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The media juggernaut that is the Walt Disney Company launched a fantasy portrait advertising campaign in 2007. Created by Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz, the Disney Dream Portrait Series features celebrities recreating classic Disney fairy tale scenes. The series was used to accompany the promotion for the Disney Parks. Contrasting the glamour and fantasy of the Disney “dreams” with the celebrity transformations, the ads contain a simple line of text expressing how the Disney Parks are “where” magic, imagination, destiny, and other romantic ideals live. The campaign employs cultural intermediaries, the celebrities in front of the camera and the creative behind the camera, to create a powerful image that commands consumer attention.

Leibovitz’s Disney Dream Portrait Series is a campaign to globalize and editorialize the Disney Parks’ Where Dreams Come True and Year of a Million Dreams initiatives. To convey how the Disney Park experience can transport guests from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the Disney Dream Portrait Series reflects the campaign’s theme and the Disney brand’s ideology of making dreams come true. Leibovitz’s photographs employ strong visual iconography that revel in the Disney magic and provoke emotional response from young and old consumers alike. The Disney Parks utilize themes of transportation and customization to usher in a new era of interactivity evident in their Parks experiences and further aestheticized in Leibovitz’s photography. The Disney Dream Portrait Series visualizes and answers the Disney consumer’s internal question of what will happen when they wish upon a star. Presenting celebrities in Disney character scenarios, Leibovitz allows the Disney consumer to transform their Disney fantasy and Disney Park memories into a red-carpet affair. The celebrity treatment utilized in the photography is an extension of the Disney Parks’ Where Dreams Come True and Year of a Million Dreams initiatives and celebrations. These programs grant the Disney consumer the opportunity to experience their own fairy-tale fantasies in their own world of happily ever after, all within the Disney Parks. The initiatives explain to their guests, “Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts offer such exciting immersive experiences, where guests might not only see a princess, they can become a princess.” The role of the princess becomes an individual and customizable role to play. In Leibovitz’ case, she casts celebrities, but the very performance of the princess part echoes the Disney Parks’ initiative to create unique experiences that make the once impossible, possible.


Featuring over twenty celebrities depicting classic and contemporary Disney characters, the ads manage to tell stories with the simplicity of a single vignette. Goldman and Papson, in Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning, explain, “The turnover of images and symbols has accelerated and the reliance on media intertextuality has increased…texts become defined not so much by the story they tell, but by the referential combinations they style. Style overwhelms story” (Goldman & Papson, 93). The style of Annie Leibovitz’s photography is an extension from her celebrity portraiture photography. The celebrities, transformed into fictional Disney figures, become a marketable commodity for the Disney brand. Presenting the celebrities in beloved and iconic Disney scenes encourages the consumer to blur the real and the represented world and enter the Disney dream of fantasy and imagination.

Beyond a tabloid pictorial, the Disney Dream Portrait Series casts the celebrities in culturally crafted scenes. The series, as expressed by Leiss and others, “speak[s] to a cultured consumer [by making] reference to the world of the intellect” (Leiss, et al., 554). Visually, the portraits feature an ensemble of celebrities and incorporate varied fields in the entertainment industry. A Little Mermaid advertisement depicts actress Julianne Moore alongside Olympian Michael Phelps. Displaying further complexity, a recreation of the 1950’s film Peter Pan portrays international model Gisele Bündchen as Wendy Darling, comedienne Tina Fey as Tinker Bell, and world-renowned ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov as the boy who won’t grow up, Peter Pan. This ad weaves iconic images of the past with peculiar, fresh pairings for the contemporary scene. Combining these unique visual elements is made possible through Leibovitz’s photography and a touch of Disney magic.

