Magic Kingdom under attack

Dec. 21, 2004
Disneys foes fail to understand corporations obligations to society.

Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy need your support.

I know, I know. Its hard for anyone above the age of 10 or so to work up much sympathy for the worldwide, $20 billion business empire of Walt Disney & Co., as CEO Michael Eisner and crew rack up astonishing profits, thanks to creative (and relentless) marketing techniques aimed at toddlers and five-year-olds. Eisners blunder in naming a successor last year -- as well as the platinum parachute given former heir-apparent Michael Ovitz -- soured even many long-satisfied shareholders. However, Disney -- whose latest travails involve boycotts and pickets by conservative groups offended by various Disney products and policies -- today deserves the support of executives everywhere.

First the facts: Disney faces at least three boycotts or protests. Most prominently, the Southern Baptists this summer called for a boycott of all Disney products -- movies, television, theme parks -- to protest Disneys "gay-friendly policies." Disney, of course, not only recently extended benefits to same-sex partners of employees, but also did nothing to prevent Ellen DeGeneres from coming out on her television show. The National Federation of the Blind may picket Disneys upcoming film Mr. Magoo, complaining about the title characters stumbling mishaps being the result of his nearsightedness. And the conservative Concerned Women for America may picket at Walt Disney World, protesting what they view as too much revealed skin by the animated title characters of The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas.

It needs to be stated that not all Baptists support the boycott, which has had little impact on Disney. And there is a certain amount of irony in these petulant displays of moral superiority. One friend greeted news of the Baptist boycott with glee, as Walt Disney World would presumably be less crowded -- with just the right, intolerant people missing from long lines for rides or cotton candy. Then, too, one wonders just where the Concerned Women will strike next. Should they succeed in intimidating Disney, would any museum be safe in displaying paintings of religious allegory, full of not just suffering and redemption but breasts and buttocks, too?

All irony aside, the boycotts and protests also raise profound questions about the responsibility of a global corporation to its stakeholders -- shareholders, employees, vendors, customers, neighbors, and society-at-large. What, for example, does Disney owe the Southern Baptists -- quality products and entertainment that any consumer can choose (or not)? Or adherence to a Baptist moral code -- in hiring, in employee policies -- that is as abhorrent to many other Disney customers as the Magic Kingdoms "gay-friendly policies" are to the Baptists? And what does Disney owe the Concerned Women of America? Prior approval of all costumes of animated characters? (Note to Concerned Women: Mickey has been parading around in a yellow diaper for half a century.) As for Mr. Magoo, while I appreciate the National Federation of the Blinds concerns, the little guy with the bulbous nose is a parody -- a caricature of someone who refuses to acknowledge difference or diversity, even within himself. It seems to me thats the kind of message the federation ought to be applauding, rather than protesting.

The upshot, of course, is that corporations -- like individuals, moral codes, and laws -- cannot possibly please everyone all the time, nor should they try. To shareholders, employees, and vendors, corporations owe fair returns on capital and labor. To customers, they owe competitive products. To neighbors and society-at-large, however, they owe nothing more (and nothing less) than we as individuals owe to each other: To recognize that diversity of opinion, taste, and lifestyle is part of the human condition, and that the only way to live peaceably is to treat that diversity with respect and civility, not threats and intimidation.

Any other approach would be, well, goofy.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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