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Americans put the holiday hurt on Disney, Target

CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images
CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

When Disney CEO Bob Iger sat down to talk with employees about his bumpy year at the helm Tuesday, he said, “I knew there were myriad challenges that I would face.” What he didn’t count on was those “myriad challenges” being millions of still-angry Americans. After management ran the brand into the ground over a popular parental rights’ law last year, nothing seems to be rehabilitating the company’s image. Even the second coming of Iger, who was behind the wheel for some of Disney’s best chapters, hasn’t brought back the magic for consumers. Now, staring down a holiday season with crashing stocks, box office losers, and even less goodwill, will Iger stop riding this polarized express?

Experts have their doubts. Stephen Soukup, who’s spent years analyzing Disney’s radical evolution, worries that as long as Iger is in charge, the right lessons won’t be learned. Still, the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital was encouraged by last week’s news that Disney was at least admitting that it was on the wrong side of public opinion when it comes to their extreme LGBT advocacy. 

In its annual report to the Security and Exchange Commission, management conceded that they “face risks relating to misalignment with public and consumer tastes for entertainment, travel and consumer products, which impact demand for our entertainment offerings and products and the profitability of any of our businesses.” 

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“What they’re saying,” Soukup translated, “is that their values differed from what the values of their expected audience are — and that’s a big deal,” he underscored on “Washington Watch.” “For a long time, Disney has professed to be the arbiter of values. And it turns out that the American public said, ‘No thanks. We’re not interested in allowing you to tell us what we should or should not believe. We’re not interested in having you inculcate our children in what they should believe, and we’re not going to spend our hard-earned money rewarding you for trying to do so.’”

But is that enough to force them back to neutrality on an agenda that includes, among other shockers, the open “queering” of children? “It should be,” Soukup agreed. “I think Disney faces a couple of very serious problems in trying to recover from this ‘misalignment,’” he explained. “The first of these is the fact that it’s in the business of selling values. You know, storytellers from Aesop to Jesus to the Grimm Brothers all the way forward, have been in the business of using storytelling to transmit values and virtues from one generation to the next, and that’s the business that Disney [is] in. If its values and virtues do not align with the public, then it becomes a serious problem. It’s not as if they can simply say, ‘You know what? … We’re going to take politics and social policy out of our films. We’re no longer going to tell stories that have values.’ I mean, that’s the business they’re in. They have to tell stories that have morals. They tell stories that are intended to transmit values from one generation to the next. And that makes it very difficult.”

The second problem, Soukup insisted, is the guy at the top of the food chain: Iger himself. The two-time CEO, who was behind the wheel of Disney’s woke transformation from 2005 on, is the author of a lot of the extremist tendencies that got his company in hot water in the first place. And while there were some who thought Iger would find a way to rein in Disney’s activism, the last 12 months have given them zero reason for hope. “Disney is a political organization because of Bob Iger,” Soukup insisted. 

“This didn’t start this year. It didn’t start in Florida. It didn’t start with Governor Ron DeSantis. As I note in my book, The Dictatorship of Woke Capital, Bob Iger has been fighting a political battle, particularly against conservatives, for at least the last decade. He’s fought the battle in North Carolina. He’s fought the battle in Georgia. He’s fought the battle in Florida. This is something that he believes firmly in. And the fight against Governor DeSantis in Florida that made so much news over the last several months was, in fact, Bob Iger’s doing.”

“If you look at what Disney has said about when it decided to get involved,” the vice president of the Political Forum continued, “it was when Bob Iger emailed the then-current leadership and said, ‘We have to do something about this law in Florida. We can’t sit idly by and allow this to happen.’ And what Disney decided to do was fire [CEO] Bob Chapek and bring back Bob Iger. So I think Disney has two serious problems. Their business model is one of selling values. And the man who runs the company is an aggressively and overtly political player.”

