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This early version of Mickey Mouse from "Steamboat Willie" is now in the public domain. Courtesy image
Ask Mr. MarketingColumns

Using Mickey Mouse for marketing

Jan. 1 saw literature like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and music like “Makin’ Whoopee” lose their copyright protection, joining countless other ideas entering the public domain.

And, in case you missed it, “Steamboat Willie” (the earliest version of Mickey and Minnie Mouse) was also on the list.

Two horror flicks and a video game having nothing to do with Disney but starring Mickey Mouse have already been announced.

It’s no surprise given the 2023 slasher film “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” released shortly after Pooh bear became public property.

Please understand we’re not talking about the Mickey Mouse who starred as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” “Steamboat Willie” isn’t cuddly like today’s model, so it’s arguably appropriate that he’s being featured in rougher types of films.

And yes, newer versions of your favorite mouse are still protected by copyright, and will be for a long time to come. Go up against Disney’s lawyers at your own risk.

I know, “Steamboat Willie” is less a cartoon than a cultural touchstone that gave birth to one of the world’s most recognizable characters. Many people have an emotional connection with Mickey Mouse, so you may be tempted to use him in your own marketing.

But before you go down this road, recognize that a lot of businesses will be using Willie this year in their communications. And, as the villain said in “The Incredibles,” “When everyone is special, then nobody is.”

Meaning that using Steamboat Willie to help you stand out from the crowd doesn’t work when there’s a crowd using him for their own messaging.

Okay, yes…public domain means anyone can do whatever they want with those characters, leaving it to the marketplace to determine what’s successful.

And it’s true, the horror flick guys are getting lots of buzz now. But this was in large part because they started their projects years ago and just waited until the ball dropped at Times Square before they announced it.

Of course, you can still participate in this Disney free-for-all by looking to incorporate Pluto (2025) and Donald Duck (2029) in your campaigns. Starting now means you’ll be ready when they are.

But it’s a safe bet that if you’re just starting to work with Steamboat Willie now…well, you’ve already missed the steamboat.

With that said, I wish you a week of profitable marketing.

Remove horror from your marketing.

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