To be “woke” is to have the approved left-leaning opinions about race, the ecology, and all manner of social-justice issues. Since 2018, the maxim “go woke, go broke” has declared that corporations that go out of their way to be “progressive” suffer financially when consumers resist the message.
Examples of the truth of the proverb are many. In 2019, after Gillette came out with an advertisement that chided their male customers for toxic masculinity, the company took a 5 billion-dollar hit to their bottom line. When Twitter banned Donald Trump from its platform its stock took a nose dive as did Coca-Cola’s after it chimed in on Georgia’s vote-integrity legislation. Films that have feminized much-loved story lines – think Ghost Busters or Oceans 8 – have lost money. The sight of millionaire show folk clutching trophies while braying their opinions on urban policing and immigration has reduced the viewership of the Oscars to the same numbers as a Tuesday-night seniors indoor carpet-bowling match.
Some of these corporate pronouncements are less than sincere – “woke-washing” – but many CEOs are quite genuine in their desire to publicize their companies’ stands on public issues. The case of the The Walt Disney Corporation and Florida’s recent Bill HB 1557 is a case in point.
Misleadingly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557 mandates that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Though falling somewhat short of Hitlerian levels of evil, the legislation was denounced as “hateful and vindictive” and a threat to the life of transsexual students. Actor Ron Perlman (who shot to fame as Amoukar the Neanderthal in 1981’s Quest for Fire) called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis a “Nazi pig”.
Quick to enter the debate was Disney, one of Florida’s biggest employees. The company announced that HB 1557 “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”
For Disney president Karey Burke, this was not just an act of social justice but a shrewd marketing move. Her son had apparently told her that Generation Z was “30-40% queerer than other generations” and thus Disney had better align its products with that demographic niche. Burke also promised that before too long at least 50% of Disney’s characters would identify as LGBTQIA or as a racial minority.
The problem for the company that gave us Mickey Mouse is that there will certainly be consumer resistance to its wokeness. A recent survey said only 9.4% of respondents would respond positively to Disney’s initiatives while 68.2% said they would be less likely to “do business” with it. For a business that relies on the lure of parent-friendly theme parks and cruise ships that is not good news. Even more threatening to Disney is its vulnerability to legislative retribution; it currently enjoys copyright protection that is soon to expire and property privileges for its Florida parks.
Has Disney caught the wave of the future? Or will going woke harm The Mouse? Executive boardrooms are watching closely.
Gerry Bowler is a historian and Senior Fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy