Almost two years ago, 20,000 Google employees staged a walk-out to protest Google’s handling of sexual misconduct in the workplace, an issue that hardly provokes ostensibly opposing positions. In today’s political climate, however, companies are being forced to take a stand on issues that don’t necessarily find common ground among Americans.
When Black Lives Matter protests erupted this summer, PR teams were quick to show their support through hashtags and creative logos. Despite the broad corporate support for the movement, a recent study shows just 55% of U.S. adults express at least some support from the movement, down from 67% in June (see chart). The same study showed that only 19% of Republicans express at least some support for the movement.
Companies are finding it harder to hold neutral ground even as taking a stand gets riskier and can alienate a large section of consumers. As per Sprout Social, a social media management platform, 70% of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on key issues, and 55% of all consumers say they would boycott brands supporting issues that don’t align with their own views. With companies in a tight spot, many are realizing that the public fallout from staying quiet is worse than picking a position that may upset segments of their consumer base.
More than just speaking out, companies are compelled to act. Last year, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, stopped selling ammunition for military-style weapons and asked customers not to openly carry firearms in stores. While most Americans favor stricter gun laws, Walmart’s decision was seen as left-leaning, drawing muted appreciation from Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and criticism from the NRA. In an August 2019 Gallup poll, 51% of Americans said they were against a law which would make it illegal to sell or possess assault rifles. The company is likely to alienate some of them, who may switch over to competing retailers, at least temporarily.
Brands that serve specific demographics will find it easier to anchor their position on the socio-political spectrum without risking backlash. When President Trump passed an order reducing the size of two national monuments in Utah, Patagonia, a clothing company, was quick to condemn the move with a message on its website offering little room for interpretation: “The President Stole Your Land”. This message was in lockstep with Patagonia’s brand and its environmentally-conscious consumer base, and hence an easy decision. In contrast, companies that rely on the appeal of a larger base may distance themselves from a message like that.
The abundance of misinformation around Covid-19 has made corporate inaction culpable. Social media platforms censored a post from the President that compared Covid-19 to the seasonal flu and took down an anti-mask video shared by Breitbart and retweeted by the President which promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus. Similarly, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have taken steps to limit the reach of QAnon, a conspiracy theory group, which has found support among Republican congressional candidates and even the President by way of his refusal to condemn it at a recent NBC town hall.
Companies that may have once tried to stay neutral on divisive issues are finding it harder to shy away from picking a side. With over 158 million votes cast, the 2020 General Elections saw the largest percentage turnout in over a hundred years. 22 million more people voted in 2020 compared to 2016. If political participation is any indication of America’s widening political cleavage, companies will soon, resigning to Dante Alighieri’s affirmation, find it impossible to maintain their neutrality in times of crisis.