As DeSantis Campaigns, Disney Sees a Long Road Ahead

As Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has embarked on his presidential run, a main pillar of his message is “holding woke corporations accountable,” as a fund-raising email put it on Tuesday. And to hammer home that sentiment, he has been railing against one target at nearly every campaign stop: Disney.

“We’ve put this company on a pedestal — in the past it has been like the all-American company,” Mr. DeSantis said at a town hall in New Hampshire last week. “But they’ve really embraced the idea of getting the sexualized content in the programming for the young kids. And that is just a line that I am not willing to cross.”

It’s a theme he has repeated at recent rallies in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Iowa, alongside his claim that Disney is seeking “to rob our children of their 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 contentious education law that opponents labeled “Don’t Say Gay.”

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

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

“If you have a blue brand or red brand, regardless, you have less of a brand,” said John Gerzema, chief executive of the Harris Poll and a former brand consultant. The Axios Harris Poll’s latest corporate reputation rankings, published in May and based on surveys with 16,310 people, placed Disney at No. 77, down from No. 7 in 2017.

How to handle the inflammatory claims by Mr. DeSantis has been a subject of debate among Disney executives. In April, Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, 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. (Mr. Iger declined an interview request for this article.) Swatting back at Mr. DeSantis now would most likely exacerbate the situation. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that half of Americans are not paying enough attention to the fight to have a fully formed opinion. Why risk more headlines?

Unless attendance at the company’s theme parks begins to drastically weaken — no sign so far — there is no reason to worry about Disney’s overall business, analysts said.

But the political fight has had an impact. The Axios Harris Poll ranked Disney as the fifth-most-polarizing brand in America; the company had been nearly neutral in 2021. “Disney’s intangible value, the perceptions of trust, citizenship, ethics and growth (a measure of its future potential and relevance in my life) are the fastest falling,” Mr. Gerzema said in an email.

Privately, Disney executives poke holes in polls showing brand erosion. At the same time, they have taken steps to protect the company’s reputation. In April, Mr. Iger named Asad Ayaz as the company’s first-ever chief brand officer, saying he will be responsible for “stewarding and elevating the Disney brand globally.”

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

Mr. Iger, for instance, was photographed with Gov. Gavin Newsom of California at Disneyland on June 13. Mr. Newsom was there to discuss an expansion plan that would generate thousands of jobs. It was a reminder to Mr. DeSantis that Disney had halted a project in Florida. Mr. Newsom also attended Disneyland’s first-ever Pride Nite, posing for photos with visitors outfitted in rainbow Mickey Mouse ears.

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

When it joined more than 200 other companies in opposing the Florida education law, Disney said it was doing so because the statute “could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families.” That is a long way from being in favor of sexualizing children.

In a recent television advertisement that aired in Iowa and South Carolina, the main super PAC backing Mr. DeSantis falsely suggested that the company was surreptitiously working to brainwash children. “Once upon a time, Disney films were for kids, not secret sexual content,” the ad’s narrator intones ominously.

Disney executives have watched in horror as attacks by Mr. DeSantis have spread. “DeSantis and Trump Spar Over Who Hates Disney More,” a headline in The Orlando Sentinel read on May 30.

A group of demonstrators, some displaying Nazi symbols and others holding DeSantis campaign signs, gathered outside Disney World’s entrance a few weeks ago, drawing national attention. “Oh my God, Mickey is trending in video next to swastikas,” an aghast Disney executive in Orlando texted a reporter that day.

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

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

Disney is in the midst of a campaign to cut $5.5. billion in costs across the company. That involves 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 over? So far, it’s a mystery.

Mr. Iger, 72, was supposed to be yachting in retired bliss by now. He ended his first run at Disney in 2021, handing the company’s reins to Bob Chapek, a former theme park executive. 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 being his response to the Florida education law. Among other things, it prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade and limits it for older students. (Florida has since extended the ban to all grades.)

At first, Mr. Chapek tried not to take a side, prompting an employee revolt. He then denounced the law, angering Mr. DeSantis and leading to the fight that Disney is still contending with today.

Mr. DeSantis moved to restrict the autonomy with which Disney was able to oversee its Disney World resort. The company quietly worked to sidestep the effort, catching the governor by surprise. In April, Mr. DeSantis punched back — and so did Disney, suing the governor in federal court, pulling the plug on a $1 billion project in Florida and saying another $17 billion in Disney World expansion spending was imperiled.

Disney’s lawsuit is inching ahead, but any resolution is likely to take years. In the meantime, the political crossfire continues.

On Tuesday, Disney filed paperwork with a federal court to propose a starting date for a trial in its lawsuit against Mr. DeSantis: July 15, 2024, the day the Republican National Convention begins.

Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.

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