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"Kerry for President" as a Corporate Message?

  |  July 26, 2004   |  Comments

The Internet is having the greatest effect on politics since television. What happens when a brand is associated with censorship or repression speech?

Does corporate association with a public, political opinion affect shareholder value? Can mixing business and politics be good marketing? If Steve Jobs decided to give iPods to all the delegates at the Democratic Convention in Boston this week, would Republicans stop buying the devices and downloading music from the iTunes Music Store?

Slim-Fast seems to think people with weight problems will buy fewer of those shakes and meal bars because Whoopi Goldberg cracked some crude jokes involving the president's last name, and the vice president's first, at a recent Kerry fundraiser. According to CNN, her jokes caused "some conservative groups and GOP supporters [to threaten] to boycott Slim-Fast products if it did not take action." Goldberg makes tasteless commentary, Slim-Fast dumps her as a spokesperson. Spineless!

Or is it? A corporation chooses a spokesperson because she represents an image and appeal to a segment it wants to reach. If that person offends customers, terminating the agreement is perfectly reasonable, isn't it? That depends. If the person is accused of doing something illegal or immoral, the decision seems clear-cut. But is censoring an affiliate's political opinion in the corporation's best interest?

Against a backdrop of blogs and email alerts, no opinion or statement, especially if even slightly controversial, seems to go unheeded. Can a celebrity spokesperson's personal political preferences and opinions be separated from her sponsorship activities?

Why is making a political statement (albeit a crude one, in Goldberg's case) grounds for dismissal? Isn't Slim-Fast's brand all about taking charge of your life, your diet, and your health? Being responsible, taking charge, and participating in the political, democratic process seems perfectly compatible -- complementary in fact.

As Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, pointed out on NPR last week, it's not like the company didn't know what Goldberg's political views were. She's been an outspoken Democrat and Bush-critic for a long time.

So what might be going on? Naturally, we can only speculate as Crenshaw did on the radio. But Slim-Fast is located in Florida. Could its executives be under pressure from people other than its shareholders and customers? Might there be political forces at work that aren't immediately apparent?

Another recent example is "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's critique of the Bush administration. The film describes how the war in Iraq was influenced by big-business interests. Disney's unwillingness to distribute the film due to its political content clearly is an attempt to gag politically motivated speech. Given, as Crenshaw also points out, Disney is a primary distribution channel for several conservative and right-wing commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, there would be good reason to think an underlying agenda and motivation are at work.

What's the effect on a brand if it's viewed as being associated with censorship or repression of political speech? If Disney's objective was to limit Moore's message from reaching a big audience, the strategy backfired big time.

Moore couldn't have asked for a better backdrop to promote his anti-big-business message than casting himself as David battling Goliath. As for Disney, I just can't see how being perceived as trying to silence a guy making obvious left-wing political commentary helps build shareholder value.

Causes have long been used as a powerful marketing tool to attract defined market segments and to differentiate brands. Consider Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, always strongly associated with various social causes with a decidedly left-leaning political perspective. Or Howard Dean, who owes his success in the Democratic primaries almost entirely to the Internet and what amounted to a very effective viral marketing campaign.

Politics seems to have become more about marketing than open debate. As such, the Net is changing the face of politics.

What I question is when pulling the plug the way Slim-Fast did on Goldberg or Disney tried on Moore is an attempt to sanitize or gag open debate and political opinions. Does it engender confidence and trust among customers if a company is viewed as repressing free speech without actually declaring its political agenda or perspective? If Disney were to say, "We support the Republican agenda and will only develop programming with messages compatible with that agenda," one could discuss whether it's good business, but it would be honest and open. Given Disney probably won't do that, the question is whether attempting to suppress certain political speech works in its favor.

The interactive channel is having the greatest effect on politics since television. Arguably, it's a democratizing effect. Organizations such as MoveOn.org have a profound influence by counteracting the political establishment's one-way messaging.

Traditional marketers should pay careful attention to online get-out-the-vote and grassroots efforts. I believe they'll set the tone in the future for not only political discourse but also customer communications and marketing.

Support the political debate and free speech as part of your corporate culture and marketing strategy. You may choose to take a stand like Ben & Jerry's did and let the world know you care. Or you may choose not to. Either way, I'd like to see corporate America encourage personal expression and opinions among its spokespeople and corporate citizens alike.

Good corporate citizenship is good marketing. Everyone knows that behind the scenes, big corporations spend huge amounts of money to influence the political process. Let's encourage people to have their political opinions whether they're spokespeople or employees. Let's also encourage customers to engage in public discourse, to express their opinions and exercise their rights to free speech and to influence what direction this country should take.

My opinion is President Bush is doing untold harm to America. Having just returned from spending time in Europe, I'm greatly saddened by how the U.S., for the first time in my life, seems to be losing its moral leadership and respect in countries that have historically had enormous admiration for the U.S. and encouraged its role as a world leader.

So I say "Kerry for President," and we can discuss whether that's good marketing or not.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hans-Peter Brøndmo

Hans Peter BrØndmo has spent his career at the intersection of technological innovation and consumer empowerment. He is a successful serial entrepreneur and a recognized thought leader. His latest company, Plum, is a consumer service with big plans to make the Web easier to use. In 1996, he founded pioneering e-mail marketing company Post Communications. His recent book, "The Engaged Customer," is a national bestseller and widely recognized as the bible of e-mail relationship marketing. As a sought-after keynote speaker, he has addressed more than 50 conferences in the past three years, is often featured in national media, and has been invited to testify at two U.S. Senate hearings and an FCC hearing on Internet privacy and spam. Hans Peter is on the board of the online privacy certification and seal program of TRUSTe and several companies. He performed his undergraduate and graduate studies at MIT.

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