Fairy Tale Mash-ups in Children’s Television: Digital Humanities Strategies (featuring Arthur)


Of all of children’s TV, my favorite show is Arthur, the adventures of that beloved, perpetually-eight-years-old aardvark and all of his friends and family that has been on the air since the year I was born, making it the second-longest running animated series in history.


“It’s ‘Fairy Tales’,” Arthur says, “these are some of the weirdest, scariest, most exciting stories ever.”

A season 5 episode of Arthur entitled “Just Desserts” (link to watch) (IMDb citation) has always been one of my favorites. After Arthur eats too much candy, he is thrown into an imaginative dream sequence (which most episodes of Arthur contain) that, in only seven minutes, skillfully weaves four different fairy tale plots together: Hansel & Gretel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack & the Beanstalk.

arthur and cake

“Grandma, what creamy skin you have. And what frosty hair you have. And what dark chocolatey eyes!”

This process of mashing up fairy tale motifs together in such a short amount of screen time intrigued me enough to research it on a larger scale for presentation at the Western States Folklore Society’s Annual Meeting at UC Berkeley last April (read about my experience at this link)

My first step in completing this project was to go to the database and pull everything I needed. Our Fairy Tales on Television database is huge, containing over 1500 individual data points, and I found each data point that met both parameters of my project:

1) From a children’s TV show

2) Tagged with more than one fairy tale type

And then I, English major and folklore scholar that I am, was met with a set of 31 data points from which to begin to ask questions and draw conclusions about the way that children’s television employs fairy tales in combination with each other. I figured that the best way to find something interesting was to make the data visual, so I embraced digital humanities tactics, made myself a gigantic spreadsheet, and started quantifying and graphing.

I was particularly interested in the first step of the process, where the creators of the television show would choose to use fairy tales. What kind of combinations made the most sense? Which fairy tales lent themselves most easily to combination with other tales? In accordance with this, I focused my research on the tale types in general instead of their specific context within the episodes.


When Arthur finds this red cloak and puts it on, we know what fairy tale to expect next without any words being said.

This picture illustrates that, despite Arthur, who is a male character, playing Little Red Riding Hood in this adaptation, the protagonist code for Little Red Riding Hood remains female. In his dreamscape of this episode, he also plays Hansel, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Big Bad Wolf. In the process of adaptation for TV and for mashups, many of the tales become twisted in a way that could change the tale beyond recognition if it wasn’t for the trusty fairy tale iconography, such as the red cape.

After gathering the data, I proceeded to lump the data points into groups by what tales they used: gender of protagonist, whether the protagonist was a child or an adult, human or animal tale, the nature of the fairy tale world, the character of the villain in the story, the origin of the tale, the year the episode aired, and on and on.

Here is an inside look at my methodology for the example episode. I continued this system of assigning codes to fairy tale types for the other data points in the sets.

Here is an inside look at my methodology for the example episode. I continued this system of assigning codes to fairy tale types for the other data points in the sets.

This system of converting fairy tale types into numerical data enabled me to create graphs to see trends or interesting patterns. One is the rising number of tales found in each mashup episode.

graph 3

This pattern is an interesting time-dependent pattern. We can see an increase in the number of tales found in each mashup episode. Before a 1978 episode of Super Friends entitled “Fairy Tale of Doom” aired, there were no fairy tale mashup episodes that used more than two tales together. But in the decade between 2000 and 2010, there were more mashups of three or four tales (such as “Just Desserts”) than of only two. Will this pattern increase? Will a show be able to fit five tales together in one episode soon? What about six?


Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my findings concerning gender, age, and villain patterns, mashup strategies, and other questions that arose as I worked with this data.

And go watch that Arthur episode! It’s only eleven minutes long and so much fun!


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The Folklore of Folklore Conferences

There was a moment during the Western States Folklore Society 75th annual meeting last month where I realized how specific and special folklore studies scholars are. I was attending this conference, like my peers Ariel Peterson and Lauren Redding, for the first time under the guidance of Professor Jill Rudy. We three students came prepared to present research about our various areas of fairy tale scholarship, but that was only represented a fraction of the time we spent at the conference. It was during the Friday night lecture attended by all on “The Significance of Historical Folklore Studies for the Present” that I found myself looking around and being amazed at the collective wisdom and experience in the room. There were about fifty or so folklore scholars there and if I had to guess I’d say the average age was somewhere above fifty as well. Being in that lecture hall and attending that conference was unlike anything else I’ve done in my professional career–an admittedly short career, but a career nonetheless.

