A couple of years ago, I visited the The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The museum has precisely nothing to do with The Walt Disney Company that owns approximately all of the world’s entertainment industry, and as far as I’m aware, the Company does not much appreciate how the Family depicts Walt in a less-than-messiannic manner.
That’s not to say it’s a warts-and-all exposé, either. There were some good bits about the various fights Walt had with his early collaborators, but most of the $110 million spent has gone towards showing how awesome he was, like this lovely scale model of Disneyland:
Growing up in the UK in the 80s and 90s, we weren’t exposed to much Disney stuff. My partner remains shocked at the number of classic Disney movies I haven’t watched, like Pinocchio or Robin Hood or Peter Pan. What can I say? We had other things to watch on TV.
Which explains why I was so surprised by the sheer scale of historic Mickey Mouse merchandise on display at the museum, dating back to the 1930s.
Anything you could slap a couple of ears on and sell to kids, it was there. Comics, alarm clocks, wristwatches, clothes, dolls, clubs, everything. It’s like Mickey Mouse was the Pokémon of its time (he says, intentionally anachronistically — and annoyingly).
It’s this massive popularity that makes certain (older, nostalgic) people claim that Mickey Mouse is somehow the most well-known or popular fictional character in the world. This is plainly untrue.
One day we will be able to run a Google Image Search on the real world and check out how many instances of the Mouse exist versus other characters, but for the time being, we can look at Google Trends and see that Mario destroys Mickey by a large margin, as does Harry Potter and a bunch of other characters.
Disney begs to differ, according to Claire Suddath of Time in 2008:
Disney claims that Mickey had a 98% awareness rate among children between ages 3–11 worldwide. Mouse-related merchandise sales have declined from their 1997 high, but they still make up about 40% of the company’s consumer products revenue.
I find it hard to believe that 98% number, but I do believe they sell a shit-ton of Mickey merch, even to this day. And yet — who cares whether the 98% number is correct? I doubt anyone at Disney (the Company) believes that Mickey Mouse is more popular or relevant these days than, say, Iron Man, either.
But that’s not important. Mickey is a mascot, not a logo. He shows that Disney is a loveable American institution, not just a media conglomerate. And in fact, the less they use Mickey, the better, because if they made a bad Mickey movie, it would tarnish the entire Disney brand.
So, with the exception of experiments like Epic Mickey and various TV shorts, it seems inevitable that Mario will continue to dominate our screens for a good few years yet.