Commentary

Should Our Products Be Marketed As Blue Or Red?

Did you catch Steve Croft's interview of recently retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on "60 Minutes" Sunday night? If you didn't, check it out here.

Two observations: 1. I hope to be half as cogent at age 70 as Stevens is at 90; 2. The fact that a man who was a moderate Republican when he was appointed by President Gerald Ford turned out to be court's leading liberal is as indicative of the polarization that our country has undergone in 35 years as anything I can imagine.

And therein lies the basis of today's column. Are we going to start choosing the companies we buy from based on their political compatibility? And, if so, is this a good thing?

Stevens provides insight into several decisions of recent vintage that he finds profoundly troubling. One is the court's decision to deny a recount of the Florida presidential vote in 2000, assuring George Bush's victory over Al Gore. But I got the feeling that he thinks a second decision -- to remove any restrictions on the amount of money a corporation may spend on a political campaign -- may have an even greater long-term impact on our society.

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"Well, you know, basically, an election is a debate" he tells Croft. "And most debates, you have rules. And I think Congress is the one that ought to make those rules. And if the debate is distorted by having one side have so much greater resources than the other, that sometimes may distort the ability to decide the debate on the merits," says Stevens. "You want to be sure that it's a fair fight."

This all came to mind when I received an e-mail yesterday afternoon from Grist, the environmental blog. Grist is a nonprofit funded by grants, contributions and advertising. It seems that one of its sponsors, Credo Mobile, was recently attacked on the air by Glenn Beck for its campaign to get Discovery Communications to cancel "Sarah Palin's Alaska."

Grist forwarded a letter from Michael Kieschnick, president of Credo, who says that the company has been "fighting the right wing with our activist network and with millions in donations to progressive nonprofits." He says that Beck responded by putting Credo on his "blackboard," while using the schoolyard epithet "spooky evil dudes" to refer to the company.

"We doubt that Beck would call companies like AT&T that," Kieschnick writes. "After all, AT&T contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to right-wing politicians, like Michele Bachmann and her House Tea Party Caucus members."

Kieschnick then takes the occasion to make a pitch to me to "get everything you expect from a mobile phone company-plus a whole lot more."

You know, there was a time in this country when people chose their shop keeps by what political party they belonged to, or what ethnicity they happened to be. And people chose their media -- newspapers and magazines in those days -- based on the cut of their ideological jib. There was no pretense of "we report, you decide." The decisions have been made in those proverbial smoke-filled rooms.

The smoke may be gone, but the mirrors remain. Personally, I'd hate to think that we're all sitting in boxes with nothing to look at except our own reflected opinions and values. And I'd like to think that the push and pull of our differences in opinion is what makes our democracy thrive.

Are our points of view so radically different nowadays that we need to choose our brand of laundry detergent based not on the intrinsic merits of the product but rather on who is contributing how much money to whom? If this be the case, marketing budgets may as well be under aegis of your company's Political Action Committee.

What do you think?

9 comments about "Should Our Products Be Marketed As Blue Or Red? ".
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  1. N A from RA, November 30, 2010 at 10:51 a.m.

    Let's see...a typical, left-wing rant must contain the following:

    Mention of George W. Bush. Check

    Mention of Glenn Beck. Check

    Mention of Sarah Palin. Check

    Mention of Fox News. Check

    Well that about does it. What an incredibly disappointing article. I was hoping for some actual information here that pertains to business/marketing and the effects of politics on brands.

  2. Lisa Pierce from Packaging Digest, November 30, 2010 at 11:24 a.m.

    Thought provoking, Thom.

    In this age of cause marketing and tired-of-being-taken-for-a-ride-consumerism, you're darn tootin' that some Americans will care about the political affiliation of the brands and companies they "support". Follow the money.

    For consumers, it's an issue of trust and shared values, things that marketers work hard to establish and protect.

