As DeSantis campaigns, Disney sees a long road ahead

As DeSantis campaigns, Disney sees a long road ahead

As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis begins his run for president, a key pillar of his message is “holding conscious corporations accountable,” he said in a fund-raising email Tuesday. And to stoke that spirit, he’s opening up against one target at almost every campaign stop: Disney.

“We have raised this company to a high place – in the past it has been an all-American company,” Mr. DeSantis said at a town hall in New Hampshire last week. “But they have really embraced the idea of ​​getting erotic content into programming for young children. And it’s just a line I’m not willing to cross.

It’s a theme he’s reiterated at recent rallies in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Iowa, as well as claims that Disney “wants to take away our children’s innocence.”

The two sides have been at loggerheads since last year, with Mr. DeSantis bragging in speeches and on a book tour about how he punished the company for opposing a controversial education law that opponents called “Don’t Say Gay.” was named.

Despite partisan attacks, Disney remains one of the strongest brands in the world. But its public reputation is showing cracks, and the company now faces the uncomfortable prospect that it will be under attack from Mr. DeSantis for at least another year. The Republican presidential primary will run until July 2024.

It’s an eternity for Disney, which for 100 years has zealously tried to avoid political and cultural pitfalls for fear of tarnishing its happy brand. Disney’s family-friendly movies, TV shows and theme park rides are aimed at everyone, at least in theory. The last thing he wants is Mickey Mouse to be dragged through the mud of a presidential campaign.

“Regardless, if you have a blue brand or a red brand, you have one brand less,” said John Gerzema, chief executive of Harris Poll and former brand consultant. Latest from Axios Harris Poll Corporate Reputation RankingPublished in May and based on surveys of 16,310 people, Disney was ranked No. 77, down from No. 7 in 2017.

How to handle Mr. DeSantis’s inflammatory claims has been a point of debate among Disney executives. In April, Disney Chief Executive Robert A. Iger attacked Mr DeSantis as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” for his actions against the company, but he has not spoken publicly on the matter since May 10. (Mister) . Iger declined an interview request for this article.) Hitting back at Mr. DeSantis now would likely make the situation worse. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that half of Americans aren’t paying enough attention to the fight to have a fully formed opinion. Why risk more headlines?

Analysts said unless attendance at the company’s theme parks starts to drop significantly — there’s no sign yet — there’s little reason to worry about Disney’s overall business.

But the political battle has had an effect. Axios Harris Poll puts Disney on top 5th most polarizing brand in America; The company was almost neutral in 2021. “Perceptions of Disney’s intangible value, trust, citizenship, morality and growth (a measure of its future potential and relevance in my life) are falling the fastest,” Mr. Gerzema said in an email. ,

Privately, Disney executives are poking holes in surveys showing brand erosion. At the same time, he has also taken steps to protect the reputation of the company. In April, Mr. Iger named asad ayaz As the company’s first chief brand officer, he said he would be responsible for “growing and growing the Disney brand globally”.

The company has also put pressure on Mr. DeSantis in subtle ways.

For example, Mr. Iger was photographed with California Governor Gavin Newsom on June 13 at Disneyland. Mr Newsom was there to discuss an expansion plan that would create thousands of jobs. It was a reminder to Mr. DeSantis that Disney had stalled a project in Florida. Mr. Newsom also attended Disneyland’s first event Gaurav KnightPosing for photos with visitors wearing rainbow Mickey Mouse ears.

Part of Disney’s challenge involves the sound-bite nature of the campaign path. Mr. DeSantis likes to say that Disney is in favor of “sexually abusing children.” Those words make their way onto local news broadcasts and social media platforms.

When it joined more than 200 other companies in protesting the Florida education law, Disney said it was doing so because the law could be used to “misrepresent lesbian, gay, non-binary and transgender children and families.” ways to target.” It is a far cry from being in favor of the sexual abuse of children.

one in recent television commercials Airing in Iowa and South Carolina, the main Super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis falsely suggested that the company was secretly working to brainwash children. The ad’s narrator says ominously, “Once upon a time, Disney movies were for kids, not overtly sexual content.”

Disney executives are watching with horror as Mr. DeSantis’ attacks spread. “Desantis and Trump argue over who hates Disney more,” a Topic read May 30 in the Orlando Sentinel.

A group of protesters, some displaying Nazi symbols and others carrying DeSantis campaign signs, gathered outside the entrance to Disney World a few weeks ago, draw national attention, A Disney executive in Orlando texted a reporter that day, “Oh my god, Mickey’s trending in the video next to the swastika.”

Mr. Iger is also dealing with unwanted business developments, including poor box office results, a lengthy screenwriters strike and the departure of Disney’s chief financial officer. Investor anxiety is growing: Disney’s shares are trading at about $89, down 7 percent from a year ago and down 55 percent from their peak in March 2021.

Disney’s earnings engine for the past 30 years — traditional television, including ESPN — has become a shadow of its former self, a result of cord cutting, advertising weakness and rising sports programming costs. Mr. Iger is betting that streaming will get the company back on the path to growth. But Disney+ subscribers are dwindling, and the broader streaming division remains unprofitable, having lost nearly $2 billion since the start of the fiscal year.

Disney is in the middle of a campaign to cut the $5.5. Costing billions across the company. This included the elimination of 7,000 jobs, about 4 percent of its global total, including notable layoffs at Pixar and ESPN.

Another headache: Mr. Iger’s contract expires at the end of 2024. Who will take charge? Until now, it’s a mystery.

Mr Iger, 72, should have been sailing in retired bliss by now. He ends his first term at Disney in 2021 and handed over the reins of the company to former theme park executive Bob Chapek. Mr. Chapek was fired in November, and Mr. Iger returned as chief executive.

Mr. Chapek’s successes were overshadowed by missteps – one of the biggest was his response to the Florida education law. Among other things, it bans classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through third grade and limits it to older students. (Florida has since extended the ban to all grades.)

At first, Mr. Chapek tries not to take sides, which leads to an employee mutiny. He then denounced the law, which enraged Mr. DeSantis and led to a fight that Disney continues to fight today.

Mr. DeSantis took the step of restricting the autonomy with which Disney was able to oversee its Disney World resorts. The company acted quietly to defuse the attempt, surprising the governor. In April, Mr. DeSantis struck back – and so did Disney, suing the governor in federal court, blocking a $1 billion project in Florida and saying $17 billion in Disney World expansion was at risk. is in

Disney’s lawsuit is moving forward, but any resolution is likely to take years. Meanwhile, the political tussle continues.

On Tuesday, Disney filed paperwork in a federal court propose a start date The trial against Mr. DeSantis is set for trial: July 15, 2024, the day the Republican National Convention begins.

Nicolas Nehamas Contributed reporting.

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