Leaked Videos Show Disney Is the Biggest Ad Tech Giant You've Never Heard Of

Watch beloved Disney and Star Wars characters explain how the company offers clients the ability to use Disney data and target particular audiences.
Disney Luminate
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Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.

The Muppets' Bunsen and Beaker are best known for science experiments gone wrong while they're explaining the nature of the universe; in videos obtained by Motherboard, however, they're explaining something else altogether: Targeted online advertising.

“I’m tickled pink to announce a solution to all of your digital ad buying needs,” Bunsen says in the video. “Imagine a data powered solution that unlocks Disney’s portfolio of premium content and diverse audiences at scale, with automated flexible buying through a single storefront.”

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“The answer is Disney Advertising Sales Programmatic,” Bunsen adds.

In another video, Baymax from Disney’s Big Hero 6 explains how the company is focused on providing “ad experiences that are non-disruptive, relevant, and highly personalized.”

“Hulu mined the data on how viewers watch, and then pioneered non-disruptive ad formats, with pause and binge ads that respond to viewer behaviors and create a relevant ad experience,” they continue. They add that ESPN introduced new shorter and skippable ad formats that “meet the needs of today’s viewers” which encourage “increased audience consumption.”

The videos show that Disney and its ever-expanding portfolio of properties, which includes ABC, Hulu, ESPN, National Geographic, and FX, sees itself as a serious player in the world of ad tech. It's an industry that has been traditionally dominated by Facebook and Google, but Amazon recently showed it's become an ad giant as well. Some of the videos, created for an internal audience of sales employees at Disney, explain all of this through the words of some of the company’s most popular franchises, including The Incredibles, Star Wars, and more.

“Luminate is Disney’s powerful suite of advanced advertising products, all fuelled by a proprietary data library that leads the market in scope and quality,” Edna Mode, a character from The Incredibles, says in another video.

Although Disney’s move into ad tech is not brand new—a Disney spokesperson pointed to a few Disney blog posts dating over the last several years when asked for comment—the videos provide descriptions of Disney’s ad business that the public doesn’t ordinarily get to see. That, and their release come at a time when other companies which are traditionally known for creating their own content or for acquiring intellectual property are also exploring how to get into the world of ads. 

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After long saying it would never do so, Netflix is now exploring a cheaper ad-supported version. Disney, for its part, has already figured out parts of this, boasting in the videos about the success rate of its ads on Hulu, which Disney has majority ownership of.

Do you have any more documents from an ad tech company? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

And beyond entertainment companies, more tech giants have shifted into ad tech as well. Amazon, which is of course most well known for its online store and web infrastructure, is now also in the ad business. Everyone just wants to be an ad tech company, it seems. 

Another Disney video, which is publicly accessible and from over two years ago, hints at the sort of data Disney has explored using. The video uses a Star Wars theme and says that Disney had plans to use credit card data and “survey-based pharma data.” The video starts with the iconic Star Wars scrolling text, and calls itself “Star Wars Episode X: The Rise of Audience Segments.”

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In that video, Dana McGraw, senior vice president, audience modeling and data science at Disney, says that Disney can append third-party data to its own Disney data. “For example, we license data to provide retail purchase information and psychographics about Disney visitors.”

She then adds that “we also work with geolocation data vendors.”

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A screenshot from one of the Disney videos. Image: Disney.

Another video mentions “Hulu Attribution Tool” under a section called “Disney Advanced Measurement.” It also describes the automated store where advertisers can purchase advertising space inside Disney properties. This video includes breakdowns from Disney executives such as Rita Ferro, president of Disney Ad Sales.

“I know so many of you recognise Disney as an entertainment leader of award winning franchises and stories that capture the hearts and minds of consumers around the world. But in the next hour, you will see why we are also leading the way in enabling advertising experiences that drive innovation, precision, and impact,” Ferro says in the clip.

Motherboard also obtained an over 2,700 page document described as a list of infringing sites or services. These appear to be websites that Disney won’t advertise on. Many of them include porn and torrent sites.

A Disney spokesperson pointed Motherboard to several Disney blog posts and trade publication articles that describe the company’s advertising business. These include how Disney aims to protect consumer privacy while its clients connect their own data with Disney’s.

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