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Walt Disney’s most inspiring quote isn’t actually his

by Susan and Simon Veness

“If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It.” It was the ethos Walt Disney and legions of Imagineers lived by and encouraged, the slogan that inspired children and adults alike to pursue their dreams; to “dog it and work at it until it’s done right.”

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Disney may have said, “Dog it and work at it until it’s done right,” but, surprisingly, he did not coin the quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” That honor goes to copywriter Sheralyn Silverstein.

Silverstein was a junior copywriter working for New York public relations and communications firm Marsteller when an ad campaign for General Electric (GE) came her way. At the time, GE’s own tagline, “We bring good things to life,” was already well-established, and highly effective for its simplicity and reassurance, two hallmarks of memorable advertising.

In 1981, GE produced an ad showcasing Chrysler’s ETV-1, then a test vehicle on the cutting edge of electric car innovation. A major oil crisis forced U.S. automakers to look toward new energy sources, and General Electric Research and Development Center responded with an engine that relied on lead acid battery power only – in other words, powered by electricity.

With its unique, removable “T” shaped battery, the ETV (Electric Test Vehicle) made the promise that those who purchased an electric car would be able to travel a full 50 miles before needing to swap out the car’s “power pack” for a fresh one, in the same way gas-powered car owners stopped for a fill-up.

The advert wasn’t so much a call for readers to buy the car, though. Instead, it was a recruitment ad; a gentle nudge for those who were “talented in math and science” to follow their passion, and someday they might be working on GE’s electric cars of the future.

Crucially, along the top of the ad was the “eyebrow” (banner) that read:

If • You • Can • Dream • It • You • Can • Do •It

That tagline, written by Silverstein, literally launched her career as a creative director and copywriter, and over the years she went on to dream up new taglines that helped raise other brands to national popularity, including Olive Garden’s homey assurance to their guests, “When you’re here, you’re family.”

But her early creativity didn’t die with the recruitment campaign. Instead, in 1983 it inspired The Walt Disney Company as the Horizons attraction was being built at EPCOT Center. A second GE recruitment ad came out that same year, this time asking readers to “Imagine Feasting on the Fruits of the Desert.”

Where the ETV-1 ad was aimed at those with skills in math and science, this one focused on students who excelled at math, science, English, social studies, and art, encouraging them to “talk to your teachers and counsellors about engineering,” and it was all wrapped up in the promise of a bright future offered by Walt Disney World’s Horizons attraction.

But this time it wasn’t just the “eyebrow” of the ad that read, “If You Can Dream It You Can Do It.” The tagline also sat in a place of immense honor: right next to GE’s logo, where “We bring good things to life” should have been.

And it featured somewhere else, too, in modified form.

“If we can dream it, we can do it,” a slight side-step from the original quote and “repurposed” by Disney Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald, was not only emblazoned across the entry hallway into the Horizons pavilion, it was also part of the attraction’s spiel, and in the post-1995 version of its musical score. Over time, it became one of the most inspiring quotes ever attributed to Walt Disney, though Fitzgerald would later claim credit for having created it.

Silverstein herself would address the subject in a discussion on Twitter: “Yes, I did write, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ I wrote it as a copywriter for Marsteller Inc., in 1981. I wrote it for a recruitment campaign that GE was doing; we were their agency for that assignment.”

The connection that led to the “reimagining” of her quote is found in the fact that General Electric was the original sponsor of EPCOT Center’s now-defunct Horizons pavilion, an uplifting journey through “the past, present, and future,” with riders invited to choose which “21st-century future” they would like to explore—land, outer space, or under the sea—to conclude their ride. Which begs the question, “Who was in the room when it happened,” regarding GE and Disney’s possible cooperation over the modified use of the tagline? Some things remain a mystery.

But one thing is certain: although Walt Disney was an entertainment genius who said many things that would inspire generations, and while he worked his magic in life, logic dictates he did not return from the great beyond to utter the quote that has long been attributed to him.

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