I consider myself a very conscious, informed consumer, but I have always been very pragmatic about my purchase decisions. I can be swayed against a company if they are engaged in egregious ethical or human rights violations, but for the most part I’m willing to overlook many of the reasons that cause more ideologically-driven shoppers to boycott. As my former boss, Gunther H. Zimmer used to say, “business is business and schnapps is schnapps.” I’m not completely sure what he meant by that, but judging by the context in which he would utter that phrase, it described his philosophy on the separation of business and personal life.
But people keep and consult lists that identify businesses and brands based on their perceived ideology, and conscientiously boycott the products and services they offer when the company’s public position on issues differs from their own. And this, I confess, puzzles me a little.
For one thing, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to business, because I know that branding is an art and a science, and that it is almost always driven primarily by the bottom line. A few companies are well-known for applying their brand principles at all levels, but for the most part, a decision to identify or disassociate with any ideology is likely a cold, calculated decision based on vast amounts of data about the target demographic. And even if it’s a personal agenda put forth by the CEO himself, the only reason the company is still in business is that it wasn’t a bad decision, target market-wise.
Now, let’s take lists like the American Family Association’s War-on-Xmas-themed “naughty or nice” list. They’ve put a lot of effort into analyzing not only the Christ-related content of a retailer’s message, but the context of and frequency of the Christ-iness. And people are using that list while making purchase decisions — lots of them.
Tonight on Facebook I happened upon a post identifying a local snack manufacturer as bad, because they openly promoted religion on their packaging. Several others joined in the discussion, where I found this list of companies for atheists and freethinkers to avoid, based on their affiliation with, or promotion of, religious (Christian) values.
This is all well and good, and gives consumers the feeling that they are truly making a difference when they shop. But what if it’s only that — a feeling? What if the businesses in question are very aware that lists are being made, and have endeavored to align their marketing and ad copy in order to be included or excluded from these lists, based on whether or not they feel that the list-watching folks fit their target market? I remember once, while waiting for my tires to be replaced, I found a local directory of Christian businesses, and thought (cynically) wow, all you’d have to do to get in with these folks is slap a Jesus fish on your work truck and say Amen and Bless You a lot, and you could walk allll over those sheeples. Not that I wanted to do that myself, I just knew that in this world, there would be plenty of people who would.
Let me put it this way: if I were to base my purchase decisions on such idealistic things as whether or not I think the management shares my lack of religious views, theoretically, I’d be willing to put up with lower quality, slower service, higher prices, a less-friendly returns policy, any number of inconveniences, just so I could spend my money thoughtfully and with a purpose. And even if I did this, and sacrificed many consumer comforts in order to make my point, there is a very significant chance that the company’s public image was just that — an image, carefully crafted in order to appeal to me, the target consumer — and I’m not comfortable with that. It makes me far too easy to manipulate if I’m willing to overlook basic principles of service, value, and quality just because I think you agree with me.
We can insist upon a separation of church and state, but is it practical to expect separation of business and religious opinion? We are a world of many disparate faiths (or the lack thereof), and it seems impractical to insist on dividing ourselves rigidly along those lines in social and economic terms. No government agency should favor a particular religion in its activities, but can we really expect that all privately-held businesses must meet those same standards?
As far as I’m concerned, In’n'Out Burger can continue to hide tiny little bible passage references (just name of chapter and number of verse, no actual bible words) on the inner lip of the bottom of their soft drink cups, and I will continue to feel deliciously happy when eating their amazing, fresh, reasonably-priced food, rather than going a half mile down the street to McDonalds, no matter how many bible verses they omit from their wrappers.