I listened as white-haired scholars discussed studies and papers they wrote from the 60s and 70s and how they influenced scholarship in the 80s and 90s and the implications it meant for the research done by new researchers in the 2000s and 2010s. These academics from all over the world had seen it all and in major ways shaped each of the conversations and presentations taking place that weekend in 2016 in Berkeley, California. These professors weren’t only practicing what they preached in recording and documenting social culture, they were living examples of folklore.

UC Berk

I don’t want to give a false impression of folklore scholars; by no means were all the conference attendees seasoned and gray. There were plenty of middle-aged and relatively young scholars there as well. But never before had I been to a professional gathering where experience, knowledge, and maturity were so invaluable and respected. I saw this recognition play out in Q&As after panels and in conversations at various receptions. I began learning important figures in folklore scholar history as their names and contributions were repeated in presentations. Perhaps this respect was best represented in a series of presentations on the history of folklore programs in the U.S. Professors from Cal-Berkeley, University of Oregon, Utah State University, University of North Carolina, and Brigham Young University. These presentations started a conversation among the conference attendees about the benefits of combining resources, of collaboration, and of the fundamentals of folklore: preservation, study, adaptation, and context. (These are the fundamentals of folklore as I understand them, anyway.) These presentations energized the conference and gave the collected scholars a chance to turn their attention to their very own folklore and the possibilities of continuing this research.

Not only did I learn about the folklore of folklore studies and the unique makeup of this area of scholarship, but I also saw practical and exciting applications of folklore studies on topics like skydiving, Michelle Obama, green-skinned fictional creatures, vloggers, and eating contests. I have had an amazing time focusing on fairy tale scholarship this past year, but it was fascinating to see the varied possibilities of folklore scholarship. As I left the conference I started thinking of untapped possibilities of local folklore yet to be studied and documented.

berk gate

I attended the conference to present my paper “Don Draper Thinks Your Ad Is Cliché: Fairy Tale Iconography in TV Commercials,” but I left the conference with more than a line on my CV.  I began conversations with fellow scholars who happily gave advice about my thesis and shared teaching materials with me. I left with a greater appreciation of academia. Most importantly, I left with a deeper understanding of the importance and possibilities of folklore scholarship.

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One Fairy Tale Girl’s Experience at a Very Serious Academic Folklore Conference

"I Believe in Folklore and Folklore Believes in Me!"

“I Believe in Folklore and Folklore Believes in Me!” (Sorry the picture is out of focus!)

On the final day of the Western States Folklore Society conference, while waiting for Dr Rudy’s presentation to begin, I had a brief conversation with Dr. Tok Thompson of the University of Southern California. After introducing myself and answering affirmatively that this was my first time at a conference, he said “Oh, be careful, they’re addicting. Once you go to one you never want to stop going to them.”

It seems like a strange concept. How can listening to presentations be addicting? How is it different from a normal class?

One of our presentation rooms

However, by the end of the conference, I easily understood what he meant. The conference lasted only two days, but I felt that for the whole time my brain was working at top speed. It was exhilarating!


It took a deep level of engagement just to understand what was being said: these scholars are highly intelligent and use great big words to express complicated ideas. Once my brain was engaged enough to understand, I found myself thinking about EVERYTHING more deeply, and making more interesting connections all the while. I had no idea that intelligent and academic thought processes were contagious!

I was glad that the environment of the conference helped me feel smarter, because this was my first time experiencing anything like this in the academic world outside of BYU, so I started out a little intimidated.

I probably was pulled into fairy tales by Ella Enchanted. I have read this book at least 12 times.

I was probably pulled into fairy tales by Ella Enchanted. I have read this book at least 12 times.

I was hired on to this research project in January. I am an undergrad in English with a Communications minor, and in all of my various interviews with English professors over my degree so far, they advised me to go talk to Professor Rudy because of my background in fairy tale research, which is her focus. My scholarly interest in fairy tales originated with a major research project in high school for my International Baccalaureate diploma. I researched and then wrote my extended essay about masculinity in fairy tales. I have always been interested in and loved fairy tales and especially their retellings, but it wasn’t until this essay I realized that they were something I could study in an academic sense. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity in a university setting to continue researching in this field.


