How Neon Butterfly Helped Disney Imagine a More Inclusive Tomorrow

Founder Abby Allen on reckoning with the past while looking to the future

"What if the world saw me the way I see me?" This plaintive question, posed by a young African-American boy, kicks off "Reimagine Tomorrow." 

Reimagine Tomorrow | The Walt Disney Company

Created by the agency Neon Butterfly for Disney, that question is picked up by other people: "Not as a criminal, but a kid." "Not a foreigner, but a father." "Not bossy, but boss." Our boy takes the narrative again: "A world that doesn't see me for all my potential, all my humanity, all my dreams, doesn't see me at all." 

The next big question arrives: "So how do we change how we see?"

What a question. And what a way to open this work, which deftly transitions in and out of moments that make us question ourselves, before leaning in—not to condemn us, but to embrace us.

It's Disney that answers that last question, for itself. We are already gripped emotionally, but the work it does here hammers that last sword into our hearts: It knows what it's done poorly. It even shows us: "At Disney, we start by acknowledging that the images we show, and the stories we tell, affect how people see themselves. How we see each other. And we haven't always gotten it right."

Cut to a close-up of moments they really did not.

What follows is a reflection on being honest about the past, even as you honor the present and imagine a different future. This is part of a larger campaign where Disney tries to make good on what it's done poorly, and tries to hold itself accountable. The hero video is supported by a digital platform (still in progress), packed with hundreds of hours of content and designed to help people navigate Disney's vast array of content, questing for what they'd like to see more of.

We spoke with Abby Allen, founder and chief creative officer of Neon Butterfly, which is focused on changing limiting narratives in media. We talk about the ad, that critical moment where Disney shares its missteps and what Disney's doing to design more inclusive media, what to expect on the digital platform, and how Neon Butterfly operates as a company. 

It's a good conversation. We hope you like it.

Muse: Tell us what you're about.

Abby Allen: I spent my whole career working at big ad agencies, and got increasingly tired of seeing the same type of people, especially when you get into higher levels. So I wanted to start my own agency, where I could really tailor the teams to reflect the audiences that we are trying to reach. 

How has that been?

It takes a lot of effort. But it's super important, because we all have blind spots. The more we check our blind spots, the more accurate the content is that we will put out. People who work in media have that responsibility. 

How did the Disney work come about?

Disney approached us asking for help with a video, articulating their commitment to diversity and inclusion. For forever, I deliberately stayed away from the diversity and inclusion space, because it is easy for people to see a brown person and then assume that all you can do is...

..."Come solve our diversity thing!"

Exactly. That's not what I'm interested in doing. I want to change media that all people consume, because it's actually not the Black and brown people that need to be hearing new messages; it's everybody else.

I had done another project with Disney, rebranding Minnie Mouse, and the DEI crew saw us and were like, "Oh, can you help?" So I was like, OK, let's see what we can do. I immediately knew it needed to be more than a video. It's Disney, and they have a huge platform. So many people around the world watch what they put out. What can we do to really affect the hearts and minds of people all over the world, all different age groups, and people from different backgrounds? 

We thought, let's do a platform that celebrates underrepresented voices and untold stories. And let's celebrate all the great work Disney's already doing. Because so many people aren't aware.

Enter "Reimagine Tomorrow."

Before I started working with Disney, I wasn't aware of all the good stuff that they've done; I was only aware of the problematic content we're all aware of, missteps in the past. A huge part of this project was them being willing to take responsibility for not always having gotten it right, which was a huge thing. That's something we mentioned in our campaign film, so we knew it had to have that authenticity for people to believe in … or else it would just seem like Disney is jumping on the bandwagon and are not really serious. I'm happy they were willing to do that. 

With "Reimagine Tomorrow," we were like, "OK, we don't want this to be some finger-wagging thing that's like, 'Stop being mean to Black and brown people'." We wanted it to be about getting to an emotional connection. Accurate representation matters. I say accurate because it's not about just having more different kinds of people on screen. It's about showing the breadth of their humanity. The crux is that each of us is greater than a single story. So no matter what body you're in, you have many, many facets, right? 

Just like white people are diverse, Black people are also diverse. We wanted to make it a celebration of our shared humanity, so everybody could participate. It's not about getting rid of anybody or replacing anybody with somebody else. It's about "and," I like to say.

Let's talk about this line in the work: "We haven't always gotten it right." It's accompanied by a quick shot of problematic content. Some years ago, Gillette did this ad about manhood, where it apologized for its contributions to ideas of toxic masculinity. The online response was so complicated. So for a brand as big as Disney, saying that line, and showing even tiny pieces of problematic content, must have been a complicated conversation. How did you structure that moment? 

I mean, we worked on this project for two years.

