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The fight over corporate politics is just beginning

Americans are divided over whether corporations should take stands on big political issues. But younger people, a coveted segment, feel strongly they should.
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WASHINGTON — Anheuser-Busch announced a rough second quarter of 2023 last week: a 10.5% decline in revenue, one of many examples showing how the nation’s political and cultural fights have filtered into the world of corporate branding.

Much of the blame for the drop, which is primarily due to falling sales of Bud Light, is tied to a consumer boycott of the beer that began when it partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney for an Instagram advertisement.

New polling data suggests Americans feel a little uneasy about the growing world of consumer politics while also indicating brands’ taking stands may be with us for a while.

For the most part, Americans seem less than excited that companies are wading into the political realm, according to data from CNBC’s recent All-America Economic Survey.

About 6 in 10 Americans say they believe it is inappropriate for companies to take stands on political, social and cultural issues, according to the survey. A little less than a third of respondents say they believe such stands are appropriate. 

But as is the case with a many other topics in the U.S., those views change sharply when you look at the responses through a partisan lens. 

Among Republicans, there is a strong distaste for corporate issue stances: 71% say the practice is inappropriate, while just 17% say it is appropriate. Independent voters look like the overall figures, as is often the case, with 61% saying it is inappropriate and 33% saying it is appropriate. And Democrats are much more accepting of businesses’ taking issue stands. Only 43% of Democrats say the practice is inappropriate, while slightly more, 47%, say it is appropriate.

Of course, the stands companies take are only half the equation. The consumer response to such stands is the other side of things — and the data shows they are reacting.

Nearly half of Americans say they have boycotted brands because they disagreed with political or social stands the brands took. And about a quarter of Americans say they have bought products from companies specifically because the companies took political or social stands they agreed with.

Slightly more Republicans (59%) said they were likely to boycott than Democrats (44%). And Democrats indicated they were more likely to buy products to show support than Republicans, 29% compared with 23%.

Independents, perhaps the least likely segment to have a dog in the nation’s culture fights, were also the least likely to say they have done either thing. Only 32% of independents said they had boycotted brands, and only 17% said they had bought from brands specifically to show support.

This is more than just a “what if” exercise. This year, activists or politicians have called out several brands representing a variety of kinds of products for the stands they have taken.

Beyond the Bud Light boycott, Target faced a backlash from conservatives when the chain sold clothing and merchandise that was supportive of the LGBTQ community during Pride Month.

In the world of media, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was so unhappy with what he perceived as Disney’s “wokeness” that he tried to strip some of Disney World’s autonomy and longtime tax perks (only to be outmaneuvered, at least so far, by Disney). And Fox News faced anger from conservatives when it removed host Tucker Carlson from the air.

And in the world of food and beverages, Chick-fil-A faced online ire when someone on social media posted that the company had hired a new vice president in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion. (It turned out the company had already had someone in that position.) Meanwhile, Starbucks faced a call for a boycott from conservatives over an ad campaign that supported inclusion for transgender people.

Of course, boycotting or buying goods and services from companies isn’t a game everyone can play equally. When people or families live closer to the margins, what they buy is often more a matter of what’s in the bank account than personal beliefs. That may be one reason those with less money are more opposed to brands’ taking stands. They’d rather not be bothered.

Looking at different income levels, adults making less than $30,000 a year were the most likely to say it was inappropriate for companies to take stands on political, social and cultural issues, with 66% feeling that way. Those with the highest incomes, $75,000 or more, were more mixed in their feelings: 51% said such stands are inappropriate, and 41% said they are appropriate. 

The other income groups were between those two on the question, but there seems to be a growing sense that it’s appropriate for companies to take issue stands as incomes climb.

And regardless of how Americans feel about companies’ taking issue stands today, there is evidence that the practice may become more common. 

Among Americans ages 18 to 34, there are very mixed feelings about the practice — 48% say they think taking such stands is inappropriate, while 43% say they find it appropriate. Compare that to the gap among the oldest of those surveyed, those 65 and older.

Among those older Americans, 68% say they think it is inappropriate for companies to take such stands, while only 18% say it is appropriate. Americans ages 35 to 64 fell somewhere between the two poles.

In other words, younger adults, the consumers brands tend to prize most highly because they represent the future, seem to be more open to corporate issue stands. At the very least, they aren’t strongly opposed as a group. That suggests the age of brands’ taking social stands isn’t likely to end soon.

The issue is more complicated than partisan views or views by age group. Brands may take political, social or cultural stands for a variety of reasons. They may be driven by the strong feelings of their leaders. They may be trying to woo or retain employees. They may be brands with niche customer bases that desire specific social stands. Or it could be some combination of all three reasons. 

Regardless, 2023 has shown us how the nation’s red/blue culture wars have merged with the nation’s consumer culture. And even if they are uneasy with it, the data suggests both Democrats and Republicans have engaged on a new battleground that may be with us for some time.