Disney’s Magic: The Business of Organizing and Managing Culture

By David Levy.

As Stephan Manning commented in a recent blog post, many of us who attended the recent Academy of Management conference in Orlando, Florida, felt some of the discomfort of the fakeness of the place, the endless “have a magical day” greetings from overly perky staff (“castmembers”, in Disney’s Orwellian newspeak), the over-engineered physical environment of artificial beauty with an enormous carbon footprint (the steady stream of planes arriving, the acres of over-air conditioned buildings – but you save the earth if you hang up your towels!) Parallels with the TV series The Prisoner or the classic movie The Stepford Wives jump to mind (indeed in the book, the leader of the men’s club is a former Disney engineer).

If the German academics saw echoes of East Germany, for me as a British expat it was the enforced happiness that was particularly grating. I was longing for an authentically surly British waiter. In fact, I was just longing for food, which was surprisingly hard to find in this corner of paradise – restaurants fully booked till gone 10 pm and my hotel only had a basic food court a good 15 minute walk away. Without a real city to wander, some of us were reduced to raiding the snack machines and searching the conference receptions for some sustenance.

So why do millions of families spend small fortunes to travel here and line up for hours with screaming kids in 95F heat and humidity for a 2 minute ride? Stephan lists some reasons, but I suspect there is something deeper in the corporate cultural machine that constructs our notions of fun and happiness, and the myths and stories that provide the fabric of our cultural being. In 2012, Walt Disney’s “profit totaled almost $5.7 billion, up 18 percent and a company record, on revenue of almost $42.3 billion, up 3 percent and also a record”. Disney is a huge cultural phenomenon, owning not just theme parks but hotels, movie studios, and cable TV channels. Cultural critics such as Robert McChesney and Henry Giroux have examined the concentration of media ownership and the ideologies embedded in Disney’s stories, including sexist and racist themes, and the glorification of the conservative values of 1950s small town America (Disney’s private small town Celebration is right near Orlando.)

What can organization and management scholars contribute to the discussion of Disney’s cultural impact? First, we can recognize that the everyday activities of large companies have a significant impact on our cultural (and natural) environment: it’s a rare text on business ethics or business and society that covers the political economy of the corporate media. Yet this sector represents a privatized form of governance over public space. Private decisions over products and processes, technologies and research, and distribution and sourcing have vast consequences with wide societal ramifications and broad geographic reach (see e.g. Levy & Newell, 2006). This is a form of corporate power that derives from the strategies and operations of these companies, rather than lobbying, political campaign donations, their networks with political and social elites, or other traditional forms of power.

Second, we can understand the Disney empire as a key part of the American entertainment “value regime”, a concept I’ve recently developed with Andre Spicer to connote an institutional form that’s relatively stable because of the alignment of cultural values with systems of value creation and distribution. The Disney value regime is at once a very successful business model that draws in consumers, investors, employees, and local officials, rewarding them (if rather unequally) with profits, wages, taxes, and entertainment experiences; at the same time, it’s a dynamic engine of cultural meanings and values. The business and cultural aspects mutually reinforce each other, making the regime resilient and creating powerful vested interests willing to act to protect the regime. By contrast, alternative vacation options such as hiking or camping have only limited market potential (think REI), and therefore lack the reinforcing mechanisms that create dominant value regimes.

As Stephan notes, it’s all too easy, and somewhat elitist, for us academics to poke fun at Disney and feel superior to the working class hordes who spend their hard earned cash striving, in a rather futile way, perhaps, to enjoy some respite from the capitalist machine. Then we come back and submit our expense reports and complain about how busy we are and how quickly the summer months sped by. But with our privileged position, it is important that we use our skills to theorize, write, and reach out to wider audiences with our critiques and try to make them relevant for social groups considering alternative ways of relaxing and enjoying ourselves.

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One thought on “Disney’s Magic: The Business of Organizing and Managing Culture

  1. Hey there! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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