Look around any toy store and you'll see hundreds of Disney characters sold as action figures and stuffed toys, so it's quaint to think that there was actually a time when Disney had trouble selling stuff. But there was.
Back in 2000, Disney's consumer products division was overstretched and underfocused, according to Peggy Orenstein in her 2006 New York Times article "What's Wrong with Cinderella?"
Disney had mistakenly triggered price wars by granting multiple licenses for their core characters, and sales were dropping as much as 30 percent a year. Adding to their problem was the 1998 "A Bug's Life" movie had trouble translating to merchandising opportunities. "What child want[ed] to snuggle up with an ant?," wrote Orenstein.
A new Disney executive named Andy Mooney, who came over from Nike, was checking out his first "Disney on Ice" show in Phoenix, when he came to a solution that would save Disney from its woes.
"Standing in line in the arena, I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses," Mooney told Orenstein, "They weren't even Disney products. They were generic princess products they'd appended to a Halloween costume. And the light bulb went off. Clearly there was latent demand here. So the next morning I said to my team, 'O.K., let's establish standards and a color palette and talk to licensees and get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they're doing anyway: projecting themselves into the characters from the classic movies.'"
Mooney and his team picked Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas to be in the new Disney Princess line. It was the first time that Disney marketed characters separately from a movie release, and it was also the first time that different characters from different movies were lumped together.
Orenstein wrote that to "ensure the sanctity of what Mooney called their individual 'mythologies,' the princesses never make eye contact when they're grouped: each stare[d] off in a slightly different direction as if unaware of the others' presence."
What Mooney did worked: As of 2006, there were 25,000 Disney Princess items. Sales shot up from $300 million in 2001 to over $3 billion globally. And to this day, no Disney princess has ever looked at one other's eyes when they're displayed together as a group.