August 1998 – When American Family Association (AFA) called for a boycott of The Walt Disney Co. more than 30 months ago, some thought it was an exercise in futility. But just over a year after the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, joined the boycott, observers see progress being made against the Mouse.
AFA had two simple goals when the boycott began. First, the effort was intended to raise some serious cultural issues for discussion, such as the normalization of homosexuality and the rapid degeneration of the entertainment industry.
Second, AFA wanted to call Disney back to its family-friendly roots. The boycott was intended to bring financial pressure to bear on the entertainment/media giant, in order to convince Disney that America’s parents were serious about their concerns.
The AFA Journal looks back at the past year to evaluate the boycott’s progress and how much work remains.
Striking a nerve
Even as early as November of last year, it was becoming apparent that the boycott was getting under the skin of Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner. In an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Eisner was asked if the boycott was having any effect. “Well, you’ve got me here on 60 Minutes trying to respond to it. So to that extent it has some effect,” he said. Eisner then quickly pointed to Disney’s financial status, adding, “We’ve never done better.”
But Eisner appeared testy during that same interview, calling the boycotters “nuts.” And this year he likened a Southern Baptist resolution to evangelize Jews to Hitler and his Nazi henchman in the Holocaust.
Yet the boycott is doing more than simply giving Michael Eisner indigestion. Disney has responded by becoming more conservative, indicating that the company may be becoming more sensitive to the image problems caused by its past recklessness.
Since last summer The Walt Disney Company dropped the two most offensive rock bands on its Hollywood Records label.
Disney/ABC also dispensed with two shows that had Christians hopping mad: the anti-Catholic drama Nothing Sacred, about a rebellious priest who rejected the church’s views on abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality; and Ellen, whose lead character had declared her lesbianism loudly and proudly.
The Mouse also showed itself responsive to the glaring light of the boycott in the odd case of Simon Rex, a former MTV personality. Rex had been cast in the teen sitcom pilot Zoe Bean, produced by Disney for The WB network. But when Disney learned that Rex had been in a porn film, he was replaced even though Disney had already paid him for the project. Entertainment Weekly reported that the controversy reached all the way to Eisner’s office.
The magazine noted that, while Disney didn’t want Rex acting in one of its television productions, the Mouse House had no problem allowing Victor Salva, a convicted child molester, to direct the 1995 Disney/ Miramax film Powder.
While Entertainment Weekly implied hypocrisy on Disney’s part, AFA president Donald E. Wildmon said it was further evidence that The Walt Disney Co. has been made more image-conscious by the boycott. “When people expressed their outrage to Disney for keeping Salva as director of Powder, Disney ignored them,” said Wildmon. “Now we see the company dumping Simon Rex even after paying him. Coincidence or pressure from the boycott? That’s a common sense answer.”
On the surface, The Walt Disney Co. appears to be having its best financial year ever. Disney executives gleefully informed the nation in January that The Walt Disney Co. had increased its net profit 18% in its fiscal fourth quarter of 1997, a fact that some extolled as proof that the boycott was failing. And for the second quarter of 1998, Disney again boasted an increase in net profit – a $68 million, or 21%, rise.
But accountant Abraham J. Briloff has twice refuted Disney’s claim of an economic high tide, insisting that shallow waters may be more like it. Writing in the March 23 and May 11 issues of the highly esteemed financial periodical Barron’s, Briloff accused Disney of financial sleight-of-hand.
Briloff, a certified public accountant and frequent contributor to Barron’s, said “the gains in Disney’s reported results over the past five quarters have been significantly enhanced by creative accounting.” He added that Disney had established an undisclosed reserve of nearly $2.5 billion “to absorb costs and expenses incurred.” As for the Mouse’s claim of an 18% gain in the final quarter of 1997, Briloff said those accounting procedures “transformed what otherwise would have been essentially flat earnings into a double-digit increase.”
Furthermore, Briloff also questioned Disney’s claims for the second quarter of 1998, stating that the company’s accounting procedures presented a $68 million net increase – when the actual increase was a mere $2 million.
Most analysts think the real pressure on Disney won’t be financial. Observers who study the effectiveness of boycotts say companies are often more concerned about damage to their image.
“The concern is [a boycott] may eventually have an impact if there is some erosion on the image level,” said Monroe Friedman, a psychology professor at Eastern Michigan University.
Support for the boycott does appear to be quietly building. This past year the Free Methodist Church, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, and Catholics United for the Faith, among others, officially signed on to the boycott effort.
The number of those contemplating joining the boycott is not inconsequential. According to a Newsweek poll undertaken shortly after the SBC vote, nearly three in 10 Americans – about 50 million adults – said they would join the boycott of Disney.
This slow-building momentum is not unusual for a boycott. Many effective boycotts against large companies take years to become effective. Todd Putnam, editor of National Boycott News, said, “The rule in general is five to 10 years. And that’s because corporations usually know that if they wait, a boycott will fizzle.”
A prolonged boycott seems to be what most groups are expecting. Rev. Richard Land, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The boycott is growing and continues to grow as more and more Baptists understand what’s involved. We’re going to continue this. It’s not one hydrogen bomb. It’s a steady month-by-month artillery barrage.
Still same old Mouse
However halting its steps may appear, Disney continues to plod along the path of immorality. Example after example demonstrates the company’s willingness to throw boycotters a bone periodically, while continuing to rake in cash through any and every available avenue.
The company’s subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, for instance, has purchased the screen rights to Chippendales, an unpublished book about the male strip club dancing industry. Miramax continues to be Disney’s bad boy, adding the Halloween “slasher film” franchise to a stable that already includes such violent fare as the two Scream movies, Pulp Fiction, and others. And Miramax is going ahead with plans to distribute the blasphemous movie Dogma, which has the potential to be as offensive to Christians as was 1995’s anti-Catholic movie Priest.
Disney’s promotion of homosexuality is now an established fact, accepted by even the secular media, despite the cancellation of the ABC sitcom Ellen. And despite his deal with CBS, vulgar bad boy Howard Stern will remain on E!, of which Disney has partial ownership and, according to Daily Variety, full programming control.
The Mouse hopes the boycott will just fade away. But with Disney finding it hard to break old, bad habits, the battle may be just beginning.