Disney, Censorship, and Beauty & the Beast – by Kyle Hegarty

Since its debut in the 1964 World’s Fair, Disney’s “It’s a small world” theme park ride continues to be a crowd favorite celebrating international peace and unity. As Disney continues its expansion overseas with new theme parks, movies, educational programs and all-other-things Disney, the company remains a great on-going case study for how globalizing companies wrestle with the challenges of a world packed with different local preferences and tastes. In many cases, it turns out it’s not such a small world after all.

While stories abound of companies misunderstanding local markets, and either ignoring, or misinterpreting a localization strategy, the reverse should also be studied. Companies have to consider when not to change their products to accommodate the wishes of certain groups.

When Disney’s recent Beauty and the Beast movie premiered, several markets – including Russia and China – scoffed, demanding one specific scene be removed. What was so offensive? It was a 3 second scene where two men could be seen dancing together.

Malaysia went as far as blocking its release across the country causing a public relations showdown.

Disney had to make a decision.

Should they show flexibility and adjust their product to what could be perceived as local demands? A lot of money was at stake and with millions of potential customers waiting to buy tickets. Or did this particular request conflict with a deeper sense of the company values? Flexibility is one thing, sticking to a moral compass is another, regardless of the potential for lost business.

Companies are faced with these dilemmas all the time at home and abroad. From varying environmental, legal and personnel laws and norms, businesses need to know when to bend and when to remain firm.

This isn’t the first time Malaysia has battled international brands. Guinness sponsored a concert in Kuala Lumpur in 2009 but was told by the government that Muslims could not attend. Throwing a party where the hosts are forced to discriminate against an entire religion is not the message the good people at Guinness were looking for.

For a while the event’s Malaysian website stated: ‘The party is only open to non-Muslims aged 18 years and above.’
How does that look for the brand? At first, Guinness complied but then realizing how the potential damage, wisely backed out. The government finally changed their position and the show went forward but not before a PR nightmare ensued.
Companies need to be prepared for these types of situations. Disney has a long track record of working in markets across the globe, so when the Beauty and the Beast controversy reared its head, they were prepared.

In this case Disney stood their ground refusing to alter the picture. In a press release the company stated, “The film has not been and will not be cut for Malaysia.” The 3 second dance scene remained and countries could take it or leave it. China and Russia backed down. So too did Malaysia, although their aggressive stance resulted in unwanted publicity for the country.

While values and belief systems can, and do, vary widely across the globe, companies need to be mindful of the dangers of moral relativity when they choose where to be flexible and open to different perspectives. Sometimes, the right thing to do may not please everyone and in some cases these decisions will impact the bottom line. Other times, like this situation, holding to their values turned out to be the most profitable choice. As of this writing, the movie has grossed over $750 million dollars worldwide.

…and the Disney finance department lived happily ever after.

Kyle Hegarty

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