How marketers use theme parks to influence beliefs, behaviour

Theme parks continue to attract families for rides, performances and fireworks displays, but their sole purpose is not pure entertainment. They are also intended to influence the beliefs and behaviour of children, writes Bruce Chambers.

These popular destinations offer family fun, but also a way to influence children

Walt Disney World pairs classic characters with marketing opportunities for a range of brands. (Walt Disney World/Facebook)

Theme parks continue to attract families for rides, performances and fireworks displays, but their sole purpose is not pure entertainment. In fact, theme parks are intended to influence the beliefs and behaviour of children.

From its beginning in 1955, Disneyland was more than just a new form of entertainment for kids. By filling the park with cartoon characters, Disney ramped up demand for its own movies. And today, Disney's six major parks around the world act as elaborate, tangible commercials to sell toys, clothing, cruises and the enduring belief that happiness can be purchased.

Offering less fantasy and more reality is KidZania, which opened in Mexico in 1999 and now has 16 parks worldwide. As this commercial from Mumbai explains, KidZania lets kids simulate what it's like to be a grown-up in the real world.

After working as a DHL courier or Domino's pizza chef, kids can spend their earnings renting a miniature Mercedes-Benz or playing soccer in a Coke-branded miniature stadium. By introducing kids to branded capitalism and consumerism early, KidZania sponsors can start building lifelong loyalty.

But sometimes the beliefs and behaviour of children can be shaped by an event, rather than a physical location. 

We Day began in 2007 as an initiative of Canadian charity Free the Children. These stadium-sized pep rallies use Disney-like glitz and star power to encourage kids to engage in social change.

To ensure kids get in for free, We Day partners with brands like Ford, Cineplex, Microsoft and The Keg, which get to show slick commercials promoting their ideas for changing the world.

Taking site-based messaging in a totally different direction is Dismaland, a U.K. art installation by street artist Banksy.

Dismaland is a cynical, darkly humorous comment on Disneyland, consumerism and mainstream society in general. Kids can wander through the site exploring a model village trashed by riots, a store offering payday loans to children, and tiny boats full of African migrants.

Presumably, the message is "question everything and buy nothing" — except, of course, the Dismaland ticket itself.

When adults want to influence children's beliefs and behaviour — whether in favour of consumerism or against it — it's especially effective to dress those messages up as entertainment and wrap them in a theme park or event.

Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio. 


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