The Disney magic is able to transform rap star and actress Queen Latifah into Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The power in Leibovitz’s craft and the effectiveness of the appropriation and association of a prominent celebrity with an iconic fairy tale character result in a narrative of possibilities, lasting memories, and dramatic fantasies that resonates in this portrait that balances between art and advertisment. The tag line reads, “Where memories take hold and never let go”. It is not only memories, but also these ads that captivate the consumer through the association of rapper, actress Latifah with the campy villainess Ursula. Leiss and others explain, “Design, layout, contrast, color, striking and unusual imagery have all been shown to increase the likelihood and duration of visual scanning” (Leiss, et al., 231). The Latifah advertisement is graphically dynamic. It registers as slightly monochromatic with a filmic finish. There is a balance of special effects with photo portraiture. Queen Latifah exists in the entertainment industry as a larger than life figure, who has commanded consumers’ attentions for her work and for her curious personal life. This status allows her to slip into the role of Ursula and transform the scene into a dynamic interplay of beauty and evil, and power and sexuality. An underwater sorceress crosses with a mysterious yet prominent celebrity in an image that conveys intrigue and curiosity, but ultimately appreciation.

The Disney Dream Portrait Series capitalizes on the Disney franchise and their media conglomerate to extend their media symbols into this campaign. Reflecting Leiss and others’ notions of media-intertextuality and its power to convey, the advertisement featuring Johnny Depp reprising his role of Captain Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise speaks to the Disney icon and their remediation of images and symbols. Following the release of the final film in the swash-buckling series, Johnny Depp’s ad promotes the Disney Parks as a place “where magic sets sails”. Leibovitz creates a filmic still that reads as an advertisement in one moment and a celebrity portrait photograph in the next. With Johnny Depp’s high cultural value, the freedom and adventure in his personality and character are transferred to the experience of a Disney Park vacation. Johnny Depp’s character becomes less removed from the Disney viewer. He becomes less fictional in Leibovitz’s photography and an attainable adventure companion in the guests’ Disney Park experience. Leibovitz’s photograph utilizes the celebrity culture to enable the Disney consumer to materialize a fantasy of piratical adventure only experienced in Disney’s Year of a Million Dreams.

More recently, The Disney Dream Portrait Series utilizes two contemporary media signs to combine and create a new advertisement. Pop-country singer and current American sweetheart, Taylor Swift is called upon to play Rapunzel from the recent Disney animated film Tangled. Leiss, Kline, Jhally, and Botterill, in Social Communication in Advertising, describe the image-building advertisement, “The product consistently gives way to the image of the characters, the situations portrayed, and the denotative meanings, allegories, and symbolisms suggested” (Leiss, et al., 484). The Disney Parks serve as a mere backdrop for Taylor Swift to transform into a princess. Capitalizing on Swift’s burning popularity, Leibovitz brings the animated character of Rapunzel to life. It is in this moment, where the creative process is elevated to greater importance over promotion that the advertisement is presented as a photoshoot rather than a systematic ad construction.

Thomas Frank, in Advertising as Cultural Criticism, explains, “The world of advertising was no longer bureaucratic and placid with scientism but artistic and dysfunctional, a place of wild passions” (Frank, 54). These wild passions are evident in the processes and results of the Disney Dream Portrait Series. The Disney Dream Portrait Series also released behind the scene stills and video spots that emphasize the magic of the transformation and the beauty and class behind Leibovitz’s photography. This deconstruction of the advertising speaks to the Disney Parks’ initiative to provide their guests with unique, interactive experiences. From allowing guests special access throughout the Disney Parks to lifting the veil to the creation of Leibovitz’s photography, the Disney Dream Portrait Series brings the unattainable into the realm of the attainable and makes impossible dreams come true through the Disney magic. The Disney consumer is treated to a customized, privileged experience at the Disney Parks, where they not only see celebrities living out Disney fantasies but also where they can become a celebrity in their own dreams. The American fascination with celebrity culture has enabled Disney to promote this culturally derived ideal of following one’s dream in pursuit of fame and notoriety. Leibovitz’s fame and imagination echoes the Disney ideal of bringing magic to their consumer and the power in the realization of dreams.