    The internet and social media will make it easier, too, for people to uncover info about a company's political leanings. It'll be one more thing for marketers to try to manage and control.

    Or ... one solution would be for companies to stay out of politics, which is Thom's point, I believe.

    But, unless there's a more compelling reason to do that (like losing significant sales to disgruntled consumers or realizing that those political dollars aren't buying you squat), companies will continue to try to influence local, state and federal politicians with the coin of the realm.

    Cynical, perhaps. But realistic.

  3. Roberto Prado from Studio Roberto Prado, November 30, 2010 at 11:53 a.m.

    Let's see… a typical right-wing comment must contain the following:

    Mention the word rant to refer to the author's comments. Check.

    Deprecating attitude. Check.

    Mention of Glenn Beck. Check.

    Mention of Sarah Palin. Check.

    Mention of Fox News. Check.

    Well, that about does it. What more proof of the polarization of the nation could one want than that first comment. I was hoping for some actual statements here that pertain to the effects of politics on brands.

    But then, is there such a thing as a left-wing multinational corporation? Can there be dialogue with an idealogue? Um… no; and…ask the Taliban.

    As the nation's economic empire collapses on itself, ask yourself this: is it the fault of the poor buying houses they can't afford, is it the fault of labor unions bleeding those poor companies so that they had no choice but to outsource American jobs overseas, or is it maybe the fault of rapine greed and intolerant religous views that have broken this nation? As the political dialogue becomes ever more one-sided, the nation's biggest businesses have been recruited to support policies that have siphoned US capital into the hands of just a few people. The remainder of the nation is paralized by the thought of gay people, abortions and 5000 Mexican anchor babies. They are too busy foaming at the mouth to notice that they are giving away their own rights and giving the top 2% of the nation's wage earners a free ride, while systematically dismantling their own middle class. The US's Gini coeficient is now bracketed by Nigeria and Ecuador - the US is not even ranked with first world nations, and this happened in 2007, before the elections. As the nation becomes more fascinated with its political infighting, it is increasingly unaware of the fact that its pockets are being picked.

    This once-proud nation used to have the finest public education system in the world. Now a measurable part of your population believes the planet is just over 5000 years old, and demands to have that viewpoint upheld in textbooks. Do you really expect to remain competitive in the 21st century with such a willfully ignorant population?

    But all of that is irrelevant, because the current shift in economic power is re-shaping the planet's capital markets. Many well known brands will simply disappear. Example: East India Trading Company. Not a player today.

    I certainly would expect a good fight first, though.

    By the way, this is a rant, not an article. Am I left wing? Define left wing. I am European. We actually HAVE a left wing. We also have schools that teach history.

    P.S. By the way: Obama is not a socialist. Hitler was not a socialist. The US is, however, one of the most socialized countries in the world - you just give all those tax dollars to corporations and their CEO's, not your citizens. Proof: how many mortgages would a trillion dollars have helped, if the money had been given to the people with the mortgages, not the banks. While Citigroup was 23% owned by the US people, it's CEO kept his job, and was paid an over $100 million per year salary. (So he could keep his castle in Germany.) On what side of the political spectrum can we expect Citigroup, as a brand? To whom will they donate money?

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 30, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    A particular company has a particular view point and to demand a certain politician with their particular view point so they offer a free _______ (discount, coffee, bullets) if that person is voted into office. You know giving out a ____ is sooooo much cheaper than a regulation to prohibit their run off dumped into the river, e.g. Legal? probably. Ethical? Less than 2 years away from this happening federally. Perhaps the law should catch up before this Supreme Court allows more not so free corporate speech.

  5. Ian Straus from VIA Metropolitan Transit, November 30, 2010 at 12:38 p.m.

    I wish I lived in a world where if I buy Domino's pizza, I just get a pizza and Domino's gets money that they spend on goods they want.

