Why Bud Light and Disney are under attack from conservatives

·6 min read
Sarah Fields
Sarah Fields supports Republican Party fights with "woke" corporate America

As conservatives rally around social issues, the Republican Party is clashing with corporate America. Will the fights break its longstanding alliance with big business?

At the home of Sarah Fields, a conservative activist and mum-of-three from Texas, some of America's biggest brands are no longer welcome. She cut out Disney first, turned off by children's shows featuring gay couples.

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Her boycotts of Olay skin products and beers from Bud Light-maker Anheuser-Busch began more recently, after she learned they had worked with transgender social media star Dylan Mulvaney.

"My thing is protecting kids and the very first time I ever saw corporations pushing any kind of LGBTQ or any kind of trans ideology towards kids is when I really started to pay more attention," the 36-year-old says. "There are so many different ones [now], I can barely keep track."

Sarah became politically active during the pandemic, protesting against lockdowns.

Now a delegate to her state's Republican Party, she is one of the players pushing the party to rally around social issues such as gender identity and take on "woke" firms in corporate America.

Bud Light faced a conservative backlash after working with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney
Bud Light faced a conservative backlash after working with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney

Companies have been caught in the crossfire of America's culture wars before, as the country grows more polarised and firms face pressure from staff, customers and shareholders on the left and right to pick a side.

But legislative moves targeting firms mark a new frontier for Republicans, who have traditionally been allied with big business over matters like lower taxes and light regulation.

In Florida, state lawmakers voted to remove Disney's power over a district including Walt Disney World theme park, after it criticised a law that banned discussions of gender and sexuality in schools.

In Georgia, lawmakers threatened to remove a tax break from Delta Airlines, after its chief executive called changes to voting laws "unacceptable".

Meanwhile dozens of states are considering proposals aimed at stopping government from doing business with financial firms that consider environmental, social and governance factors when making investments - moves that had cost one of the major targets of the campaign, BlackRock, more than $4bn in customer funds as of January.

The measures have been controversial, including among Republicans, some of whom say the proposals go too far to interfere with private business.

Proponents are unapologetic.

"My job is to protect taxpayers and my constituents from overreach, regardless of where it comes from," says Blaise Ignoglia, one of the Florida state senators who sponsored the Disney legislation - a fight that has now evolved into a legal battle over free speech. "They turned their backs on parents and children when they decided to support sexualising our most vulnerable youth."

Mr Ignoglia says he is not worried about taking on Disney, which has supported him in the past and wields major economic and political heft in Florida.

To the contrary, he says, "I live in the second reddest district in the state. My constituents are of the same mindset."

Big business has lost its grip on the Republican Party, as the party shifts right and picks up support from voters without university degrees, while losing ground among the college educated, says Prof Mark Mizruchi, a sociologist at the University of Michigan.

LGBTQ employees and their supporters walkout of Disney Animation protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, aka the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Burbank, CA
As the US grows more polarised, firms are being pushed by staff and customers to take sides

In 2022, the share of Republicans saying that large corporations have a positive impact was 26% - on a par with Democrats and less than half of what it was three years earlier, according to Pew.

But Prof Mizruchi says politicians' attacks on companies for being woke are "mostly a smokescreen", noting that on issues like unionisation, taxes and regulation corporate America and Republican leaders remain tightly aligned.

In the 2022 election cycle, the majority of official corporate political donations went to Republicans, as they have for nearly three decades, according to data from OpenSecrets.

"Republicans have to play this very careful game of supporting the wealthy and big business behind the scenes, but making it appear to the public that they're on the side of the little person," he says. "That's why going after the wokeness is a good way to do it - because that's not a bread and butter issue [for corporations]."

The financial impact of the conservative backlash appears to be relatively limited so far.

At BlackRock, lost funds amounted to less than 2% of its portfolio. The Bud Light sales decline in the first three weeks of April reflected only 1% of Anheuser-Busch overall volumes.

But the outcry has altered the mood, says Martin Whittaker, chief executive of Just Capital, a non-profit that ranks firms based on issues such as worker pay and environmental impact.

Though many companies are still moving forward with initiatives internally, he says public discussions have become quieter. "You're not seeing CEOs stick their necks out."

Disney, which spoke out on the Florida bill under pressure from its employees, has taken legal action against Florida. But other firms appear to be in retreat.

articipant seen holding a sign at the protest. More than 100 New Yorkers on the frontlines of the climate crisis, including faith leaders and youth, held a protest outside BlackRock Headquarters in Manhattan, where their annual shareholders meeting took place.
BlackRock has been subject to protests from the left and right over the role its investments play in fighting climate change

In BlackRock's annual letter this year, risks from climate barely got a mention, though the firm acknowledged challenges due to opinions "diverging across regions".

Credit card firms have said they would delay changes that activists had hoped would help track gun purchases, citing legal uncertainty. And some big financial firms including Vanguard have backed out of initiatives aimed at climate change, pointing to "confusion" about their views.

Will Hild is the executive director of Consumers' Research, a group that since 2021 has spearheaded multi-million dollar ad campaigns targeting firms such as Nike, American Airlines, Major League Baseball and Levi's for putting "woke politics above consumer interests".

"People forget that in the spring of 2021 you had companies coming out and getting involved in election integrity discussions at the state level in Georgia and Texas," he says.

"You haven't seen that in the years since and for us, that's an indication that our campaigns have been successful."

Last month, after weeks of attacks from conservative pundits and politicians for its partnership with Dylan Mulvaney, Anheuser-Busch put two executives on leave and released a spate of Bud Light ads studded with imagery of American flags and horses galloping across open country.

The company, which did not respond to a request for comment from the BBC, said it did not mean to be "a part of a conversation that divides people".

Decried by some on the left, the about-face was seen by Sarah as a victory.

"What happened with Bud Light is an amazing start and it should be that way for all corporations," she says. "We need to be less fearful and we need to start using our voice more."