Has Disney hype reached peak cringe?
Announcing a promotional event with yet more Marvel and “Star Wars” titles coming to their streaming service, Bob Chapek, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said, “We look forward to celebrating the second annual Disney Plus Day on September 8 with activations across our synergy machine.”
During that earnings call on Aug. 10, investors heard the global entertainment empire’s latest spin. Attendance at Disney Parks is stagnant, but revenue is up thanks to increased prices. Chapek also announced upcoming price hikes to streaming services. Plus, some buzzy films like “Black Panther 2” and “Disenchanted” starring Amy Adams are on the way — along with a computer-animated “Pinocchio” which has since been widely panned for its “uncanny valley” visual look.
The talking points masked signals of potential trouble. Similar to Netflix, their domestic streaming subscriptions have slowed to almost a halt. Signs of Marvel fatigue are showing. And their “Lightyear” feature from Pixar, long considered Disney’s crown jewel, bombed in theaters.
Hollywood analysts blamed various factors for why “Lightyear” flopped, such as CNN claiming families were “confused” by the space-ranger concept. But Brad Benbow, a growth strategist who has advised several Fortune 500 companies, notes that a central plotline about a same-sex couple (including their on-screen kiss) mattered to many families in the nation’s heartland.
“Faith-centric households and those driven by traditional values have typically taken their kids to ‘Toy Story’ movies,” said Benbow in a phone interview. “But they had some adverse reaction to what they heard about ‘Lightyear.’ It’s an exact example of ignoring people whose faith impacts their purchasing decisions.”
Major corporations have increasingly left faith-driven households out of their equation, claims Benbow. They use three pillars of marketing — homing in on an audience’s demographics like income, geography, and psychographics — but ignore how people’s beliefs drive them. He recently co-authored “Spiritugraphics” with case studies to enlighten interested executives.
Still considered by many the leader in family entertainment, today Disney has “some real tipping point choices in front of them,” according to Benbow.
“As a culture at Disney, do they view people from traditional and faith-centric families as, in essence, bigots?” he asks. “And does that mean they don’t want them? Or do they view them as somebody they respect and want to be part of this broader community that they call Disney?”
Faith-Driven Families Increasingly at Odds with Disney
As CEO of JDA Worldwide, which counts brands like the NFL, the PGA, and Ameritech as clients, Benbow helps companies reach the nation’s estimated 120 million households. “If you look across the landscape, there are about 38 million U.S. households that live a life that is significantly persuaded by their faith — approximately a third,” he said.
While he says his own Christian beliefs affect his approach, the market advice applies broadly. “It’s not about whether or not you’re wholly bought into the faith-centric market, or not bought into it at all,” says Benbow. “The question has to do with: what is the right tone for your brand as it relates to your value proposition and this faith-centric market?”
The book includes new opinion research on these faith households, which include evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews, finding that 84 percent of them “lean conservative in their ideology.” Specifically, 49 percent of the faith-driven group say they consider same-sex marriage to be “morally wrong,” and another 37 percent express limited support.
Benbow focuses on market dynamics rather than specifics of gender ideology or the theology of marriage. “Whether it’s streaming or a broad movie release or at a park, how far can you go from the Judeo-Christian notion of family until that constituency says, ‘Wow, I’m not supposed to be here’?” Recent surveys from The Harris Poll and a conservative investors group found that Disney’s reputation has taken a hit this year due to their perceived corporate activism.
Disney has increasingly touted their association with LGBT themes. Animated kids series “Baymax” included scenes of a same-sex dating relationship and of a transgender person shopping for tampons. Recent Marvel films “Eternals” and “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” prominently feature same-sex themes. Later this year, Disney Plus plans to premiere a documentary on pop star and gay icon Elton John.
The marketing guru points out that “most of the world” has for millennia viewed “the traditional family model as the norm.” Pew Research reports that currently 32 of the world’s 195 nations have legalized same-sex marriage.
“How companies characterize what the family is supposed to be, and how they respect or don’t respect faith, will have global impact,” said Benbow. “Where Disney is making enormous strides with their brand — in places like the Middle East and Asia — these positions are material.”
An Opening for Conservative Alternatives
In recent months, the marketplace of streaming video on demand has reached a critical inflection point. Netflix seems to have hit a ceiling in its U.S. growth. HBO Max is in disarray under new management. And commercials coming to every streamer may repel consumers.
Could a streamer targeting family-and-family audiences reach critical mass? Several sources recently noted the current dozen-or-so Disney Plus alternatives offer some quality film and TV titles but are limited compared to Disney’s franchises and billions in annual investment.
“The most important thing is for some player who can reach families with traditional values to decide not to play small ball,” said Benbow, who consults several faith-based media ministries. “They need to go for it, to seek to gain controlling interests in major players in the sector. Because the market is clearly there.”
Beyond the top 20 box office earners that are explicitly religious — all but one released in the past 18 years — related genres like biopics and inspirational have shown staying power in theaters. Faith-friendly films such as “Blue Miracle” (Netflix), “Clouds” (alongside others on Disney Plus), and “The Jesus Music” (Hulu) have drawn in streaming audiences.
But most of the proceeds accrue to major Hollywood studios. “In a macro sense, faith-driven producers have been behind in terms of using innovative communication to spread positive influence,” said Benbow.
Hype and Consequences
On Sept. 9, an estimated 100,000 people will descend on the Anaheim Convention Center for the D23 Expo. Marvel boss Kevin Feige will announce further Marvel Cinematic Universe productions, other Disney executives will plug upcoming films, and fans will learn what’s coming to theme parks.
Event hype will invariably trade on characters and themes that have made Disney so beloved. Tim Allen, an actor popular with many in middle America, reprises his holiday role in “The Santa Clauses” limited series, and a documentary on Mickey Mouse promises insight into Walt’s icon.
The brand equity of Disney is almost unrivaled, admits Benbow. “For many families, their life is in part attached to Disney and they fondly recall experiences at their theme parks,” he said.
But he doesn’t think Disney is interested in “playing both sides” of various ideological divides.
“Great brands compel and repel, that’s what they do,” said Benbow. “The market today probably has a significant lack of clarity about what the Disney brand is. It’s not the Disney of 1965. What they produce and stances they’re taking clarify who Disney is today and what the intent is.”
Disney executives, creative producers, and staff may feel adamant about “taking a position on something more innovative on the gender front,” says the author.
“In a free market, it’s their right to not care about faith-driven households. Eventually, that will be reflected in their market share gains or losses. It’s certainly not without consequences.”