Is Mickey Mouse really this petty? That’s what many people were thinking after Vulture reported late last week that Giphy had removed Baby Yoda gifs due to copyright reasons. It immediately appeared as if Disney had just stabbed itself in the marketing foot with a vibroblade.
Of course, by Monday morning, Giphy released a statement taking the blame for the “confusion” around removing Baby Yoda gifs and that the world could now meme perhaps the cutest movie MacGuffin ever created. Crisis averted. But why was this such a big deal?
To start, Baby Yoda seems infinitely gif-able. People just can’t get enough of the little thing. Disney of course knows this and is reportedly lining up a whole range of Baby Yoda swag for all your holiday shopping needs, which is why the gif ban seemed so illogical. Popularity of a show or character manifested like this is what every content creator, studio, and brand not only dreams of but also invests heftily to achieve this very thing. And yet, here was Disney squashing fan enthusiasm with a giant licensing law hammer. While incredibly disappointing, it wasn’t unbelievable since we’ve seen corporations attempt to control and corral their content before.
Back in 2016, just when fans were really catching on to how fun it was to post and create fun content with sports highlights clips, the NFL cracked down and essentially banned any unauthorized use of its game footage. The NBA then further solidified its image as a more fan-friendly league by actively encouraging fans to do just that.
Closer to Disney Plus, rival Netflix has built a reputation on encouraging fans to create their own content with its shows and movies and also strategically seeding meme-able content itself, then promoting it to further boost that fan enthusiasm. When Netflix’s social and brand editorial team first started seeing memes pop up around Bird Box last year, it quickly began retweeting and promoting their favorite reactions. We all saw the viral insanity that quickly followed.
kimberly like everyone in the entire world
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) January 2, 2019
Instead of riding the wave of pop culture, Disney appeared to be playing an old-school corporate game of damming it up for complete control. This is not a winning strategy in 2019—or, for that matter, in 2015. Disney Plus has to accept that being a direct-to-consumer platform means letting go of the vice grip it’s so used to wielding. The Mouse and The Mandalorian will succeed, but here’s hoping it’s not despite pointless power grabs but thanks to creative strategies that harness the power of the very fans it so desperately covets.