Lessons in Allyship From the Blunderful World of Disney

What we can learn from the media conglomerate's (lack of) response to the 'Don't Say Gay' bill

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Disney has made significant progress when it comes to its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—the content itself has come a long way since I was a little brown girl watching white princesses on the big screen. Disney now includes content warnings and an explanation for racism that shows up in classic films. They now have gender-inclusive costumes for theme park staff, and last Christmas, Black Santas appeared in their parks for the first time ever.

But while their Rainbow Disney Collection celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, recent headlines show there’s more work to be done.

A growing number of Disney employees and fans feel betrayed by the company’s recent stance on legislation in Florida, dubbed by advocates as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Employees organized a walkout and listed their demands to the company, including asking Disney to stop making political donations to certain Florida politicians. While Disney CEO Bob Chapek did issue an apology, some employees feel like it’s too late.

For marketers watching this unfold in the media, this is an important moment to sit up and take notice. What lessons can we learn from the World of Disney? What can we understand about what it means to truly be an ally for the LGBTQ+ community, and what questions should we be asking ourselves on our journey to be better allies? Start by considering the following.

What PACs is your company funding?

Start by educating yourself on what a political action committee (PAC) is and if your company supports and funds any. A PAC is created to raise and spend money to help get candidates elected and to defeat opponents. In the case of Disney, employees are demanding that Disney cease all donations to campaigns and politicians involved with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

As marketers, our job in building purpose-driven brands is tough enough. It’s even tougher if our company is funding causes that go against how our brand wants to show up in the marketplace.

If you are on a journey to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, for example, you can’t claim to be an ally and simultaneously fund anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Do your homework and partner with your corporate communications and government affairs teams to understand where your company stands on social justice and human rights issues.

Is your content truly inclusive?

According to a recent study from GLAAD, a media advocacy group, Walt Disney Studios has the weakest history of LGBTQ+ inclusion in content. Disney has attempted to make strides with its feature film Onward, featuring an openly gay character, though this has been criticized as tokenism given that the character’s sexuality is only mentioned in passing.

A letter from Pixar employees alleges that Disney corporate executives have refrained from portraying moments of overtly gay affection. This remains the case even when members of the Pixar creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar speak up against the edits that trickle down from above.

Remember that employees are our forgotten consumers.

—Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact, Carta

As marketers, we have a responsibility to, authentically and with purpose, tell the stories that deserve a spotlight. We have the power to shatter stereotypes.

We know that stories have the ability to inspire change, particularly in the case of Disney for young audiences who are eagerly watching. It’s easy to sell a collection of rainbow products, and it’s another thing to ensure that LGBTQ+ characters and stories are accurately and meaningfully included.

Do you understand the experience of your employees?

Finally, be wary of chasing external awards that may not truly reflect the experience of your employees. At the beginning of 2022, Disney announced that, for the 16th year in a row, it received a score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, the nation’s foremost benchmarking survey and report measuring corporate policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ workplace equality.

And yet, Disney employees have now mobilized, demanding that Disney do and be better when it comes to allyship for the LGBTQ+ community. Now even the HRC refuses to accept any money from Disney in its efforts to protect LGBTQ+ rights until the company takes meaningful action against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

Remember that employees are our forgotten consumers. We spend so much time thinking about the external marketplace, we forget to ask the people behind the scenes about their experiences.

Start by asking your employees what they want and need. Ask your LGBTQ+ employees if your company is on a journey to be an ally for them before showing up in the marketplace as an ally. Show up for them first during moments that matter the most.

And when you do, they will in turn become the fiercest and most loyal supporters of your company.