I had background information in fairy tale research, but I knew little to nothing about what the wider field of folklore is or what makes something a folklore subject when leaving for the conference. However, I could make much more sense of it by the end of the conference, and figuring it out during was sort of fun, like putting together a puzzle.

I learned that folklore is not just the study of folktale narratives. Folklore is about the things that warrant study but aren’t written down or recorded in a conventional way (until the fieldwork folklorists come by, that is). It’s a study of parts of culture that circulate without being formalized in the way literature is published or music is commercialized. Proverbs and riddles, legends, games, songs, festival, food, and material culture are all types of folklore and I learned a lot about each of these elements in various panels I attended and conversations I had outside of formal panels.

Folklore is about the stuff that groups of people share, and I learned that conferences are just as much about sharing and community as they are about presentations and papers. The conference was a place where scholars come to be with ‘their people’ who spoke their language and cared about the things they cared about. Being welcomed into this community and finding the ways I could fit into it was the most fun part of this conference.

In short, the Western States Folklore Society Meeting was quite the epic adventure.

Fairy Tale Mash-Ups in Children's Television!

Fairy Tale Mash-Ups in Children’s Television!

Watch out for the blog version of the research I presented at the conference in the coming months: A Data Analysis of Gender, Age, and Other Patterns in Fairy Tale Mash-Up Episodes of Children’s Television Shows!

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BYU Humanities Center Blog Crosspost: Folklore, Mentoring, and the Work of Art

The following post was originally published on the BYU Humanities Center blog. The post was written by Professor Jill Rudy, a Faculty Fellow for the Center.

byu hum

As a folklorist, I recognize this year’s Humanities Center theme, The Work of Art, resonates with issues of memorable and mundane learning. Is art something we must travel to see and to admire? Is it unique, costly, and rare? Does it exist simply for its own sake? Can art be part of the everyday? Is it common, free, and abundant? If art teaches or works, if art is functional, is it less art and more craft? Is art for everyone? All these yes/no questions imply a multitude of answers. Mine revolve around the relationship of art and life.

The Humanities Center theme accentuates the work element which suggests that art accomplishes something for someone. While in many ways art is an important universal given, art also remains an historical and social construct. Gerald Pocius identifies the Renaissance and colonialism with a converging Western secularism, individualism, and elitism that distinguished art and genius from a medieval understanding of skill and divine order and with a Eurocentric understanding of primitive others.[i] Constructing the term does not grant exclusive rights to creativity and an aesthetic impulse.

Dividing art from excellence is difficult, perhaps impossible. Henry Glassie asserts, “Art is what is best, deepest, richest in every culture,”[ii] yet he also reminds, “Art is thinking and it is doing. It comes out of plans and it comes out of thousands of decisions and reactions made as things unfold out of plans in unanticipated and accidental ways.”[iii] Studying in the humanities affirms that since art comes from thinking, planning, doing, deciding, and adapting, its reception should also involve those acts.

As students and advocates of people’s learning, folklorists remember that “we all strive for the skill to create forms that illuminate the human complexities of daily living.”[iv] The forms folklorists love may be verbal, customary, and material—preferring those that are traditional. This means expressions learned and shared through personal, situated interaction that repeats and varies through group sanction. Proverbs, tales, rites of passage, holiday celebrations, quilts, birthday cakes, and pottery are a few of those forms.

Thinking of traditional forms expressed through daily living, the yearly round of holidays and seasons, and the rites of the human life cycle, folklorists gravitate toward an art that is selectively skilled, keenly evaluated, and utterly common. The work of this art is getting children to put toys away by singing the “Clean Up” song. It is teaching a lesson without giving a lecture by aptly inserting, “Don’t count your chicks before they’ve hatched,” into a friendly conversation. It is laughing and crying about a favorite story. It is marking “us” from “them” by telling an ethnic joke or sharing a conspiracy theory. It is acknowledging the onset of winter with a Halloween costume and the coming of spring with a dance. It is holding an infant up toward the congregation and placing a flower, a rock, a beverage, or a meal on a gravestone.

Bert Wilson acknowledges this relationship of traditional forms shared in apt situations as behavior modification and world building. He asserts, “Through the things people make with their words, hands, and actions, they attempt to create a social world more to their own liking.”[v] This art works to change minds and to confirm continuities. He writes that when people “tell a story, or make a quilt, or perform an initiation ceremony, they are usually attempting, through the power of artistically successful forms, to influence the way people act, including at times themselves.”[vi] This observation links tradition with rhetoric and denotes the persuasive possibilities and consequences of any art work.

