Remember when people used to buy products because they were well made, priced right and met their needs?
Corporate meddling in politically contentious issues to signal virtue of one kind or another has put an end to that.
Businesses have been trying to position themselves as good corporate citizens for years in order to bring about a more favorable operating environment, but earlier efforts focused on neutral moves like raising public awareness of such things as charitable contributions, employee volunteerism and hiring veterans.
Recently, however, companies have been more willing to take public stands on truly controversial issues in order to raise their public profile… and sell more products. And it just happens to be that federal and state lawmakers are simultaneously using abortion politics to rile their voters ahead of the 2020 election.
An example of this new outspokenness is the response to restrictive abortion legislation recently enacted in several states, including Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ohio.
On May 7, 2019, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a law that would ban abortion as soon as physicians can detect a heartbeat, which can be as soon as six weeks (before some women are aware they’re pregnant).
“Georgia is a state that values life,” Kemp said at the bill signing. “We protect the innocent, we champion the vulnerable, we stand up and speak for those that are unable to speak for themselves.”
On May 15, Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, signed a law defining a fetus as a legal person “for homicide purposes” and making performing an abortion in the state a felony.
Netflix, Disney and WarnerMedia responded that they might stop producing television shows and movies in Georgia, and multiple actors threatened that they wouldn’t work in Georgia if the state’s law takes effect.
“I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger. “… we will work with the ACLU and others to fight it in court,” said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos.
Earlier this month, leaders of more than 180 businesses, including Maria Pope, President and CEO of Portland General Electric, signed a letter that ran as an ad in The New York Times opposing the restrictive abortion laws enacted recently in multiple states.
“It’s time for companies to stand up for reproductive health care,” the Don’t Ban Equality letter said. Restricting abortion is “bad for business.”
A problem with corporate virtue signaling like this as a marketing strategy is that it assumes the company has other people’s best interests at heart, that it’s not driven by profit seeking. There’s a risk that even altruistic millennials passionate about social causes will see through that, increasing cynicism, not brand loyalty.
Another issue with corporations trying to sell themselves as social justice warriors is that, as Tara Isabella Burton wrote in Vox, companies are pushing the spending of money “as a ritualistic as well as transactional act.” That can backfire. Purchases based on product quality are more likely to be sustained than those based on ever-changing corporate advocacy.
Public policy positions taken by corporate leaders on social issues may also not reflect the views of many employees or consumers, despite the presumptions of executives that others must be in alignment.
On abortion, for example, polling shows that Americans are actually fairly evenly split between those who identify as pro-life and those who identify as pro-choice. A majority of Americans, including many Democrats, support abortion restrictions in the second and third trimesters. In short, corporate honchos are mistaken if they believe most Americans are unrestricted abortion supporters.
As columnist David Byler wrote in the Washington Post, “… neither Republican nor Democratic voters unanimously want the total victory that activists on both sides are agitating for. Republicans are generally pro-life and Democrats are mostly pro-choice, but there’s real dissent among the rank-and-file voters in both camps. Our constantly shifting status quo may be unnerving to the most engaged pro-choice and pro-life advocates. But whatever they might say, the average U.S. voter wants a negotiated compromise in the abortion wars.”
Corporate evangelizing on all sorts of social issues can run afoul of public and employee attitudes, particularly with toxic social media serving as a megaphone for unhinged mobs of ever-smaller tribes determined to play a role in a debate.
Ideology-driven public positioning can also alienate employees and potential hires who are not in sync with a company’s cultural alignment or simply value open thinking.
”Internally, if leaders can create safe avenues for employees with different values and beliefs to voice their ideas (about CSR practices, products, or other business-related issues), this may lead to greater innovation, not to mention goodwill among those who value ideological tolerance as an over-arching feature of their workplace,” several U.S. business professors wrote in United States Politics and Policy.
Then there’s the fact that organizations and individuals who praise corporate intervention on sensitive public issues are generally much less enthused when the intervention has a conservative bent.
A striking example of this is the left’s outrage over comments made in July 2012 by Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s CEO, to the Baptist Press. Cathy said he was “guilty as charged” in his support of what he described as traditional marriage. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles,” Cathy said.
To say the least, all hell broke loose, with liberals and LGBTQ activists condemning Cathy and endorsing Chick-fil-A boycotts.
Controversy resurfaced with a March 2019 report by the progressive organization Think Progress that the chain’s foundation donated $1.8 million in 2017 to groups Think Progress said have anti-LGBTQ agendas.
Then there’s the shifting attitudes in the corporate world, which make executives unreliable moral leaders. “Americans ought to be cautious before making corporations their moral compass or primary vehicle for reform,” Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA, wrote recently in The New Republic. “The policy positions taken by U.S. companies on social issues today lean in the direction of inclusion. But tomorrow might be different, if the country—or a business’s particular consumer base—turns in a different direction.
If all this keeps up, you may soon be nostalgic for the days when companies tried to sell their products with simple “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” jingles.