties to deploy. And, since the properties have preexisting audiences and for the most part are analogously transferrable to platforms that Disney is already highly successful in–film, television, video games, theme parks and even stage plays–the cost of connecting them into their horizontally and vertically integrated entertainment empire is much lower than branching out into the radically different venues into which Eisner led the company.

Encompassing the Sense of Corporate Identity

So, if their are seemingly no large-scale infrastructure concerns in investing in these companies and deploying such a diverse range of properties, how does Disney go about maintaining exposure for all of these entertainment brands simultaneously? This question brings us to the level of the consumer experience, which is always varied and difficult to predict. The life of the individual consumer is difficult to track and often cultural studies must rely on broad suppositions. What this project aims to do is to in a sense embrace the fact of that ambiguity and consider what tactics Disney employs to garner attention and represent them in a way that may allow us to make some conclusions about specific and general targeting of consumers. It will do so by considering Times Square as a unique space for commercial impulses in American culture where the infrastructural and marketing challenges of the corporate entertainment industry come together in a charged conduit that allows for a heightened exposure to and consumption of American cultural production.

To consider how Disney performs its new broadly constituted corporate identity, I went to Times Square with the intention of mapping instances of Disney’s intellectual property and armed with my iPhone which would allow me to take geotagged photos and videos. Over the course of one day I took pictures of approximately 200 instances of Disney property from a Marvel Captain America wallet in a souvenir store to the renovated New Amsterdam theatre, which is currently home to Disney Theatrical Production’s Newsies. The goal was to capture what a visitor to Times Square could possible experience in a single day’s visit, and to consider that visit representative of the breadth of intellectual property deployments that Disney relies on to perform the company’s brand both within the postmodern culturally-charged environment of Times Square and without. In fact, Times Square was chosen because its role as a space of heightened cultural experience often reveals the most risky, creative, fringe, experimental or expensive deployment endeavors that Disney would be willing to attempt–take the massive one-of-a-king three paneled advertisement for Thor: The Dark World adorning the entire front of the Times Square Toys ‘R Us at the time of my visit as an example.

The goal is to consider the Disneyification/Disneyization of Times Square from an alternative perspective. Whereas scholars such as Zukin, Bryman and Wollman12 have often considered Disney’s intentions of altering spaces in the interests of the corporation, this study considers Times Square as a three-dimensional physical media display space that includes conduits for intellectual properties as large as buildings and as small as a plush toy. The reason for this approach is to try and come to a better understanding of how the fluidity of intellectual property as a non-physically defined item of cultural value allows it to be utilized both at scale and en masse as a tool to continually reassert and/or reshape the fluctuating identity of a corporation as it expands during growths, particularly when those expansion are as radical and notable as the absorption of the Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm libraries were.

Visualizing the Sense of Corporate Identity

With Times Square experienced on Thursday, October 24, 2013 and the photographs and videos collected, the images and videos were imported first into iPhoto. This allowed for organization and annotation, as well as verification of GPS information. With the photos annotated with descriptions and GPS information confirmed, the photos were brought into Google Earth where they were plotted on existing satellite maps of the Times Square region. The photos were then categorized in two schema. The first schema was based on the type of display in which the intellectual property was presented. The types of display were as follows:

  • Building – any very large scale instance of a property where the physical space was crucial to understanding the property’s deployment (white pins)
  • Media Venue – any venue where the presentation of the property is contingent on selection and is likely to be variable (red pins)
  • Advertisements – advertisements for Disney properties (blue pins)
    • Billboards
    • Street-level Advertisements
    • Other
  • Licensed Properties – any instance of a property clearly licensed from Disney to sell another product such as clothing or souvenirs (yellow pins)
  • Unlicensed Properties – any instance of a property which is like to not be sanctioned by Disney and is therefore not likely to profit the company in any way. (green pins)
    • Costumed People
    • Street Vendors

Having organized the materials by types, the photos were then reorganized based on their affiliation to a subset of Disney properties/brands. Those subsets were as follows(locations pinned with logos of corresponding brand):

  • Disney
    • Disney as brand
    • Mickey, Minnie, Winnie, etc.
    • Mixed
  • Marvel
  • Pixar
  • Disney Princess
  • Disney Theatrical
  • Disney Pictures
  • ABC
  • ESPN
  • Star Wars

In addition to the photos, links to two videos were added to the Google Earth map. The first was a recording of video loop that plays above the Disney Store and over the course of approximately 4 minutes advertises for the entire spectrum of Disney properties. The second was a recording of a video billboard at the ABC-TV studios that showed advertisements for ABC and ESPN television shows as well as paid advertisements from other sponsors such as Motorola.

One final set of materials was added, historic fire insurance maps from 1857 and 1920. These maps open up possible explorations of how Times Square acted as a stage for commercial identities in the past and portend to a future experiment where historic images show companies, brands, movies and production from other eras could be mapped on a history of buildings. This would allow for a visual investigation into how this relatively small patch of geography has acted historically as a hub for charged and excited presentations of intellectual property.

Moving Forward: Visual Conclusions on Corporate Performance of Identity

Up to this point, gathering the data, generating the map, refining the image pins and organizing the materials has taken up a significant amount of time. Now that those materials are in place, patterns of dispersal are already becoming apparent, with concentrations of certain types of property deployments correlating to certain spaces within the square. The dispersals tell a story of how consumers experience Times Square, how cultural producers try to best exploit those patterns of experience and the feedback loops that occur within such a system. Next steps are to consider the map more closely, assess how clearly it represents Times Square as a single-day look and discover the ultimate value of such an exercise on a contemporary experience as well on historical data. At the least the mapping procedure promises to create a better visual understanding of then cultural processes that we are aware are at work in Times Square. At best, patterns both in the present and in the past will help open up a better understanding of not only how Disney and other companies assert their identities through the deployment of their intellectual properties in Times Square, but also how they practice similar strategies at different scales and in different environments.


Below are links to the file that allows you to best view the Times Square map. Download Google Earth to you computer first, then download the file with the photo data and open with Google Earth. It is navigable much like Google Maps, so should be easily usable. You can also turn off the groups and schema to allow for custom variable views within Google Earth.

Contact me at kimon

[at]keramidas[dot]com with any questions. Below the two file downloads are links to web versions (buggy and not as robust) of the two different schema and to a page with the two videos available.