This work intentionally and unintentionally identifies individuals with groups and provides worldviews and ways of knowing and believing. Can a work of art be a mentor? My mentors, including Bert Wilson, still serve as guides who ask questions, make suggestions, and open up possibilities that I wouldn’t have noticed by myself. Art can do that.

Since the 1970s, fairy tales have been scrutinized particularly for the possibility that, though imaginative fictions, they provide scripts for living. Alison Lurie[vii]advocated heroines as proactive models for women, referring to lesser known folk tales, while Marcia Lieberman[viii] countered with a withering critique of Disney versions. Decades later, the debate continues over if, how, or how much, the stories and other arts and media we read, listen to, and view may actually influence individual and collective attitudes, beliefs, values, and decisions.


Research my Fairy Tales on Television (FTTV) students recently presented at the Western States Folklore Society meeting at UC Berkeley takes up some of these questions of the real-life work of stories. Ariel Peterson demonstrated that fairy godmothers, as portrayed in movies, tend to be fat and witless which discriminates by connecting body type and intelligence. Lauren Redding’s analysis of fairy tale mash ups in children’s television found that shows always feature female characters but not always males. Preston Wittwer toured television commercials since the 1950s looking for innovative, rather than clichéd, uses of tales to pitch products. The pop-up ads in his YouTube clips implicitly demonstrated how pervasive and targeted advertising has become.

In every case, whether films, shows, or commercials, audiences see fairy tale characters working through human difficulties in productions that tap into powerful traditional forms that therefore should be evaluated on being “aesthetically appropriate to the particular situation.”[ix] The work of art rewards skillful expression and creativity and invites scrutiny and accountability because, as Wilson also observes, “Art, music, literature, and dance come into being not when we move beyond necessity but when we move to a deeper necessity, to the deeper human need to create order, beauty, and meaning out of chaos.”[x] Complicities of chaos and creation manifest as art forms with the mundane acts and ultimate practices that work into everlasting lives.

[i] Pocius, “Art.” Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, edited by Burt Feintuch, U of Illinois P, 2003, 44-48.

[ii] Glassie, The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams, 1995, 39.

[iii] Ibid., 41.

[iv] Pocius, 60.

[v] Wilson, The Marrow of Human Experience. Utah State UP, 2006, 87.

[vi] Ibid, 87.

[vii] Lurie, “Fairy Tale Liberation.” New York Review of Books, 17 Dec. 1970: 42-44.

[viii] Lieberman, “’Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.” College English 34.3 (1972): 383-395.

[ix] Dell Hymes, “Folklore’s Nature and the Sun’s Myth.” Journal of American Folklore88.350 (1975): 345-69.

[x] Wilson, 13.

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Fat Fairies, Mash-Ups, and Advertisements: the Hypnotic Effect of TV Fairy Tales


Preston Wittwer, Ariel Peterson, and Lauren Redding after their presentations

On April 7-9, 2016, the FTTV Project Participants traveled from Provo, Utah to Berkeley, California to present their panel at the Western States Folklore Society Conference.


Morrison Hall housed the FTTV panel and also houses UC Berkeley’s Department of Music

Ariel Peterson was first up with her analysis of fairy godmothers that usually appear as fat fairies (whether in actual body type or symbolized by a round dress). Lauren Redding showed off her data about gender comparisons and inclusion of animal characters that she compiled from the FTTV Database. She was able to display many interesting graphs and statistics from her usage of digital humanities research.


Lauren Redding

Preston Wittwer astutely demonstrated why commercials use fairy tales and the subliminal messages they portray. Happily he was able to show all of his specially-selected commercial clips without technical difficulties. Dr. Jill Terry Rudy also presented the next day, April 9. She shared experiences working with folklorists at BYU and BYU-Hawaii, and contemplated the future of folklore scholarship.

Preston presenting (1)

Preston Wittwer

Since fairy tale scholars are often also folklorists, here are a few folkloric places to visit that our adventurers discovered during their stay in Berkeley:

Folklore Location 1: The night they arrived the FTTV group dined at Comal, an award-winning Mexican restaurant. The group loved the food and would recommend it to everyone!


Folklore Location 2: The group enjoying staying in the historic Faculty Club hotel with its magical landscaping.


