The Walt Disney corporation is currently showing us that woke capitalism is a lot harder than it looks.
Earlier this year, Florida passed state legislation that bans primary school teachers from instructing children in matters of sexual orientation and gender identity “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students”. LGBTQ activists hotly criticised the law, which they branded “Don’t Say Gay”. Disney, which has theme parks in Florida, is one of the state’s largest private sector employers. Historically, it has exerted enormous sway in Florida politics. It makes donations to politicians from both parties, deploys an army of lobbyists, and has won some very favourable tax breaks from the state. But its cosy relationship with lawmakers is now at breaking point.
In its politics, Disney is liberal. In 1995 it was one of the first major companies to offer healthcare benefits to the partners of same-sex employees. The first all-black superhero movie, Black Panther, was made by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney. Florida, however, is increasingly leaning the other way. It voted for Donald Trump twice, and all its offices of state are currently Republican-controlled. What’s more, modern-day Republicans have developed a taste for culture wars. And no company is more central to American culture than Disney.
The tension is making Disney’s political neutrality impossible to sustain. The company’s chief executive, Bob Chapek, initially declined to comment on the new law. Adding to the tension was a recent Disney Pixar film, Lightyear, the prequel to the Toy Story franchise, in which a same-sex kiss and relationship was championed for its representation of homosexuality. A kiss between the characters was allegedly cut from the film, but after a statement from LGBTQ employees at Pixar, as part of wider protests, it was reinstated. Nevertheless, the initial silence over “Don’t Say Gay” led to an outcry among Chapek’s staff over his failure to speak out, at which point he changed his mind and criticised it vigorously. Republicans, led by Governor Ron DeSantis, a GOP presidential hopeful, spied an opportunity to stick it to Big Woke. They passed a new law that removes Disney’s special tax status in Disney World.
Whether and how much Disney will lose in revenue is a moot point. The real risk to it is reputational. If it comes to be seen by Republican-leaning consumers as left wing (and perhaps by some Democrat-leaning consumers as not left-wing enough) then it stands to lose half its audience. A recent survey of Americans’ views on corporations, conducted by Axios and the Harris Poll, has Disney dropping precipitously in the rankings, from 27th place last year to 65th in 2022.
That we are even talking about Disney and politics in the same breath suggests that damage has already been done. Disney’s brand has always rested on its universality. When people watch Encanto or visit Disney World, it’s not because they want to signal something about their political identity but because they want to laugh, sigh, scream or weep. Disney is not meant to be a participant in the culture wars; it is meant to be a refuge from them. But American society is shrinking the space for brands that wish to stand apart from its venomous politics.
Disney may be a special case, and the US certainly is, but there are lessons here for all companies. One of them is that they should never stumble into a culture war without a plan. In a highly politicised environment, there is no such thing as being apolitical. Chapek and his top team have looked hopelessly reactive, played by Florida politicians and bossed by activist employees. They ought to have thought hard about the right stance to take and then been ready to defend it, either from politicians or activists or both.
When it first emerged, what became known as woke branding was relatively easy. Companies adopted whatever liberal or progressive slogans and policies were in vogue. Consumers who liked that kind of thing approved while those who didn’t, didn’t care, as long as they liked the product on sale. But we’ve now arrived at what you might call late woke capitalism, which is a much harder game to play.
In this game, right-wing politicians thrive on picking fights with corporate brands that take even vaguely progressive stances. Formerly innocuous statements can turn into high-profile controversies, affecting both consumers and employees. Social media mobs are whipped up on either side, while the brand gets stuck in the middle.
In 2022, companies have to either be prepared to defend their political views to the death when under attack, or ditch the whole idea of winning progressive approval, even at the risk of upsetting some employees. What they can’t do is avoid the culture wars altogether – as Disney is finding out.