A high cultural capital consumer – one who according to Bordieu, “possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which [an ad] is coded” (Bordieu, 2) – is expected to not only recognize the celebrities in the ad, but to also then associate their characteristics as media figures in the real world to the story and fantasy. In the Peter Pan vignette, he strength and acrobatics of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dancing resonates with Peter Pan’s nimble, youthful flying. But this is only detectable if the consumer has the cultural knowledge to make this association. Ironically, Mikhail is sixty-five years old and yet is utilized in this portrait to convey the magic of the Disney Parks as a destination “where you never have to grow up”. The combination of stoic, modelesque Gisele, who has remained viable in the critically ageist fashion industry, with the playful, satirical, and the very “now” Tina Fey enables Disney to connect and extend their brand of varied entertainment and of timeless imagination into diverse markets of taste-savvy consumers. Grounding their campaign in a global context, the Disney Dream Portrait Series employs this diversity of celebrities, from different genres and from different countries, to enhance their reach for a global audience to celebrate in their global brand’s initiatives.

Portraiture with strong visual imagery and dynamic tableau, the Disney Dream Portrait Series thrives on the association of celebrity culture and popularity to the fantasy wonderment and adventure within the Disney Parks. Leiss and authors explain, “Not only does visual imagery increase the attention paid to an ad, but it also can build strong associational links to a greater number of qualities, while at the same time retaining a high degree of ambiguity” (Leiss, et al., 231). It is this ambiguity that enables the campaign to playfully cast celebrities in unexpected and provoking scenarios. In particular portrait that takes on an issue of race, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner Whoopi Goldberg, depicted as the Genie from Aladdin, pulls on the magic carpet, ridden by former married Latin pop stars, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. The tag line for Ms. Goldberg’s portrait reads, “Where every wish is your command”. Disney allowed Leibovitz the freedom and command to transform a fictional Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, into a whimsically controlling figure. But does this do anything for Disney’s brand? Whoopi Goldberg is an internationally recognized figure, but her presence in the advertisement sparks more confusion than associative excitement. By giving Ms. Goldberg an authoritative position, the advertisement seems to highlight her domination in the entertainment industry and exploit her blackness to play an ethnic character rather than connecting her uniqueness and notoriety to the dynamic, nostalgic, and lasting experience of the Disney Parks. bell hooks, in Eating the Other, explains, “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (hooks, 367). Her power is misplaced and her race is exploited. Her celebrity is misused and her identity serves as a commodity symbol to depict one of Disney’s most “ethnic” movies. Whereas, the other portraits in the series use the celebrities and their narratives to associate, enhance and launch the Disney narratives into the popular media environment. Whoopi Goldberg’s image collapses the original Disney narrative and draws the style and story away from the magic and fantasy of the Disney Dream Portrait Series.

The Disney Dream Portrait Series utilizes the lure of celebrities along with the credibility and creativity of Annie Leibovitz’s fashion photography to create a collection of images that project a new narrative of iconic Disney tales. The characters have been re-imagined with contemporary ideals of fantasy and imagination. Leibovitz’s portraits are intended to inspire the Disney guests to explore their own adventures in the Disney Parks. They encourage the Disney consumer to not only dream of their own fantasies but live them out in the Disney Parks. Associating the various sets of meanings held within the celebrities to the classic Disney stories, the advertising campaign emphasizes style and looks to their savvy consumer to understand and recognize the sets of signs, subtly and aesthetically embedded within the ad, and appreciate the acute innovation that sparks new magic for the Disney Parks’ brand while furthering the Disney Parks initiative to make dreams come true. Leibovitz’s portraits allow the imagination and adventure held within the themes of Disney Parks’ Where Dreams Come True and Year of a Million Dreams initiatives to come to life on a global scale.

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

Frank, Thomas. “Advertising as Cultural Criticism.” The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997.

Goldman, Robert, and Stephen Papson. “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning.” The Consumer Society Reader. New York, NY: New, 2000.

Leiss, William, et al. Social Communication in Advertising. 3rd Edition. New York: Taylor & Francis. 2005.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other”. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press. 1992.