Do Marketers Need A Backbone?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently shattered all box office records to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. You probably know that already, unless you live under an asteroid (though you probably got the memo there, too). The film did not disappoint rabid Star Wars fans, but a controversial merchandising decision Disney made was like a lightsaber through their hearts.

Here’s a recap: Disney, shockingly, played the ultimate Jedi mind trick on Rey, the film’s female protagonist. Executives directed toymakers to exclude Rey from merchandising, a Dark Side type of decision that turned fans into Star Warriors. They were horrified Rey was MIA from action figure sets, masks and backpacks. She was even blackballed from the Millennium Falcon toy (spoiler alert: she was the heroine who brought it back from the dead; not the character whose action figure was included). 



Cue the social media uproar: Cries of sexism, stereotyping, scapegoating. #WheresRey started trending on Twitter. There were poignant posts, angry letters, and television interviews. Disney was accused of only marketing females that fit the “Disney Princess” mold: enchanting beauty, flowing gown, impossibly tiny waist, giddily married (or looking for her prince). Rey is decidedly anti-Disney: She wears pants, pilots the Millennium Falcon and can kick some butt (without relying on a cheap shot from a stiletto). 

What did the big, bad bosses at Disney do? You know, the ones who allegedly plotted against Rey in numerous boardroom meetings, convinced that no one would want to buy Star Wars merchandise featuring a strong female character?

They caved. And quick (after offering up a few lame excuses).

Is that our job as marketers? To relinquish our position on something we believe in because it upsets our customers? Are they always right? Or should we stick to our guns no matter the fallout?

After stocking the shelves with Rey items, with the promise of more to come, Disney is being chastised for not having a back bone. The powerhouse brand could have taken the hit; the Rey controversy would not bankrupt the Magic Kingdom. Instead, they cowered to the masses with their tails between their legs. What kind of message does that send?

While I believe Disney made the right decision to correct their Rey blunder, I wholeheartedly agree they have no back bone. I just think they lost it at a different juncture than most. 

Inside reports indicate that Rey was originally included in merchandising. She was in the mix when vendors made their first boardroom presentations. Marketers had the right idea but lost their back bone somewhere along the way. This is where we need to be strong. When we’re in those pivotal meetings, when we see the tide is turning in the wrong direction, we need to be courageous enough to redirect the ship. 

It’s easy to go along with decisions, especially when it seems those with bigger job titles are in agreement. But what separates the good marketers from the great ones is the willingness to take risks, to stand up for what’s right (even if our CEOs shoot us dirty looks across the table). The great ones fight the good fight. The great ones provide the Rey of hope to save a brand from itself.

I know there were people in those meetings who understood the gravity of their Rey merchandising decision. Disney stands for more than just entertainment; they help shape our kids’ view of the world. 

Surely they saw the writing on the wall. If they had a back bone, they would have spared Disney the public outcry, the brand damage, the heartbreaking letters from little girls who didn’t understand why they couldn’t buy a Rey action figure. 

As marketers, it’s our job to stand up when it counts, not wait for the backlash and issue mea culpas. It’s our job to be independent, scrappy and tough, to take strikes with our lightsabers before bad decisions are made in the boardroom. It’s our job to be like Rey.

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