The Faculty Club was constructed in 1902 and is still going strong

Campus itself at UC Berkeley is quite a fairy retreat with its wooded paths, lush underbrush, and towering trees.


After disembarking from BART, the group made its way across campus and admired the redwoods

Folklore Location 3: Just before their panel time the group enjoyed a delicious lunch at Freehouse, the notorious haven for Free Speech activists. The exterior architecture reminded them of German Fachwerkhäuse, and as fairy tale scholars it seemed appropriate to celebrate the Grimms and their contributions to fairy tales.

20160408_123648 20160408_123613

Folklore Location 4: The FTTV panel took some time to admire Sather Tower (“The Campanile”).


UC Berkeley’s bell tower is over 18 stories high and is the 3rd tallest bell and clock tower in the world (Campanile means “bell and clock tower” in Italian).


Bird’s-eye view of the Bay Area from the tower

The group arranged a tour with assistant carillonneur Andrew Lampinen and were not disappointed by his skill at the carillon and his insider’s knowledge of the tower. Seeing this incredible instrument was a dream come true for Ariel.


Playing console where Andrew performed his recital20160408_121130

Andrew also treated the FTTV group to a view of the secret carillon practice rooms and carillon music archive.


Carillon practice keyboard

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Stayed tuned for glimpses of each presentation and more adventures with the FTTV project peeps in Berkeley!

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Concluding the Promotional Small-Screen Fairies Series

In his 1979 book, “Breaking the Magic Spell,” Jack Zipes shared the story of Priscilla Denby, a researcher who spent an entire day watching TV in 1969 logging all the traditional folklore and fairy tale items featured in shows and commercials. In 1969 Denby logged 101 themes in one day of television.

In 2016 we live in a time described (sometime jokingly, other times seriously) as Peak TV. As more channels and online content providers attempt to stake out ground and cement their place in the media landscape, more and more television shows are being produced. According to research done in 2015 from the television network FX, there has been an unprecedented rise in programming in the last few years.

Scripted Series 2002, 2006-2015 as of 12-14-15 for Press - with


One can only imagine what a study like Priscilla Denby’s would look like in 2016. In 1969 there were only a handful of channels and now there are hundreds. With more commercials and shows than ever before fairy tales have more opportunities than ever to show up on the small screen. In the introduction to “Channeling Wonder,” a book exploring the fairy tale’s role in the age of Peak TV, Pauline Greenhill and Jill Rudy explain, “television seriality works especially well for establishing the horizon of expectation while keying on a fluid relationship of fantasy and reality. Wonder invokes and responds to this fluid relationship, helping to illuminate fairy tale’s persistence in, and even conscription of, new media.”

The digital age and the new media its brought have created an ideal environment for the fairy tale to adapt. The call Jack Zipes made in “Breaking the Magic Spell” is more relevant than ever as fairy tales find new places in commercials and television programs. According to Zipes, to counter the “corporate inundation of our imagination, the familiar fairy tales must be made strange to us again if we are to respond to the unique images of our own imagination and the possible utopian elements they may contain.”

While Zipes was speaking specifically against mind-warping TV advertisements featuring fairy tales, there are still those rare commercials that genuinely make the tales strange to us again by commenting on the genre or showing us their place in the modern world. To close out this series let’s examine one last commercial that manages to comment on online journalism, social media mobs, police brutality and militarization, privacy rights, conspiracy theories, insurance fraud, and the financial crisis. And the framing mechanism for all of this? The familiar tale of the Three Little Pigs.

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Fairy Tales in the 2010’s Remix Culture

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig published a book in 2008 titled “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy,” which hypothesized about the societal effect of the internet, specifically for the way in which it gave rise to the remix culture. Lessig recognized a trend in the rising popularity of derivative works that combine or edit together existing materials to produce something new. (One quick example is Pogo’s “Alice,” a song spliced together from sounds from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland film.) What was a hypothesis in 2008 became a reality in the 2010s—remix culture was everywhere. Sampling became an inescapable trend in music, Wikipedia became a de facto source of knowledge, and Hollywood was continually attempting to reboot old intellectual properties into new franchises.

At the same time originality was still very much present. In the opening months of 2010, Old Spice released a commercial that is still being adapted and repeated six years later. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” shot the advertising world with a bolt of manic energy, resulting in a privileging of the weird and the funny.