So it was not a short conversation.

No. To our credit, and to Disney's, we started working on this long before the pandemic, or George Floyd. So this was not a jumping-on-the-bandwagon project. This was something that they knew had to be done, and they wanted to do, and we wanted to do.

Disney started an initiative, maybe two years ago, where they are putting advisories on problematic content, so we work with them on that as well. It's a huge thing, it's going to take years, they're going through their entire library; everything back to the black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons to Aladdin. 

We already knew, and they knew, that they needed to acknowledge the past. But yes, how to do it in a way that would feel authentic, and also not spend too much time there? They didn't want this to be about dwelling on mistakes. You also don't want to give too much for people to get distracted; I don't think that is useful.

We all know they're not perfect. I don't think any company is perfect, nor is any person. This is a danger we're falling into with cancel culture—it's not leaving any space for people, or companies, to learn and grow. 

We came up with the idea of showing it on the screen: clips from films that are across-the-board agreed upon as being problematic, which would hopefully take some of the wind out of people's sails who would argue against it. Also, it was more palatable for Disney, because they have already put a stake in the ground that these titles are problematic. But how we were going to say it, and everyone reaching agreement as to what to show, did take time. Everyone knew that it was really important. We got there.

Disney's content has changed dramatically. They have always dipped into different fairy tales, but now it does seem there's an aggressive push to be more representative. For Filipinos, "Raya" felt important because we all grew up with Disney dreams, and seeing something of our culture enter that pantheon is so meaningful. But you got to know Disney in a different way while working with them. Did you learn anything about this come-to-Jesus moment that Disney had internally about its content and its relationship with global communities?

They know that in order to maintain relevance, they have to make ever-more inclusive content. It's the way of the world: They wouldn't be able to survive from a business standpoint. It wouldn't behoove them to not be more inclusive. I also genuinely believe that the leadership does care, and believes it's the right thing to do.

And Bob Iger is a genius. Acquiring Hulu and FX, all those acquisitions that have been made over the past few years, was a brilliant move in that direction. Some of those properties are the ones pushing boundaries the most. Like, if you think about free form, there's a lot that's happening.

What can people expect to find on the digital platform?

We wanted to build something accessible to everybody. We did not want to be like, "This is a DEI initiative sitting over here." This is a celebration of humanity. So it is built like a search engine where you can type, "I want the world to see more LGBTQ representation, or Black representation," or whatever you want the world to see more of, and it will aggregate content from across the Disney ecosystem.

This is an ongoing thing, because it's going to take a while to get all the content. But it's the first time that there is any place, anywhere, bringing together content from across all their platforms. That was exciting for us. 

We also produced 40 pieces of original content. One of the modules that I love most is called Recital of Remixes, where we had different artists remake the classic Disney song "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." 

That's traditionally a Sherman Brothers song—two white guys, very 1950s. But it has great lyrics. So we chose a Filipino artist, a Black artist, an Afro-Latino, and an indigenous artist. All three remade the song. And it's so cool to hear. Our point is, "Look at the beauty that diversity brings," without saying it. It's just, "Experience it". 

Then we have BTS videos with them, where they talk about the process. The Filipino guy, Jeremy Passion, talks about wanting some little version of him to see this and think, "Oh, I could be that. I could be like him." That's what this whole thing was about: creating content and showcasing content so that as many people around the world could see themselves.

I like this idea of the nature of the search engine. This ongoing indexing project creates, like, a moving benchmark of accountability.

Yes, exactly. We have to be very careful how we use the word "search engine" because technically, all of it isn't in there, and it has to be pre-loaded. But for consumer purposes, it works as a search engine.

Returning to that moment of "We haven't always gotten it right." It kind of feels like a promise. You talked a lot about how Disney is approaching this from a more global perspective. What do you think that Disney understands about the stakes of DEI that other companies are struggling with?

Because their content reaches so many different kinds of audiences, they have the diversity within their own ecosystem, and the ability to hold themselves accountable in a way that perhaps even other media companies don't. 

So because there is Freeform, or because there's FX, they have people pushing within their own walls, that will then help the other businesses push as well. Even ESPN—look at The Undefeated. It's incredible what they're doing in terms of taking this conversation forward. 

Tell us about the "Reimagine Tomorrow" production. Did anything impact you or stick out?

That was one of the best parts about it. I mean, this was a massive, massive production—40 pieces. We had music videos, we had a more traditional film... All the production, the 40 pieces of content, was done at once. We had multiple productions going on at once, during the pandemic. It was insane. 

How did you logistic that? 

That is the other thing we are very good at: rigor. We are so "buttoned up" to an extreme degree, where production companies were like, "Why do you even need us?" because we are on top of every detail. My team is made up of very senior people. I actually hired my first boss, who worked with me at Saatchi & Saatchi 20 years ago, because the only person I felt I could trust was the person who trained me. So she is the head of all the account management. 

