When we were kids my father fabricated a Christmas decoration for our front yard out of an old poster and some plywood. The poster had been advertising for Coca Cola that featured the cherry-cheeked Santa Claus often seen pausing to refresh with a Coke during the Christmases of that era. That Santa, once it was deployed by Coke for various nostalgic Christmas advertisements, became the property of Coke but felt like it belonged to all Americans.
My father used a jigsaw to cut the bottle of Coke from Santa’s hand, thus producing a nearly life-size Santa shellacked to plywood that appeared to either be waving to folks passing by our home, or perhaps trying to hitch a ride. We kept and used that holiday decoration for several decades and not once were we threatened with litigation by the Coca Cola people.
Maybe successfully appropriating Coke’s Santa caused me to grow up thinking giant corporations are never out to actually own life itself, or the moments that make up life such as holidays. But then, I don’t work for Disney.
The business section of the May 9 Los Angeles Times ran a headline that actually read: “Disney ends bid to trademark holiday.”
The story reported that Disney had given-up on its attempt to trademark the Latin American holiday “Dia de los Muertos” in connection with an animated feature “inspired” by the holiday (which translates to “Day of the Dead”) after a public outcry from those who found that effort to be somewhat insensitive.
There were even stats to measure the upset: An internet petition meant to stop Disney from taking the action gathered more than 21,000 signatures in a little over 24 hours. Whether or not Disney ever saw the writing on the wall, it was apparently able to read the writing online. Grace Sesma, the creator of the petition, probably said it best: “Our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit. I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek to own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico.”
Which gets us back to Santa Claus. Coke owns specific imagery of Santa Claus; Disney didn’t use those images when it appropriated the entire idea of Santa Claus to make the feature film “The Santa Clause” in 1994. Certain objections might have been skirted by adding that “e” to “Clause,” which related to a document involved in the film’s plot line. Another part of the plot line was that actor Tim Allen’s character accidentally kills the real Santa Claus, but hey… kids back in 1994 also saw Simba’s uncle Scar kill Mufasa. That year of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” seemed to accommodate death in children’s products. Two sequels to “The Santa Clause” followed the original, or let’s say, first film.
It’s true that many charming classic holiday films freely utilize Santa Claus and all the ideas that go with him such as a list of good and bad kids or elves working for the sheer joy of it. Not as many kill off the real Santa and replace him with a kid’s father but then if the story or holiday is there for the taking… what the heck? Mel Gibson got to do what he wanted, and that was with Jesus.
And then, eventually, maybe enough is enough. That appears to be what happened with the blowback on Disney’s reach for “Dia de los Muertos.” I don’t remember that there was an outcry against tampering with Santa Claus when Tim Allen first put on his red suit, but what if Disney tried to develop an Easter project? You know what, let me take that back. I don’t want to start any wheels turning.
It’s probably worthwhile to note that Disney filed 10 applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for “Dia de los Muertos” including applications pertaining to toys, cereal, and jewelry. Imagine being a parent in a home where Dia de los Muertos – with its roots in Aztec culture – is always celebrated with altars, decoration of graves and holiday processions. Then your kids start asking you about all the new Disney “Dia de los Muertos” toys and jewelry. Suddenly, it appears there’s some official ’merch’ to go with the otherwise folk art celebrations.
Appropriating cultural iconography to make money will, hopefully, always be a tricky business. Not just because Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street” will always make a better Santa than anyone else, but because even though we’re not surprised when corporations attempt to control the roots of culture… we’re always disappointed. Don’t some of the people at Disney have children and families with pride in their varied backgrounds and heritage? Sure they do. They’re just not working in the board room over there.
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