Watching the reputational devolution of the Disney brand over the past few months has been nothing short of breathtaking. To see a beloved company — a historic institution at the pinnacle of American culture — sabotage itself so spectacularly has been nothing short of mystifying.
In the long list of things deemed “totally avoidable,” Disney’s PR implosion is undoubtedly at the top of the index. And yet the beloved children’s brand willingly marched into the chaos, blowing the minds of many Americans who, like me, are baffled as to how we arrived here.
As has been extensively covered, Disney has at moments drawn the ire of parents concerned over the insertion of LGBTQ themes in storylines. But that concern turned to palpable dread for many when Disney waded into a cringe-worthy battle with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The sticking point? A disagreement over the Parental Rights in Education Act, a law set to take effect July 1 banning public school teachings about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Mr. DeSantis signed the law, which critics have strangely dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” despite the word “gay” never being mentioned in the text.
Months ago, Disney CEO Bob Chapek initially declined to issue a company statement on the bill, warning such proclamations don’t often change outcomes and can “further divide and inflame.”
“As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,” Mr. Chapek said. “Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”
Under pressure, though, he later did an about-face, and Disney suddenly started speaking out — and not just voicing views, but pledging to help see the Parental Rights in Education bill overturned.
Critics quickly took notice. As Mr. Chapek had warned, in the eyes of many, his company’s seemingly flipped response became “counterproductive” and served to “further divide and inflame.” Rather than stay the course and lead with courage, he buckled.
This month, Disney again doubled down and announced the creation of an LGBTQ-friendly kids’ clothing company, only adding fuel to the fire. The products, which feature rainbow colors, incorporate Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, Mickey Mouse and other brands.
Listen, if companies want to take these positions, it’s their call, but what’s so unfortunate about this scenario is that the very thing Mr. Chapek initially warned about has come to fruition — and under his watch.
A company that for so long seemed to transcend all that was wrong and chaotic in the world to unite Americans of all stripes over popcorn and well-crafted stories has suddenly become a dividing line in the sociopolitical sands.
Hart Research Associates recently found that just 33% of Americans have a “very” or “somewhat” positive view of Disney. With just one-in-three suddenly seeing Disney in a favorable light, one can see the Magic Kingdom might be losing some of its magic.
This statistic would be significantly less alarming if a separate poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies last year didn’t find a 77% favorability rate.
None of this should come as a shock when we consider Disney’s approach to social issues these days — a strategy that has certainly lost some fans. At the least, it has bred distrust in a portion of the populace who no longer thinks “family-friendly” when they see brand markers but now ponder whether they need to diligently vet all Disney+ content before their kids partake.
It’s not too late for Mr. Chapek to take his own advice and pull back from the cultural chaos he has allowed to envelop his company. It simply takes courage to retract, rethink, decline to be bullied into compliance, and honor all Americans’ views by avoiding the culture wars.
Sadly, such courage is thus far lacking. Don’t get me wrong. Disney is a powerhouse that isn’t going anywhere. Still, the beloved institution that has defined millions of childhoods might never fully recover the image its founder, Walt Disney, so magnificently manifested.
That, without a doubt, is the biggest tragedy.
• Billy Hallowell is a journalist, commentator and digital TV host who has covered thousands of faith and culture stories. He is the director of content and communications at Pure Flix, and previously served as the senior editor at Faithwire and the former faith and culture editor at TheBlaze.