Religious conservatives are turning up the heat on the Walt Disney Co. following last month’s vote by the Southern Baptist Convention to boycott the entertainment giant over its gay-friendly employment policies and adult-themed films.
The American Family Assn. (AFA), a Christian pressure group that has battled the entertainment industry for years over sex and violence in programming, is throwing its formidable public relations machinery behind the Disney boycott, according to AFA founder Rev. Donald Wildmon.
“Disney has always presented itself as a family-oriented company,” said Wildmon, a Mississippi Methodist who has led several high-profile boycotts against corporations that distribute pornography or advertise on racy television programs. “But much of what they are doing is destructive to the family. They are hypocrites.”
The AFA this week will begin distributing boycott information to more than 28,000 Southern Baptist congregations, including sample boycott postcards addressed to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner.
Wildmon said the group already has printed 500,000 postcards, which churches can purchase for a nominal fee. He estimates that the group eventually will distribute as many as two million copies to conservative Christian denominations who want to make their feelings known to Disney.
The packets will also contain “pass along” information sheets detailing Disney’s forays into adult-oriented films such as “Priest” and “Pulp Fiction,” in addition to examples of what the AFA views as the company’s “homosexual agenda,” such as Disney’s decision last year to extend health benefits to the partners of gay employees.
The AFA also this week is distributing recorded “public service announcements” to about 1,100 Christian radio stations. The announcements urge listeners to refrain from purchasing Disney products until the company ceases its “anti-family” activity.
One spot declares: “We must show Disney that families are tired of a place where molesters and lesbians are hired to make films and movies that say it’s OK to go against morals and grow up gay.”
Disney officials had no comment on the latest boycott effort.
Critics contend that Wildmon is so shrill and that the AFA has launched so many boycotts that the public has simply stopped listening. Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, a gay rights group that helped Disney draft its domestic partners policy, says Wildmon is simply capitalizing on the Disney name and attacking gays to raise funds for his organization.
“Targets like Communists and abortion rights don’t attract funds the way they used to,” Jennings said. “Wildmon can still make money attacking gays and lesbians. . . . Disney is much too sophisticated to be influenced by this kind of rabble-rousing.”
But boycott watchers say that, like it or not, the group has been successful at pressuring corporations to capitulate to its demands, even though the companies themselves are loathe to admit it.
For example, the AFA boycotted Kmart in the early 1990s to protest sales of pornographic magazines at the retailer’s Waldenbooks subsidiary. Kmart subsequently experienced severe financial woes, which analysts attributed to poor management, aging stores, dated merchandise and a host of other factors. But Wildmon nonetheless claimed victory last year when Kmart shook up its top management, dumped its Waldenbooks subsidiary--and sent a letter to Wildmon to inform him of the changes.
Just the threat of a Wildmon boycott in 1990 motivated Burger King to withdraw sponsorship of adult-themed prime-time television programming. The burger chain took out half-page advertisements in hundreds of newspapers nationwide to “go on record as supporting traditional American values on television.”
Other AFA actions against companies such as Holiday Inn and Warner-Lambert Co. have been less successful.
Wildmon has been advocating a boycott of Disney since the company unveiled its gay partner benefits policy last year. So far, he has circulated his pass-along sheets and other materials with little success.
But Zachary D. Lyons, editor and publisher of Boycott Quarterly, a Seattle publication that tracks consumer boycott activity, says Wildmon can be formidable when he really gears up for an all-out push, as he appears to be doing with the Disney boycott. He rates AFA among the top activists in the country for getting results from boycott campaigns.
“They are very well organized, and they are very effective,” Lyons said. “They’ve got a million-person mailing list, and in boycott circles, that’s a big, big number.”
Still, Wildmon has never taken on a behemoth the size of Disney. Industry analysts say the entertainment giant is so big and sprawling that Wildmon’s supporters, which are estimated to number anywhere from one million to two million people, can’t hope to to make a dent in the Disney empire.
Even the Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at 16 million members, represent little more than a year’s attendance at a single Disney theme park.
But Lyons said the Disney image has proven somewhat vulnerable in recent years, as demonstrated during its aborted attempt to build an American history theme park in the middle of Civil War territory in rural Virginia. The public outcry over the plan was deafening, and the squeaky clean company came off looking arrogant and out-of-touch.
Wildmon says Disney is similarly underestimating America’s Christian conservatives, whom he argues are more in touch with mainstream American values than cloistered Hollywood executives.
“This isn’t going away,” Wildmon said. “It may take several years, but we will be successful.
“Michael Eisner thinks we’re just a small group of narrow-minded bigots that he can ignore, and that’s just fine. Because if I’m at war with an opponent who underestimates my strength and resolve, that’s the best ammunition I can have.”