In 1991, the reigning family values brand, Disney, made a choice to allow a gay themed day at their entertainment park in Orlando. The organizers expected about 15-20 people to show up initially, but pre-event publicity, which included a stinging backlash from some conservative organizations, helped drive attendance to over 1000 people. Since then, “Gay Days” has grown into an entire week each year at the park.
Fast forward to this month in central Pennsylvania where a local Chick-fil-A donated some sandwiches to a meeting of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, well-known for it’s stand against same-sex marriage. In a society that is undeniably more tolerant of gay lifestyles than 20 years ago, the battle lines were again drawn, with a national brand caught in the middle.
So what do Mickey Mouse and chicken sandwiches have in common? Artful dodging, for one.
Though two decades apart, both brands have done a savvy job of creating a degree of separation from the controversial issue, while undoubtedly knowing they are really fully engaged in taking sides. Gay Days at Disney is not an officially sanctioned event. Disney does not promote it directly, though they do help facilitate it with event signage. GaysDays.com claims that it is the world’s largest gay and lesbian event, and now has many prominent brands as partners or sponsors including DoubleTree Hotels, Bud Light, esurance, and the Florida Department of Health.
Chick-fil-A makes no secret of its Christian values, stating them clearly in their “official statement of corporate purpose,” saying that the business exists “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” The recent dust-up over free sandwiches promoted this statement on the Chick-fil-A Facebook page: “At his discretion, the local Operator agreed to simply provide a limited amount of food. Our Chick-fil-A Operators and their employees try very hard every day to go the extra mile in serving ALL of our customers with honor, dignity and respect.”
Translation of both the Disney and the Chick-fil-A positions? “It wasn’t us, it was them, but we’re OK with it.” You can bet, however, that both brands are keeping a careful eye on the meter that measures the key element for any controversial decision:
More specifically, outrage that is sufficient to lead to a noticeable decrease in revenue, through conscious customer avoidance of the brand. The fact is, most boycotts don’t work, because there is not sufficient outrage to drive them. But there are instances where they do.
Researchers Phillip Leslie and Larry Chavis, from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, studied sales data from the American boycott of French wine launched in early 2003 in angry response to France’s opposition to the war in Iraq. (Their refusal to allow American military planes in French airspace was the centerpiece of our outrage.) According to the school’s web site, their analysis showed a 26 percent drop in French wine sales in the United States at the peak of the boycott, and an average 13 percent drop over the six months of the event.
C’est la vie. It was an effective boycott and it even spawned a silly attempt to rename French fries “Freedom Fries.” But it was driven by raw patriotism and our desire for retribution to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Pretty powerful stuff.
And that’s really the point. Even in our hyper-connected world, outrage can be hard to come by. What if I told you that…
… an American company named Secure Computing supplied the technology to the Tunisian, Saudi and possibly Iranian governments that has allowed them to censor the Internet content their citizens can access? Never heard of them? Well, in 2008 the better-known brand McAfee bought them. Is McAfee likely to lose anti-virus software sales because they indirectly support political oppression?
…the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Hilton Worldwide paid $75 million last year to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide in a settlement relating to a corporate-espionage lawsuit. Starwood accused Hilton officials of stealing confidential Starwood documents to develop a new boutique-style chain, the paper said. Will Hilton’s room nights drop off because of this transgression?
I doubt it on both counts. There’s just not enough outrage.
For the most part, brands are not so much amoral as they are apolitical, meaning they try to appeal to all sides by appealing to none in particular. They stay above the fray, only entering it with caution and deniability as in the Disney and Chick-fil-A examples above. Disney could have pulled back from their support of Gay Days if public pressure had grown unbearable. And Chick-fil-A stayed sufficiently neutral to allow them room to maneuver away from controversy. While both brands probably lose some sales over their positions on a hot topic, their careful approach has kept their PR departments busy, but their revenues intact.