Communications Follies: Rainbow Capitalism and Other Absurdities
Now, far be it from me to claim to have my finger on the pulse of the LGBTQ community, but what I am an expert in is communications, and in particular, crisis communications, which means I notice when companies are creating PR problems for themselves. Which brings me to Disney’s latest pickle. For those who are not terminally online, this most recent kerfuffle comes after the revelation that Disney has generously supported some of the Republicans backing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill while, out of the other side of its mouth, purporting to support LGBTQ folks with inclusive storytelling (and Pride themed merch, of course).
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Disney is a media juggernaut on a scale few can match. It owns the most valuable media properties in the world — from Mickey Mouse to Star Wars to Marvel to Frozen and back again and is almost entirely responsible for extending copyright protections decades and decades past the death of its original creator entirely to protect its own assets. It’s one of the largest employers in Florida, where it maintains a host of resort properties, and as such, controls an outsized share of the Sunshine State’s economy. I have every expectation that Disney lines the pockets of every state legislator or official who could possibly get in the way of what it wants; it goes without saying that, well, it usually does in fact get what it wants.
This sort of corporate double-dealing is depressingly common, a kind of risk mitigation that professes neutrality to everything but the company’s profitability and value to shareholders, so there’s nothing to be shocked about Disney, the megacorp sur megacorps, engaging in this most banal form of corporate malfeasance. What’s shocking, to this old PR pro anyway, is how flatly the House of Mouse face planted on those sunny Florida beaches.
The row over LGBTQ rights is raging, of course, all over the country. Idaho is set to enact legislation that would make providing transition care to transgender youth a felony punishable by up to a decade in prison, even if that care was provided out of state; Texas, until just days ago, was using its Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents and teachers of transgender youth for child abuse — and keeping it off the record — before an injunction by the Texas Supreme Court put a stop to it. The Republican governor of Iowa has signed legislation barring transgender girls from girls’ competitive sports; an almost identical ban is expected to be signed in Indiana and has advanced to the voting floor in Missouri. And that’s not even everything. But, because of Ron Desantis’ clear White House ambitions, mercy spare us, the country’s attention has been fixated almost exclusively on Florida’s far-reaching bill to prevent students from learning about the mere existence of homosexuality in an educational setting. And whither Florida, so goes Disney, the producer of such beloved films as Beauty & the Beast and Little Mermaid has positioned itself right at the center of it all.
That Disney is surprised by this development surprises me, but perhaps that’s less true than meets the eye. Either way, Disney certainly appears woefully unprepared for the backlash it’s now facing. CEO Bob Chapek’s response to the coverage was about as poorly considered as it could have been: prolonged silence (further fueling frustration) followed by, “Our movies are our corporate statement.” It might have more teeth if Disney wasn’t using the money it makes from those movies to back anti-LGBTQ politicians. And even taken at face value, it still falls short, both its statement and its movies; consider just how little LGBTQ content appears in Disney films, even to the point of actively being removed; whether catering to China’s ban on LGBTQ themes in film and entertainment or simply to good old-fashioned American homophobia, the effect is the same.
There was a simple solution for Disney, a company with vastly more of a reserve of goodwill and affection from the American public than it actually deserves, and it boils down to one thing: if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to start walking the walk, and if you can’t do that, expect to get called out for your hypocrisy. Brands simply cannot drape themselves in a rainbow flag to the tune of their cash register in one moment, just to turn around and give money to politicians trying to harm the very people that flag represents. Being a hypocrite is never a good look, and it will always, always lead to PR crises. It truly is that straightforward.
So what were Disney’s actual options here? A lot of imperfect ones, some more so than others, because it had already messed up. If it were my client, I (perhaps too idealistically) would advise Disney to really take a hard look at who it wants to be, and if it wants to be the kind of brand that people continue loving for generations to come, then it needs to step up, stop supporting politicians that don’t align with that vision, and vow to be better. The intensity of the news cycle and our congenitally stunted attention spans would have shrugged off the whole thing with a boilerplate statement to the effect that, while Disney has supported these politicians in the past because they pursued other policies that Disney could get behind, it no longer can, in good conscience, do so. Though the trick is, it also has to make good on that promise, unlike say Chick-fil-A, which made such a pledge in 2012, and then again in 2019, because it never actually stopped donating to anti-LGBTQ causes. While that kind of tactic may be working for now, the truth always catches up, and sooner or later, you’ll be all out of goodwill, affection, and nostalgia to fall back on. I also happen to think integrity matters, and personally, I actually like being able to sleep at night, but hey, that’s just me.
Disney could easily have skated by here. Is there something to be said for Chapek taking the time to make a statement at all? Is it possible that Chapek does not see the disconnect between his words and the company’s actions?
I’ll go out on a lonely limb here and say perhaps. In all sincerity, I think that’s entirely possible that Chapek looks at the media landscape, sees Disney projects with a few queer characters, and — because this is Disney — instinctively figures that it is genuinely pushing things in the right direction, or at least that Disney, in catering to pink money, deserves the benefit of the doubt. And to an extent (and being very generous), I don’t think he’s completely wrong; it’s not like Disney never features gay characters, and Disney films are uniquely visible in American culture. But amid longstanding frustration that the ol’ Magic Kingdom is simply queer-baiting, milking vague portrayals and minor characters for diversity points without actually putting LGBTQ people front and center (not even the sort of relatively anodyne portrayals we see on network television), statements like Chapek’s come across as less than sincere — a betrayal even, considering how much the company has profited off both the work of LGBTQ creators and the patronage of LGBTQ fans.
I’m not holding my breath for Disney to stop throwing money at whoever it wants to influence, regardless of party affiliation or ideology. Absent a genuine consumer revolt that seems unlikely when Disney controls, you know, Star Wars, it will have little incentive to drastically alter its behavior. For now, at least. I suppose, whatever heart is to be taken from this, and there is precious little, it’s to be found in the fact that Disney didn’t think lying was an option, and instead chose a mealy-mouthed half-response that sort of made an attempt to communicate value to LGBTQ audiences. That, at least, is a kind of progress? But I know Disney can do a whole lot better, and there may come a time where it actually has to.