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Newsletter: Consumers are increasingly cool with companies playing politics

Chick-fil-A is known for upholding conservative values.
Chick-fil-A is known for its conservative values. Researchers say political ideology isn’t necessarily a turnoff for consumers, although a conservative stance may be viewed more skeptically by some than a liberal bias.
(Getty Images)

I’m Business columnist David Lazarus, with a look today at the impact of businesses wearing their political leanings on their sleeve.

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The thinking used to be that politics was to be avoided in the corporate world, at least as far as customers are concerned. Displaying your political leanings, conventional wisdom suggested, could backfire by alienating some people and hurting sales.

Times have changed — or so a new study in the Harvard Business Review concludes.

“The previously held taboo of crossing commercialism with politics may be well gone,” wrote James R. Bailey and Hillary Phillips, co-authors of the study.

“Overall, these results reveal a societal shift about what is and is not acceptable for companies to endorse.”

Perhaps the most surprising finding is how a company’s political ideology is perceived by consumers.

Participants in the study who were told that a company had conservative values “viewed it in a significantly worse light,” with favorable opinions dropping by 33%.

“The company was not only seen as less committed to social responsibility and its community, but also as less profitable,” the researchers said. “Participants were 25.9% less likely to buy its products and 25.3% more likely to buy from a competitor. In addition, job seekers were 43.9% less likely to apply for a position there.”

How about if a company had a perceived liberal bias? This was viewed by participants “as neither good nor bad,” according to the study. “There was no significant change in any opinions or intended behaviors.”

The researchers observed that “liberal advocacy” is viewed by many consumers — particularly younger ones, who comprised the majority of study participants — as “merely normal business.”

“Perhaps this can be explained by our supposition that political advocacy has been absorbed to the extent that it is seen as a natural extension of a business model,” they wrote.

This is intriguing on a couple of levels. First, there’s the growing acceptance that businesses have a right, and perhaps even an obligation, to make their political positions known. For some consumers, this can be a decisive factor in deciding where to spend their money.

Second, there’s the finding that a conservative corporate outlook can be more difficult for a company than a liberal one.

This apparently reflects a growing sense among some consumers that businesses should have a commitment to social responsibility, and that conservative positions on issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage may not jibe with many people’s opinions.

The bottom line, however, is that such conclusions need to be taken with a grain of salt.

The researchers noted there are five restaurants in one of the food halls at George Washington University. “Four of them are either individually owned or small chains,” they wrote. “The fifth is a Chick-fil-A, famous for its conservative values.”

There’s “hardly ever a line” at the first four restaurants. “At Chick-fil-A there is always one, stretching as far as 30 people.”

What does this tell us? That politics is one thing. A darn good chicken sandwich is something else entirely.

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Now then, here are a couple of recent stories from our pages worth highlighting:

Democracy by influencer: The Bloomberg 2020 operation is hiring more than 500 people at a rate of $2,500 a month to text friends and post on social media in support of the former New York mayor and billionaire media mogul. These “deputy field organizers” are focusing their efforts on California. The campaign has not been picky in choosing messengers.

Danger, Will Robinson: In a test kitchen in a corner building in downtown Pasadena, Flippy the robot grabbed a fryer basket full of chicken fingers, plunged it into hot oil — its sensors told it exactly how hot — then lifted, drained and dumped maximally tender tenders into a waiting hopper. Welcome to the future of fast food.

Recalls

Kia joined its affiliate Hyundai in recalling thousands of vehicles in the United States because water can cause an electrical short and possibly a fire. The recall involves nearly 229,000 Sedona minivans from the 2006 through 2010 model years, as well as Sorento SUVs from 2007 through 2009.

Home Depot recalled whitewash chests of drawers over concerns that the furniture could topple over. The Home Decorators Collection Print Block 4-Drawer Whitewash Chest is unstable unless it is anchored to a wall, posing “serious tip-over and entrapment hazards” that could lead to injury or death.

Spare change

That passing Chick-fil-A mention above brings to mind this classic commercial from 1980 — back when commercials literally sang the praises of the product being sold. Not to be confused with all the times Col. Sanders would arrive on our TVs pushing his own bird (“There’s only one way to cook Col. Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that’s my way”), or the bizarre packaging of tuna fish as “chicken of the sea.”

Stay in touch
Let me know what you think of the newsletter. My email is david.lazarus@latimes.com, or you can find me on Twitter @Davidlaz. Also, tell all your pals to join the party.

Until next time, see you in the Business section.


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