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Why Chick-fil-A and Other Brands Aren't Being Bullied

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Breaking The Chains page and our Politics and Democracy page.

If brand managers controlled the universe, big companies would glide through the culture wars with safe and steady neutrality, never taking sides. Chief executive officers at high-profile companies would never pledge $2.5 million in support of gay marriage (as Amazon.com's (AMZN) Jeff Bezos did in July) or speak out publicly against same-sex marriages (as Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy did recently in an interview with Biblical Recorder). "If you're a big publicly held company, you don't want to piss off anybody on any side of any issue," says Claudia Caplan, the chief marketing officer of RP3 Agency. "You want to be Switzerland."

In 2012, with cable-TV news producers and social media instigators constantly on the prowl for new controversies to inflame, it's never been easier for a discontented group to launch a boycott of a brand and to recruit like-minded consumers. Yet, despite the wishes of marketing advisers everywhere, big brands are enraging consumers left and right. The website Ethical Consumer lists dozens of active boycotts targeting the likes of Adidas (ADS), Bacardi, Barclays (BCS), Burberry (BRBY), Caterpillar (CAT), Estée Lauder (EL), H&M (HMB), and on and on.

If there's any solace to shareholders, in the endless push-and-pull between company critics and corporate defenders, the media environment seems lately to have handed an unlikely advantage to brands. Not long ago, boycotters were often more skillful at spreading their message on the Web or via Twitter and Facebook (FB) than the corporations they were targeting, says Wayne Arnold, global CEO of Profero, a digital ad agency. He cites Nike (NKE), where a decade ago Web-savvy critics of its labor practices skillfully used search engine optimization to inundate the Internet with negative portraits of the shoemaker. If you typed "Nike" into Google (GOOG), recalls Arnold, the first page of organic search results would be filled with links to sites critical of the company's ethics and largely absent of counteracting information from the brand. 


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