    Unfortunately in the real world, I get a pizza and give away not only my claim to goods, but also a little of my claim to an equal voice as a free citizen.
    So why shouldn't I factor that into my buying decision?
    Now do you uderstand why it's been so many years since I bought a Domino's pizza? (Actual example).

  6. Chris Corbett from KMA Direct Communications, November 30, 2010 at 1:12 p.m.

    I was intrigued by the title and opening of this article, but am not sure where all that led.

    However, one point to add, which is perhaps reassuring, is that ideological feuding on a very deep level--with business intermingling with politics--has been going on in America since the founding. It's not new. In fact, our political and economic systems are set up with the assumption that such widespread ideological warfare will be the norm. The trick, as Hamilton and Madison stated in the Federalist Papers, is to acknowledge that reality and set up a system that accommodates it.

    So if anyone thinks the culture wars are new, they should check out some of the things that were going on in the 1790s, 1820s, 1850-60s, 1920s, etc.

    Perhaps our biggest danger is the utopian illusion that freedom is not a free for all--an illusion that can kill the keen sense of skeptical discernment among a citizenry that needs to be informing itself, debating, and wrestling with serious issues.

    I can cite at least two examples of such utopian impulses: the naive philosophy of John Paul Stevens, as cited in this article and which led to some pretty silly Supreme Court decisions, and the shallow and ultimately deceitful "post-partisan" promises of candidate Barack Obama in 2008, which we now know concealed an agenda more raw and partisan than many voters were led to believe.

    With that in mind, comment to Roberto Prado:

    One, the U.S. will be enjoying freedom and prosperity when Nigeria and Ecuador are still trying to keep their people from killing each other.

    Two, you are a shameless and ignorant religious bigot, but I'll fight to the death for your right to display yourself as one.

    Three, most big corporations give most money to the Democrats, because they know big government can do things for big corporations that no other entity can.

  7. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co., November 30, 2010 at 6:35 p.m.

    Sorry to disappoint those who were disappointed. I amend my original statement to "I hope to be half as cogent at 57 as Stevens is at 90."

    Sure, there have always been "culture wars," even if we didn't call them that. But about a century ago, the lure of advertising dollars -- first local retail, then national -- took the ideological bite out of most media, except in editorial pages, as publishers sought the largest audiences possible. Good? Bad? Matter of debate. Hope to continue it.

    As for the checklist, I'm sure to some additional items soon and look forward to reading other points of view in response.

    I do wish we could stop shouting at each other.

  8. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, December 1, 2010 at 4:31 a.m.

    Its hard for people in the market to keep track of what companies support what causes unless they shout it out too loud. So markets behave efficiently with this being only a slight factor.

    An exception would be Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, a product many consider high quality but that many will avoid paying for because the company management openly states they give part of their profits to left wing causes.

    Another exception (for some) would be Shell Oil, which blindly gives money to "women's groups" showing that their Dutch board members have zero understanding that a men's rights movement exists to fight many of those same groups and also needs money to do that. A divorced US man can buy gas from Shell and not know that he is paying for a press release about how child support payments need to be raised in his state). But at least Shell doesn't make TV commercials or shout their politics from the rooftops like Ben & Jerry's does.

    Shell just thinks feminist groups are legit "charities".

    The old media never tried to organize boycotts or let the public know which companies supported causes that were not in the interest of certain customers.

    However, the new media can start letting certain customer groups know when they are buying from (giving money to) corporations that work against their interest.

    I respect companies that stay out of politics and don't give to questionable charities.

  9. Amy Fanter from Odds On Promotions, December 8, 2010 at 5:33 p.m.

    I shop at Whole Foods because of an op-ed written by their CEO. I've cancelled subscription to the Grey Lady because she's turned a hideous blue. For too long people like me have stood idly by, cursed silently as we read the op-eds and saw tilted legislation and dirty backdoor deals go down. No longer! We don't expect people to give to charities when the mission conflicts with their values, so why should a product be any different. Why am I not surprized that this is only an issue now that the right is voting with their wallet?

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