And it’s not just Disney who’s thumbing their nose at shareholders. Target, Bud Light, Starbucks, Nike, and a slew of other companies made a very intentional calculation to prioritize politics over profits. “In order for any of these businesses that have been punished by the public over the last year for being political, in order for any of them to make any headway in winning back their customers, they first have to get it,” Soukup emphasized. “It’s become clear, for example, that Target does not get it. That Target does not understand why its customers left it behind, why its customers got upset, why its customers started to boycott, and that they’re doubling down on the tactics that in fact alienated [people].” 

While Target CEO Brian Cornell talks a good game, telling investors, “We are firmly focused on getting back to growth,” shelves of rainbow Santas and the hire of a senior-level Pride Lead say otherwise. “It was bad enough when they decided to politicize and sexualize the month of June,” Soukup said, “… but now they’re doing very much the same to Christmas. Their Christmas displays are reportedly very aggressively sexualized and very aggressively politicized. And that is a demonstration of the fact that the management of Target doesn’t understand or is unwilling to accept the verdict delivered to it by the public.” Until they do, they’re “courting the wrath of both customers and shareholders,” he insisted. 

Maybe these Fortune 500 companies thought this wave of consumer activism rocking the country was a fad, that it would just blow over, and we’d all return to business as usual. But, as the latest quarterly reports for TargetDisney, and Bud Light prove, Americans’ outrage has staying power. At a time when retail sales are up, these trans-embracing giants are underwater. 

“I think the public is exhausted with politics being everywhere and in everything. It’s not that Target is left-wing. It’s not that Bud Light embraced left-wing values. It’s not that Disney is liberal. They are,” Soukup said. “… But that’s not the point. The point is that people are tired of having politics shoved down their throat at every possible occasion. They’re just exhausted with the whole thing, and it’s not something that’s going to go away as long as they keep doing this. This is something that the public is going to react to negatively.”

And while these businesses can survive a good bit of public pressure, “The question is, how long does management survive?” Soukup asked. “How long do the boards and the shareholders agree to keep Bob Iger on, for example, if he doesn’t get it — if he continues to pursue the agenda that got Disney into trouble in the first place? … He may have built Disney into a giant entertainment company, and he may be the nicest man in entertainment, as everybody says. But … eventually, the Disney board and Disney shareholders are going to get tired of what he’s doing and his inability to recognize that he’s a big part of the problem.” 

For now, the biggest takeaway is that Americans are finally sending a message companies can’t ignore. Sure, some CEOs will stubbornly carry on, willing to kamikaze their brands for radical causes, but there are plenty of rational executives who see the writing on the wall.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the general zeitgeist in American business is to depoliticize as much as possible at this point,” Soukup pointed out. “Sometimes that’s going to be very difficult, given positions that have been taken just in the last three, four, five years. But I think that a great many executives and managers have seen just how potent customer reaction can be.” And that’s a significant change from decades past. 

“It used to be the case that nobody feared conservative consumers very much because conservative boycotts always failed. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think that even though these are not organized boycotts, they have been very effective — and they have certainly sent a message to the companies that have been affected and to others who might go down that same road … To use The Godfather analogy, these guys are Luca Brasi [sleeping] with the fishes. They’re the warning to the rest of business that if you push this too far, you will end up the same way. So I think that what we’re starting to see among a great many corporate leaders is a desire simply to get out of the politics business.”

Whether Disney ever wakes up and joins them is anyone’s guess. Until then, Soukup advises, make the most of this Christmas season: “Vote with your dollars and invest with your dollars.”

Originally published at The Washington Stand. 

Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer for The Washington Stand. In her role, she drafts commentary on topics such as life, consumer activism, media and entertainment, sexuality, education, religious freedom, and other issues that affect the institutions of marriage and family. Over the past 20 years at FRC, her op-eds have been featured in publications ranging from the Washington Times to The Christian Post. Suzanne is a graduate of Taylor University in Upland, Ind., with majors in both English Writing and Political Science.

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