Originality was still present, but it’s copied and run into the ground with increasing speed. While Old Spice has doubled down on weird and funny ad campaigns, within a few years the tone-stealing derivatives have shown up less and less. Other brands like Geico settled back into controllable and innocuous humor, like this recent ad featuring Peter Pan.

There were, of course, still unimaginative campaigns that featured individual variations on fairy tales with specific products (for example Red Bull featured Aladdin, Rapunzel, and the Frog Prince; Security Service Federal Credit Union relied on Snow White, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood; and Sky Link used Aladdin, Frog Prince, and Princess & the Pea stories). But remix culture would manifest itself in television commercials with ads that featured half a dozen fairy tale types all at once, like this one from PNC Bank.

The ad depicts a wedding attended by unicorns, teddy bears, ballerinas, soldiers, hummingbirds, and magically blooming flowers. The father, who walks his beautiful princess down the aisle, watches as his daughter marries prince charming. In the end it turns out the commercial takes place in the mind of a father watching his young daughter while she reads a book of fairy tales.

Commercials like these are complicated by Marina Warner in Once Upon a Time where she comments on the fairy’s tales spotty history with gender representation. “Current fairy tales on stage and screen reveal an acute malaise about sexual, rather than social, programming of the female, and the genre continues ever more intensively to wrestle with the notorious question Freud put long ago, ‘What do women want?'” The PNC spot is perhaps a bit too Freudian as the father imagines what his grown daughter wants most as a fairy tale wedding, prompting him to open a new savings account to prepare for that eventuality.

With this question of gender representation in mind, this Christmas commercial from Marks & Spencer becomes almost painful to watch.

This commercial is a paragon of remix culture, as the main character morphs into Alice, Red Riding Hood, Gretel, a carpet-riding beauty, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In the first minute alone the main character has five costume changes and two of them manage to present her slow-mo in just underwear. Marks & Spencer posit that what women want are purses, clothes, and (above all) shoes.

When women are unmistakably in charge of using fairy tale imagery to tell stories the gender representation issues tend to be much less problematic. For example, an-all female college-prep academy created an ad campaign with the tagline, “Life’s Not a Fairytale,” which featured ad copy like “Don’t wait for a prince,” “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Be more than just the fairest of them all,” and “You are not a princess.”

Another playfully perverse challenging of these dubious genre tropes came from comedian Amy Schumer. In the sketch “Princess Amy” from her television show Inside Amy Schumer, the realities of being a princess are explored: you have to marry a first cousin at age 14 to preserve the purity of the royal bloodline and are threatened with death if you can’t produce a male heir.

More than halfway into the 2010s, it is clear we aren’t free from the same questions and concerns that have been raised by fairy tales for centuries. And for every innovative and subversive fairy tale-themed commercial produced, three (or more) cliche-ridden ads appear at the same time.

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The Digital Age of the 2000s

In the new millennium the buzzwords of the first decade were globalization and technology. Across the globe the internet, computers, and cell phones were bringing people together and changing the way people lived their lives. A pair of studies at the start and the end of the decade showed a jump from 6% to 62% of Americans having in-home internet access. Cell phone popularity surged as well, fueled by advances in text messaging and mobile internet accessibility. In a very real way the world was changing.


These sudden changes didn’t come out of thin air—they had to be sold. And once again advertisers turned to fairy tale iconography to sell these new technologies. Using fairy tale stories to sell these innovative products was a natural fit, as Jack Zipes describes in his Oxford Companion, “basic fairy-tale elements like magic, transformation, and happy endings lend themselves perfectly to the advertiser’s pitch that the feature product will miraculously change the viewer’s life for the better. Product act as magic helpers who assist the heroes and heroines of the mini-fairy tale overcome whatever dilemma they face.”

Cell phone commercials flooded the airwaves and haven’t left since. Fairy tales types like Hansel & Gretel and Cinderella were inserted into commercials for AT&T and Cingular Wireless to explain their miraculous features and to humanize the gadgets. And one particular commercial from Nokia went long by comparing their phones to all the different kinds of magic in the fairy tale realm.

In the commercial Nokia’s cell phones are described as magic wands, shining stars, and hidden treasures promising to reveal secret worlds. Cell phones are perhaps the best modern example of the product-as-magic pitch described by Zipes.

