In the midst of his presidential campaign, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has made “holding woke corporations accountable” a central theme, with Disney becoming a prime target of his criticism. At campaign stops and rallies, DeSantis has accused Disney of embracing sexualized content in programming for children, which he adamantly opposes. This clash between the Republican governor and the iconic entertainment company has brought Disney into the political spotlight, potentially tarnishing its long-standing reputation.
Disney, known for its family-friendly movies, TV shows, and theme parks, has diligently avoided political and cultural controversies throughout its history. However, cracks in its public perception have started to show, and the company now faces the challenge of enduring attacks from DeSantis throughout the presidential primary campaign.
While Disney remains one of the strongest global brands, its recent reputation has taken a hit. The Axios Harris Poll, which surveys public sentiment, ranked Disney at No. 77 in corporate reputation, a significant drop from its No. 7 spot in 2017. The company now grapples with the fallout from DeSantis’ ongoing criticism.
Disney executives have debated how best to handle the inflammatory claims made by DeSantis. In April, Disney CEO Robert A. Iger called DeSantis “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” in response to the governor’s actions against the company. However, Disney has been cautious in its public statements since then, not wanting to further exacerbate the situation. Recent polls suggest that half of Americans are not fully aware of the conflict, indicating that engaging in a public feud could risk generating more negative headlines.
Although DeSantis’ attacks have had an impact, Disney’s overall business remains largely unaffected, with no significant decline in theme park attendance thus far. Nevertheless, the political controversy has made its mark. The Axios Harris Poll now ranks Disney as the fifth-most-polarizing brand in America, a sharp shift from its previously neutral position in 2021.
Reacting to the Reaction
Disney has taken steps to protect its reputation and counter DeSantis’ narrative. In April, Asad Ayaz was appointed as Disney’s first chief brand officer, responsible for safeguarding and enhancing the company’s global brand image. Additionally, Disney has subtly applied pressure on DeSantis. A photograph of Iger with California Governor Gavin Newsom at Disneyland served as a reminder to DeSantis that Disney had halted a major project in Florida. Newsom’s attendance at Disneyland’s first-ever Pride Nite also sent a message about inclusivity.
Part of Disney’s challenge lies in the nature of political campaigns, where sound bites often dominate. DeSantis’ claims that Disney supports “sexualising children” have garnered attention through local news outlets and social media platforms. However, when Disney opposed the Florida education law, its stated concern was the potential targeting of LGBTQ+ children and families, not sexualising children.
Disney executives have been alarmed by the spreading attacks from DeSantis. Negative headlines, including one about demonstrators outside Disney World displaying Nazi symbols and DeSantis campaign signs, have further intensified the situation.
Rekindling the Magic
Despite these political challenges, Disney also faces other business pressures, including disappointing box office results, a screenwriters’ strike, and the departure of its chief financial officer. Investors are growing restless, and Disney shares have experienced a decline. To regain growth, Disney is betting on its streaming platforms, although Disney+ has experienced subscriber losses and the overall streaming division remains unprofitable. The company is implementing a cost-cutting campaign to reduce expenses by $5.5 billion, resulting in significant job cuts.
As the political clash continues and Disney navigates these business challenges, CEO Robert A. Iger must also address the question of succession, with his contract set to expire at the end of 2024. Amidst all the uncertainty, the Magic Kingdom must weather the storm and find ways to preserve its cherished brand identity.