When is a Personal Opinion a Business Practice?
Yesterday evening, my friend Cargill decided to poke the bear. In response to the internet vitriol over Chick-Fil-A, he tweeted the following:
Boycotting a business over their business practices is the democratic free market in action. Doing so over their personal opinions is not.
By boycotting a business over personal opinions, you are saying it is okay to threaten someone’s livelihood if they don’t think like you.
Let’s start by pointing out that Cargill isn’t a dick. Yes, he’s a Republican and I’m a left-of-Democrat liberal but he and I actually agree on most social political matters and even some economic ones. I don’t fully agree with him here, although I do see what he is saying and understand the point he’s trying to make.
He’s a good guy and he argues fairly. I’m not trying to take him down. He got me to think and that is a good thing. He’s very good at it.
But this isn’t an argument that could be fairly explored over Twitter.
The question is really this: what is a business practice and what is a personal opinion? Take this quote from Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-Fil-A:
We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that…we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.
The we in this quote is referring to the company and not just the family that owns it. This is part of their corporate culture. Their charitable arm regularly donates to anti-gay charities. While they may have no problem selling their product to homosexuals, their corporate opinion is that homosexuals should not be permitted to marry.
So, is it appropriate to boycott them because of their corporate culture?
Let’s reverse it. “One Million” moms is boycotting JC Penny because they don’t like the fact Penny’s is including pictures of gay couples in their mothers and fathers day ads. I may think that the people running “One Million” moms are assholes (I do) and have a misleading name (they do) but are they boycotting based on personal opinion or business practice?
I mean, the gay dads are right there in the ad.
While the advertisement doesn’t say “we here at JC Penny loves us the gay folk,” it certainly implied that thought.
Which means it implied that support of the gay “lifestyle” is something that the Penny’s corporate culture is OK with.
So…is boycotting JC Penny “threatening someones livelihood because they don’t think like you” or is it protesting business practices you don’t agree with? Or is it both?
Honestly, I’m not sure that I agree with the basic premise that boycotting a company because they don’t think like me is not the democratic free market in action. The democratic free market means I’m going to do business with the people with whom I choose to do business.
Now, if I choose to do business with Chik-Fil-A because I like their chicken, that’s fine. If I choose to avoid their business because I don’t like the idea of my money supporting anti-gay charities, that is also fine.
If “One Million” moms chooses to do business with Macy’s rather than JC Penny because they don’t want their money paying Ellen Degeneres’ endorsement fee, they can do that too.
I don’t view it as bullying. Both companies have made the decision as a corporation to take a stand on an issue and as a result, they have to expect that the public will exercise their first amendment rights to respond to that stand in whatever legal way they see fit. That includes a boycott.
To me, though, the question of whether or not a boycott constitutes a misuse of the free market system is not an interesting question.
The more interesting question is this: does it work?
Penny’s hasn’t backed away from having Degeneres as a spokesperson. Chick-Fil-A hasn’t backed away from donating to anti-gay causes. I don’t think they will, either.
Penny’s is getting more business from pro-gay and gay shoppers because of their stance. It probably far outweighs the loss of business they might experience from anti-gay individuals who are boycotting the chain.
Chick-Fil-A is experiencing the opposite.
In a country that is still fairly evenly divided on the subject, I don’t see how either boycott will impact their bottom line. Especially given that most people in our country are so uninformed, they will have no idea that either boycott even exists.
So while I disagree with Cargill’s basic premise on the grounds that the boycotts are focused on business practices and I think it would be OK to boycott them even if that wasn’t true, I do believe the boycotts themselves are not going to be effective.
If I choose not to eat at Chick-Fil-A, I make that choice because it is something that makes me feel better about how I’m spending my money. If I make that choice simply to “stick it to The Man,” I’ve accomplished nothing. “The Man” has not been stuck. They are still selling lots of chicken tenders and donating lots of money to anti-gay causes.
A boycott is not going to make Dan Cathy less of a dick. Even if it convinces him to keep his mouth shut about gay marriage, he’s still going to work against it and he’ll still have millions of dollars to do it.
What needs to happen is to change minds. How do you change Dan Cathy’s mind? How do you change the minds of “One Million” moms?
That is a harder question. But it is the right question to ask.
I may disagree with Cargill’s point but we agree on one thing – the action being proposed will not have a measurable impact. There are better ways to spend our time.
If you want to take your business to KFC, do that. But then you have to ask yourself, what else am I going to do?