Even if the products advertisers were pitching weren’t as easily marketed as life-changing, they still combined this message with fairy tales. For example, this Mercedes-Benz commercial featuring Peter Pan.

In the ad Peter returns to a grown-up Michael and invites him come fly again. Smash cut to Peter riding shotgun while Michael drives a new Mercedes across the English countryside by moonlight. “It’s never too late to fly,” says Peter in the ad.  In other words, it’s never too late to transform your life back to the happiness of youth through spending money.

Other cliches from previous decades like sexualizing fairy tale figures continued, as seen in this Pepsi One commercial featuring Kim Cattrall as Goldilocks with the Chicago Bears. On the flip side, commercials like this 7 Up Red Riding Hood spot pushed back on those genre expectations by having Red headbutt the wolf stand-in at the end of the commercial. And other commercials, like this one from Adidas, went for an artistically bold modernization with a stripped-down narrative.

The wordless and almost monochromatic ad (only the shoes are shown in color), focuses on style and tone instead of product or story. The commercial is selling a personality and not a product. Product descriptions had been slowly become obsolete, as a result of branding becoming the main focus of commercials decade by decade.

Meanwhile, Disney was successfully branding their fairy tale heroines as a collected franchise targeted at young girls and other companies were looking to share in the profits. Play Mobile marketed a fairytale kingdom Sleeping Beauty play set, but the advertising goes out of its way to avoid the phrase “Sleeping Beauty.” Barbie relaunched their direct-to-video film series with adaptations of the then-Disney free stories Rapunzel, Swan Lake, and Thumbelina, always releasing a new line of dolls to go along with the DVDs.

Fairy tales figures in popular media were becoming increasingly gendered while fairy tale stories were leaned on heavily to sell everyone on joining the new digital world. The 2000s was a brave new world, but it still had room for fairies.

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The 1990s Corporate Takeover

In Marina Warner’s short history of the fairy tale book, Once Upon A Time, she posits that one of the primary functions of the fairy tale is the sharing of familiar stories with an audience. She goes on to explain “the stories’ interest isn’t exhausted by repetition, reformulation, or retelling, but their pleasure gains from the endless permutations performed on the nucleus of the tale, the DNA as it were.” While fairy tales have a long history of corporate usage, it is during the 1990s that the very DNA and nuclei of fairy tales became increasingly co-opted by media companies, by Disney in particular. Disney wasn’t just using the Little Mermaid to sell shampoo, they were attempting to establish their version of the Little Mermaid to the public as the definitive take on the tale.

Again, Disney had commercialized popular fairy tale figures before, but the 1990s was a unique decade of interrupted commercial and critical success. This decade has been described as the Disney Renaissance, a span of years where the studio released 10 animated films including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and others.


During this decade, advertisers relying on fairy tale figures had to differentiate themselves stylistically from the Disney versions of the tales, both to establish their own unique place to sell products and presumably to avoid any legal action from the House of Mouse. So, while Disney’s fairy tale figures were showing up unceremoniously in McDonald’s Happy Meal commercials, other brands had to find new ways to exploit fairy tale iconography.

In the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Jack Zypes explains “fairy tales are well suited to television commercials because they are popular and easily recognized. Their familiar motifs can be truncated and adapted for brief commercials while still remaining meaningful.” A perfect example of this truncated style of storytelling can be seen in a 1999 Ford commercial featuring the Three Little Pigs.

This story is told without narration or dialogue, instead relying entirely on familiar iconography and recognizable animation styles. The only narration comes at the end: simple ad copy naming the product and connecting it to the tale with a quick pun. Ford responded to the Disney takeover by featuring Looney Tunes and Sesame Street characters in their commercials for their latest Windstar minivans, a halfhearted attempt to set themselves apart.

A 1997 Honey Nut Cheerios commercial uses a truncated version of the Little Red Ridding Hood story, starting right in the middle of the familiar story without explanation, assuming audience familiarity with the tale. The story is quickly and literally interrupted by a corporate mascot.

It is notable that even in this ad featuring lighthearted music, that also presents the wolf as an amusing if not comedic character, it still ends with an ominous reminder that the wolf ate Red’s grandmother. The dark nucleus of Red’s story survives, even as BuzzBee’s rattles off the superlative qualities of Honey Nut Cheerios.

One of the more interesting fairy tale-adjacent commercials of this decade comes from Levis. The commercial opens with an image of a clock striking midnight and cuts next to the image of a woman running down stairs, leaving behind a shoe. The iconography is unmistakable and immediately recognizable as a Cinderella story.