There's a thing on the Reimagine Tomorrow site called Reimagine Tomorrow Together, where we interviewed dozens of Disney employees to share their vision of a Reimagined Tomorrow. They were given drop kits and they recorded on their own. Then we used animation and editing to bring their stories to life. We also shot young creators from around the world. One kid was in India, another girl was in Brazil. We also used drop kits there, and video call recordings, too. And then we shot Recital of Remixes and the main film in L.A. 

One of the most exciting things from the productions was listening to the parents of the cast members, talking about how incredible it was for their kid to be on-set with such a diverse crew. And that's never happened before. They were so happy because of what a difference it made for the comfort of their child. You don't think about that, but it matters. Think about how it feels to be a young Black kid, surrounded by people who maybe, I don't know, are thinking that he's dangerous. They just don't treat him like a human being. Think how that affects a child. So it was a big deal for us to make sure our crews were diverse. 

The mom of this one girl, who is biracial, was like, "You know, for my daughter to see that someone like you runs a company like this, and runs her own production, is such a big deal." All those moments made it worth the pain and struggle. People's lives were changed.

You talked a bit about what Neon Butterfly wants to achieve. Was there anything that was challenging when you began designing Neon Butterfly and what it would stand for?

It's been a constant evolution. It started with me just allowing people to pay what they wanted. I knew there were many things broken in the traditional ad agency model. One of the issues is a lack of diversity, but also the inefficiency with which things are done. It's a lot of people just sitting around, not doing very much a lot of the time. There is a lot of waste, and only a few voices are listened to. If you're at some of the bigger places, it's the holding company you have to worry about. It just becomes ever more political. 

I just got turned off by that. But I started offering my services, like branding and marketing, to small businesses who wanted to make some kind of social impact, but who didn't have a lot of money to hire an agency. I wanted to make it not about money for me, so I kept working at my agency jobs. At night, or on the weekends, I would help these small businesses. Eventually I realized that I could just do this all the time, and try to start a different kind of agency—I don't even want to call it an agency, but we don't have a better word yet. 

It changes the way things are done. We use media a little bit more intentionally. I believe we can do that and also sell stuff. Because at the end of the day, I'm not going to sit here and pretend there's not a business behind it. You know what I mean? We're still selling something. If you're asking, "How do we choose our projects?", I now only work on things where there is some kind of positive social impact related to it.

Do you have any advice on what companies need to know, and business owners need to know, when they're thinking about how to diversify their company cultures?

You mean ensuring that diversity is front and center at every step of the process? It's continuing to do your own work. You need to be reading and listening to people on your own, so you're continually working on your own biases and blind spots. Over the course of this project, I became so aware of my blind spots around ability; I don't think about ability as much as I would like, the things that people who are differently abled have to go through every day. So that's been a big one, and something that I'm focusing on. 

Continue to do your own work, but also don't be afraid to say the wrong thing. I know, you don't want to be offensive, and with cancel culture, people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing. But preface it with, "I'm not sure this is the right way to say it, but what I'm trying to say is ... " Just acknowledge that you are a work in progress, like we all are, and be willing to accept the consequences of perhaps saying the wrong thing. I know people's jobs might be on the line. It depends on what position you are in. But I still think that if you are genuine and earnest about your effort, that will come through.

What's inspired or impacted you recently?

I'm watching this show, Ramy, on Hulu, about a millennial Muslim man. He's navigating his family, and just showing what it's like to be a millennial Muslim. You don't see many shows about young Muslims. He also has a best friend who is in a wheelchair. And there are some moments where Ramy helps him out—things that involve maybe helping take his pants down, something uncomfortable to watch.

I realized that as I was watching. I was like, "Why am I uncomfortable?" It's because I don't normally see people with disabilities, and what they have to deal with, this up close, and what it actually means. We get this sanitized version most of the time. So I was like, "Oh, this is really good because it's making us sit with our own feelings and notice why we're uncomfortable." Even questioning, "Would you do this for your friend?" It made me question that, too. Which is hard to admit, but I have to. 

I think these shows, or anything that makes you question your own beliefs, are good art and good content. Another is one of the new Google ads. It's quiet, all sign language and captions. It's brilliantly done and makes you cry. You're stepping into this world where the parents can't hear, but they're communicating anyway, through their devices. The brilliance of it is that it actually engenders empathy. I was able to feel and connect with the people on screen, even though their situation is not like mine.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Yeah!

Profile picture for user Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.

Featured Clio Award Winner

Museletter

SUBSCRIBE

The best in creativity delivered to your inbox every morning.

ADVERTISING