Ducking out of Disney English

The seductive frontage of a Shanghai center
The seductive frontage of a Shanghai center

When I first came to Shanghai last year the freeze of winter was just settling in. I remember I was pressing on through the wind in the French Concession one day when I came across a Disney English school.

Disney had apparently set up shop in ’08 to break into China’s market through education; yet, presenting malleable minds with highly marketable merchandise in the disguise of education seemed slightly evil to me. Recently, the Economist ran a piece addressing the way in which Disney has managed to slip past the red tape that usually bars so many other companies from entering one of the world’s most sought after markets.

Point well taken, but there is another part of this story that needs some obviously consideration. The following in a take on some non-economical effects of Disney English, originally printed under Chris Russell for the Global Times. 

Parents have been going goofy over the opportunity to enroll their kids in one of the seven Disney language centers across Shanghai – placing more concern over the value of the brand than the invasive marketing tactics.

In October 2008 Disney answered the demands of China’s burgeoning language education market by opening its first language center on Maoming Road in Shanghai. Now with the recent opening of Beijing’s first center, Mickey Mania looks poised stir up a new generation of “mousekeeters” in China.

Combining product placement with elementary education takes advantage of young and impressionable minds. Fortunately for Disney, the moral implications are easily overlooked when presented with China’s magical kingdom of marketing possibilities.

To quell critics, Disney has asserted that their schools will not be used as marketing tools. Nonetheless, both the classrooms and curriculum are loaded with trademark characters and images from the Disney universe. Teachers sing songs plucked out of Disney classics, and children horde around bilingual story books in backpacks decorated with stickers of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Good students are rewarded with “tokens” which can be traded in for prizes in the lobby that take the form of familiar merchandise. One could be forgiven for mistaking the school for a Disney store.

Why parents are willing to place more faith in Mickey’s welcoming mittens than local language schools is no mystery. English education in Asia has long been plagued with an abysmal record of fraud and a general lack of quality. Much scrutiny was raised towards the first Disney language centers until word of mouth about how the school successfully engages students made its rounds among the parents (There have since been counterfeit Disney schools).

If McDonald’s, Hello Kitty or any other business started directly teaching their target market, would parents still feel so assured? Some schools already use fast food vocabulary to outline certain lessons, as well as reading certain Disney books for story time. Yet, to have an entire school built around the one entity leaves the students with no other options. By fulfilling the educational needs of Chinese parents, Disney has ingeniously discovered a way to enter the Chinese market which for many foreign companies remains impenetrable.

Teachers hired by Disney English are required to have a bachelor’s degree in education, and those with a TEFL certification are given preference. These requirements already place instructors a degree above the norm. The brand-name educational material used in class is also extremely appealing not only to parents, but also to prospective students. Tuition for the centers is around 12,000 yuan ($1,800) a year – hardly a huge amount for an enterprise with assets in the billions.

Studies have shown that extensive marketing to children is effective. Students surrounded by products in a school or classroom will begin to feel inferior without them. Parents can be expected to hold blind faith in the brand because of the razzle-dazzle atmosphere it carries. But perhaps they’d think it over if their kid came home speaking like a duck with a speech impediment.

3 thoughts on “Ducking out of Disney English

  1. Pingback: Magic Kingdom Needs More than Allure to Win Mainland « Transcending Culture Shock

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