After the first 7 or 8 seconds of these kinds of traditional establishing shots, the story starts to take unfamiliar turns. The prince charming figure chasing after the Cinderella stand-in is scared away by another man on a motorcycle. The motorcycle man leaves behind an article of clothing as he quickly exists, leaving Cinderella to pick up the pair of jeans and begin her search for this illusive man. The commercial digs into this subversive gender-swapped narrative, empowering Cinderella with active agency as she looks for her perfect match. The men are increasingly objectified to the point where when we finally see the motorcycle man again he is shirtless, sweaty, and shot in slow motion.

This Levis ad succeeds where so many other commercials featuring fairy tale iconography have stopped short. It knowingly comments on the tropes of fairy tale and updates them with modern sensibilities all while artfully remaining true to the DNA of Cinderella’s story. And if that wasn’t enough it does all of this with artistic and imaginative shots and edits while additionally relying on depictions completely separate from the corporate-owned versions permeating the culture of the time. Would that all fairy tale commercials were this innovative.

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Destination: Western States Folklore Conference

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Western States Folklore Society is celebrating 75 years at their 2016 meeting! Three of the FTTV Project Participants are going to UC Berkley this April for the WSFS Conference to present the panel entitled “Fat Fairies, Mashups, and Advertisements: The Hypnotic Effect of TV Fairy Tales.” If you are in the area we would love to have you join us! Take a look at each of the abstracts below.

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The first paper is titled “Fat Fairies: Stereotype, Body Type, and Personality of TV Godmothers”:

ABC’s Once Upon a Time introduced Catherine Lough Haggquist as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Instead of playing Disney’s classically oversized, bumbling, air-headed godmother, Haggquist appeared cool and collected, dressed like a princess. And ABC killed Haggquist off in the very same episode. Was she too fit and smart for the godmother stereotype? Haggquist is not the only fairy to suffer for body type. Jeana Jorgensen and other feminist writers have seen the danger of age and body stereotyping in tales. Adding to these arguments, I propose we approach fairy tale bodies as a spectrum where personality is attached to body type. Princesses are petite and beautiful, villainesses are skinny and scheming, and godmothers are fat and witless. This spectrum of body images affects both how we perceive others and ourselves in comparison to the fairy tale figures we see on popular TV shows from Fractured Fairy Tales to Once Upon a Time. (Ariel Peterson)

Sound familiar?

Flora and GodmotherGoldie's Fairy GMFractured FTNext up, genders in mashups are analyzed in “Fairy Tale Mashups in Children’s TV and the Prevalence of Gender-Based Patterns”:

Children’s television shows often utilize a combination of fairy tale motifs or characters in a single episode. Are there patterns to the common groupings of these tales? Are these patterns based in the gender, age, or species (human or animal) of the protagonist; or are they linked to the source material of the tale; or the specific target audience of the TV show? Though the grouping of fairy tale characters and plot devices in children’s television shows may seem haphazard, I argue that the patterns found in these groupings can illuminate implicit messages communicated concerning age and gender that are specifically targeted towards young children. Because television is so prevalent in the lives of young children, understanding the use of fairy tale motifs in this form can help us understand why they remain so culturally impactful today. (Lauren Redding)

Hong Kong Disney

Finally, our blog posts about TV commercials culminate in the promising synthesis of “Don Draper Thinks Your Ad is Cliche: Fairy Tales in Advertising”:

When examining the history of fairy tale iconography in advertising, folklore scholar Donald Haase compared the Pied Piper of Hamelin to a symbol of advertising who could “play his pipe ever so sweetly and the consumers following him without resisting his charming and manipulative music.” In contrast, in a 2012 episode of Mad Men, advertising luminary Don Draper shoots down a shoe commercial pitch featuring Cinderella, calling the idea “cliché.” The temptation for advertisers to rely on fairy tale figures and iconography continues today, and many ignore Don’s aversion for cliché because it still works. However, there are some ads featuring fairy tales which avoid cliché and are truly innovative for their time. I’ll examine how and for whom these fairy tale figures have been adapted in order to examine popular culture’s commercialized and hypnotic relationship with fairy tales in the most commercial format available: television advertisements. (Preston Wittwer)


Don Draper


McDonald’s Cinderella Commercial

Come join the fun with us!

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