By Stephan Manning.
Have you ever been to Disney World Orlando? Well, around 8,000 management scholars, including myself, just returned home from this rather curious place which hosted this year’s Academy of Management Annual Meeting, generating a series of satirical comments, including an anonymous ‘Letter to Minnie’. The theme of the conference was ‘Capitalism in Question’ which – as Crane and Matten rightly point out in their recent blog – was oddly matched with a site that symbolizes corporate capitalism in its ugly form – low-paid employees under continuous emotional stress, overpriced hotels and tours, marketing and merchandising overkill – combined with some other annoying features – lack of food options, long lines, constrained access to the outside world – that remind us of state socialism a la East Germany or Soviet Union rather than the ideal of a ‘free’ (capitalist) world. So how does Disney continue to attract visitors, including academics, year by year? Or more broadly speaking, how do certain old corporate giants, such as Disney, Coca Cola and McDonald’s, who share a bad reputation for their labor conditions and whose offerings are everything but natural, healthy and ecologically sustainable, continue to exist? Why is it that some old giants apparently never die, but rather monopolize large parts of our consumer economy? I can see at least five reasons why even our children and grandchildren will continue to be hugged by Minnie, Mickey and friends, while drinking Coke and downing a Cheeseburger.
Control of choice. The often cited ‘freedom of choice’ is overrated. Instead the old corporate giants create a universe of limited choices which appeal to a significant part of the population. Even Eastern Block governments of the past understood very well that lack of choice becomes a problem only when (alternative) choices are expected. However, they underestimated two things. First, while consumers may not need real choices (which are difficult to assess anyway) they appreciate the illusion of choice, e.g. between Fanta and Coke, Cheeseburger and McChicken, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. Second, consumers are ok with limited choices as long as they choose to be constrained. Entering the magic universe of Disney World for a week, or the McDonald’s restaurant for an hour frees people from the need to make difficult decisions. Whereas getting stuck in Disney’s Coronado hotel for a year, eating at Maya Grill every night, would drive even the biggest Disney fan crazy.
Childhood dreams. People often forget that Disney, Coca Cola and McDonalds’s could never survive without children. Americans – and now even people in China and Russia – get attached to these giants from their early childhood, clearly aided by an effective marketing machinery. Enjoying the cuteness of Mickey, the sweetness of Coke, and the creaminess of McDonald’s ice cream become lifelong memories for most of us. Even I remember the first time I had a milkshake at McDonald’s as something positive when I was five, even though, as an adult, I would never feel the same again. And whereas Walt Disney’s World may seem fake and obscure, it does shape the desires and needs of generations of children. In a way, corporate (consumer) capitalism relies very much on the child in each of us, whereas communism in its past form was more of an ‘adult economy’ around the abstract vision of a better society.
Cultural imperialism. Not by accident, all three giants have been hugely successful outside the U.S. which secured their continuous growth. Why is that? Well, one could say, children’s tastes are similar everywhere. But clearly, all three firms stand for the success of U.S. consumer capitalism, fast food, and entertainment in times of peace and war. Sustained happiness in a commercialized form. An alternative to communism, as it gives the illusion of immediate satisfaction and as it appeals to people across social classes. Disney’s characters speak to everyone, creating an image of innocence, magic and fun, while also shaping the way we think about gender and race. Of course, some academics might feel superior in taking the critical observer role rather than immersing themselves into Walt’s fantasy world. But didn’t you also buy one of those silly hats, or take a souvenir picture being hugged by Mickey or Minnie? Didn’t you also laugh when watching old Donald Duck clips on the Magical shuttle bus back to the airport? Well, I did, although I resisted paying a hundred bucks just for the experience of the Magic Kingdom, which I knew would be everything but magical.
Convenience. And why did the Academy of Management choose to host this year’s conference in Disney World? Well, for the same reason why so many American families choose to surprise their kids with a ticket to Orlando for their seventh birthday. Convenience! With a capacity of 25,000 hotel rooms, an established infrastructure of convention centers, transportation and security, Disney’s resort network can host large groups of people, maintain some level of quality control, and guarantee a predictable experience for everyone. (Did I mention already that the 2016 Academy meeting will be in Anaheim? Yes, the same place as in 2008.) The same reason why we continue to order Diet Coke for our weekly Organizations and Social Change faculty seminar at UMass Boston, instead of thinking a little longer about more healthy options.
Coopting criticism. And this leads me to the final point. No matter how much these corporate giants are being criticized – for a lot of good reasons – they seem to be just fine with that. They are much less sensitive to critique than Eastern Block governments were in the past. Even occasional blows to profitability, such as Disney’s latest blockbuster flop ‘The Lone Ranger’, do not seem to have a lasting effect as long as other cash pockets compensate for the loss. And does Disney care if management scholars keep criticizing the corporation’s labor practices, or if attendants of this year’s Academy of Management conference call the Orlando experience the worst Academy ever? Probably not. In fact, we contributed to the profitability of the Disney corporation like every other guest, and we will continue to do so for institutional convenience. And unlike the hard-working family who saved some money to finally afford a trip to Disney with their kids, we academics just collect the receipts and let university pay for enjoying ourselves making fun of Disney World and questioning capitalism. Well, as long as we keep coming back to Disney resorts, Minnie and Mickey clearly appreciate our appetite for ideological critique.
So, is it entirely pointless to attack the corporate giants and their certainly questionable impact on society? Of course our academic incentive system gives us some credit for being critical, but beyond that? Maybe one key is to find ways to promote a larger debate that reaches into parents’ homes and elementary schools about the contradictions between image and reality, about low pay and emotional stress behind the magic (Disney), about the consequences of continuous intake of sugar (Coke) and processed food (McDonald’s). Would a larger debate about the magic of real creativity and choice, natural food, and the fun of having fun without feeding the corporate giants help? Maybe. Would an engaging discussion with Disney staff about the downsides of their work make a difference? Perhaps. Certainly more than just a self-protecting series of comments by academics who continue – of course ‘with disgust’ and ‘under protest’ – to meet at the Academy every year! Btw, will I see you in Anaheim?
[Image taken from tripadvisor.com]