I'm reasonably certain it was only a coincidence that in the space of a few days last week, Blackwater Worldwide changed its name to "Xe," and the Walt Disney Company renamed its Toon Disney channel "XD." But there's something creepily familiar about the two events, both designed to rebrand a familiar yet struggling enterprise.
It's pretty clear why the private army now formerly known as Blackwater took the step it did: The controversy over its involvement in Iraq during the waning years of the Bush administration were hell on the company's image. Using the Philip Morris/Altria principle, a newer, vaguer name was called for — hence, Xe.
Similarly, the name XD doesn't mean anything, but is meant to convey a sense of cool. Disney picked it to reach out to the minds and allowances of the 18 million American boys between the ages of 6 and 14.
Having perfected the High School Musicalization of an entire generation of little girls, Disney is turning the hot breath of its marketing on their brothers. They've tried a bit already on the Disney Channel proper, with efforts like The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, in which smarmy identical twin brothers run amok in the hotel in which their mother works and they all live. There's also American Dragon: Jake Long, about your average 13-year-old boy with a secret life as a powerful, evil-fighting dragon. They're both wholesome, if cheesy, even by kid-fare standards.
The shows would fit right in on XD, which is attempting to brand itself with boy-centric themes like action, adventure and achievement, according to Disney executives. And since boys in the XD range haven't quite discovered girls and sex yet, sports acts as a stand-in, with "brother network" ESPN providing kid-themed sports news segments. So far, the commercials on XD are mostly for the new set of Pokemon cards and Reese's Puffs cereal, both perfect lead-ins to the advertisements for natural male enhancement and NutriSystem they'll see on ESPN later on in life.
It all just reeks of synergy. But will it work? I used my son, who is 7 and whose interests include Disney XD's Big Three — computers, video games and sports — as a guinea pig.
The first original series for the new channel is Aaron Stone, about a 16-year-old named Charlie Landers who, because of his extraordinary abilities at a video game, is recruited to live a double life as a secret agent. It turns out the game he's so good at is actually a recruiting tool for a network of super-spies charged with saving the world from a dastardly crime syndicate called Omega Defiance. Charlie is being raised by his single mom (should we take bets on whether Omega Defiance's evil mastermind turns out to be his dad?), in keeping with the tried-and-true Missing/Lost/Dead Parent formula. The show is a straight-up Hannah Montana ripoff, with high-tech spy gear substituting for blond-and-pink hair extensions.
On Monday, with my kid a captive audience on his day off, I downloaded the first episode of Aaron Stone from iTunes so we could check it out. In the première, Charlie is first seen on the basketball court, where he fails to sink the game-winning shot — making him a kid just like you — yet by the end, has become the real-life embodiment of his online gaming persona, hero Aaron Stone.
We watched the beginning of the episode together, then I left the room for a few minutes to see if the show would hold his attention. When I returned, Jack was still on iTunes, but was watching the latest video podcast from his favorite show, iCarly. Which is on Nickelodeon. Ouch.
I asked Jack which shows he thought were for boys and which were for girls, and was thrilled to find him unaware there was any difference, or that he was supposed to care. Here's where I should point out how society imposes gender roles onto kids, and how we as parents project our own attitudes and baggage. But if you've got a kid, or have been one, you probably already know. A few years back, one of my nephews confessed his love of the The Powerpuff Girls, then swore me to secrecy, and I remember his embarrassment and how horrified he was of anyone finding out he liked — gasp! — a girl show.
Disney seems to have a pretty good handle on what girls want, and is now explicitly giving over the Disney Channel to what it calls a "girl-driven, boy-inclusive" formula. With XD, I suspect what they'll find is that American boys are as enigmatic and difficult to please as American men. And as any woman can tell you, who knows what the hell they want?
Amy Z. Quinn blogs at www.citizenmom.net.