Lisa Ray had been fed up with Disney for some time. She didn't like the message her girls were getting about looks and the importance of finding a rich prince. She has never been a fan of media consolidation.
But a recent flap over Disney-owned Baby Einstein products made Ray, an activist blogger and founder of Parents for Ethical Marketing, consider something radical:
"I wish I could just boycott Disney," she said one morning.
Her 12-year-old's response: "Why don't you?"
So she did. The Minneapolis mom and her family decided to boycott Disney — and not just the theme parks and movies — for an entire year, starting July 1. They're giving up the whole corporate giant, from ABC, ESPN and Marvel Comics all the way down to the kids' princess backpacks and old Winnie the Pooh books.
The reason has less to do with Disney itself and more about showing that as media empires get larger and larger, consumers have fewer choices.
It's not as if they were big customers to begin with. Ray is a longtime advocate of limiting marketing that exposes children to junk food and crass messages. Her household only gets basic TV channels.
She sat down with her husband and her two daughters, ages 8 and now 13, and talked about what it might mean to give up Disney. Her husband said he'd try to find an independent radio station so he could listen to Vikings games when they're on ABC's Monday Night Football. The girls would give up Project Runway, since Disney is a part owner of Lifetime. The only exceptions are if Disney products are part of the school's curriculum or if the kids or family are guests in someone else's home.
On July 1, Ray started a blog called A Magical Year Without Disney, at yearwithoutdisney.com. It was picked up fairly quickly on the Internet, getting noticed by Adbusters and Babycenter's debate boards, and she was featured in the Toronto Globe and Mail. In less than two months, she has had 16,000 unique visitors to her site and a lively group of posters who suggest indie entertainment and debate the boycott.
The first step for Ray was to compile a list of what Disney owns or has a financial stake in. It's a long list, and it includes websites like Hulu, as well as magazines, TV stations and Touchstone and Buena Vista film studios.
"Right now we may be in the honeymoon phase, but it's kind of fun seeing how many ways Disney pops up," Ray said. "The big change is in that we have to work harder. Now we have to research who made the film, who distributed it, and we have to find alternative movies."
It's kind of like there's a big elephant sitting in the middle of their road to entertainment. They have to strain to peer around the behemoth to see what's hiding behind it that they may not have seen.
"The thing I'm learning is there is a lot of really good stuff out there we never hear about," she said. "They (Disney) have enough money to advertise, and it is just in your face. You have to go around it and go on the Internet and there are all these little gems that you really have to work to find."
Fasting from TV for a week or boycotting in this way shows how often we go on autopilot and just turn the TV on as soon as we get home or just indulge in whatever is being sold as the biggest movie of the week, said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
"If you decided to boycott the eight biggest media companies, you'd have to live in a cave," Thompson said.
"What's interesting with any kind of experiment like this is it really does point out how much these things penetrate our daily lives, and not only obvious places."
Some of the discoveries the Rays have made include The Triplets of Belleville, an Oscar-nominated French animated movie, and some anime shows that have strong female characters, all recommendations from the discussions on her blog.
But the boycott has also brought a backlash from people angered by the idea, or at least mystified by it. One writer, Strollerderby blogger KJ Dell'Antonia, accused her of being unpatriotic for rejecting one of the most recognized symbols of American capitalism.
"If you fault Disney for its growth and reach, what you're really saying is that companies should not be allowed to grow and expand beyond some as-yet-to-be-determined appropriate size," Dell'Antonia wrote on her blog in July.
Thompson, who heads Syracuse's Center for Television and Popular Culture, said consumers really have themselves to blame if they complain about big media.
"If the consumer was incredibly discriminating that would change things," Thompson said. "This woman is at least putting her money where her mouth is. It's an interesting exercise, but it shouldn't take a story about a blogger to get that out. Every intelligent consumer should have a basic knowledge of who owns what, because this is where we get virtually all our information."
Disney declined to comment on the boycott.
Ray has been stunned by the anger and criticism, insisting her little protest is an intellectual exercise that has no hope of denting a conglomerate.
"We are trying to explore two things," she said. "One is basically the reach Disney has in our lives, all the places they show up and the messages they give us. Being aware of that is good for us and for the kids to be aware of, to be critical thinkers. Don't just accept everything.
"The second purpose is to find some alternatives."
Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.