Cookies & Politics: Consumer Advocacy
In my previous essay I discussed the company side of corporate advocacy. As noted in the essay, the group One Million Moms called for a boycott of Kraft in response to the rainbow Oreo. However, what motived my decision to write about consumer advocacy was the quandary faced by a friend of mine regarding Chick-Fil-A. On one hand, my friend really likes the food at Chick-Fil-A and has been a loyal customer for years. On the other hand, my friend is a supporter of same sex marriage and was dismayed to learn that Chick-Fil-A donated about $2 million to anti-gay groups in 2009. As might be imagined, my friend was worried that past purchases contributed (however insignificantly) to the company being able to make such donations. This sort of situation, obviously enough, raises some interesting moral concerns. I will start with an easy matter.
On the face of it, a person is free to decide whether or not to buy goods or services from a company based on their advocacy (or lack thereof). So, for example, if someone is pleased by the rainbow Oreo and decides to buy Oreos on that basis, then she has every right to do so. Likewise, if someone is displeased with what the rainbow Oreo stand for and decides to switch to another cookie, then he has every right to do so. After all, this is a matter of personal choice and can be seen as being on par with buying or not buying based on any factor—be it the actor shilling for the company or a taste preference.
It might be objected that buying or not buying based on advocacy would be unfair—after all, a person should buy based on the quality of the product or service and other such relevant factors rather than by the (alleged) irrelevant factor of company advocacy. The easy and obvious reply is that by entering into advocacy, the company has decided to make its advocacy a legitimate factor in purchasing decisions. If the company does not wish to be judged or impacted by its advocacy choices, then the only course of action (other than secrecy, which would seem to be morally dubious) is to not engage in that advocacy.
A more interesting moral problem is the issue of whether or not a person should buy from a company that engages in advocacy that s/he morally disagrees with. For example, a person who finds same-sex marriage morally unacceptable faces the question of whether to buy Kraft products in the light of the rain bow Oreo. As another example, a person who supports gay rights faces the issue of whether or not to patronize Chick-Fil-A.
This problem is similar to the matter of taxes addressed by Thoreau in his essay on civil disobedience. In this essay, he argued that people should not pay taxes to a state whose actions they found morally reprehensible. In Thoreau’s case, his concern was with the wickedness of slavery and what he regarded as an unjust war with Mexico on the part of the United States. As he saw it, a person has an obligation to at least not be a party to what s/he regards as evil. After all, a person who contributes to the doing of misdeeds bears some of the blame of those misdeeds. At the very least, the person’s involvement shows that they accept or at least tolerate those misdeeds.
In the case of the state, the consequences of not paying taxes tend to be fairly serious, at least for the typical citizen. It is also rather difficult for the average citizen to get beyond the reach of the state. As such, citizens should probably be given considerable slack when it comes to paying their taxes to states that do wicked things. After all, all states do wicked things and living out in the open ocean or on an ice sheet are not viable options for most folks.
Fortunately, the situation is considerably easier when it comes to companies that engage in advocacy. After all, there are generally many companies that offer similar goods and services. As such, it is relatively easy for a person to avoid contributing to cause that s/he finds morally unacceptable. For example, a cookie lover who is opposed to same-sex marriage can turn away from Oreos in favor of cookie that is no friend of gay rights. As another example, a person who favors gay rights can consume chicken from a company that does not contribute to anti-gay groups.
It might be countered that people should not have to make such choices. After all, it could be argued, by buying from those companies the consumer is expressing a preference for the product or service and not an approval of a specific moral or political agenda that the company might endorse.
The obvious reply to this counter is that while a person can patronize the company without supporting its advocacy, the customer is contributing in some minor way to that advocacy. For example, the money Kraft made from selling products paid for the creation of the rainbow Oreo. As another example, $2 million of the money Chick-Fil-A made from selling food was given to anti-gay groups.
It could be objected that very little of the money a company receives ever ends up in advocacy and each customer only spends a fairly small amount. If one were to calculate what, for example, the average Kraft or Chick-Fil-A customer spends per year and then take into account what percentage a company spends on advocacy, it would turn out that each customer would make a miniscule contribution. As such, to say that the customer contributes to the advocacy would seem absurd.
The reply to this is that even a miniscule contribution is still a contribution and the individual is thus responsible to that miniscule degree for advocacy conducted by that company (unless, of course, the advocacy money is somehow generated entirely from other revenue sources). As such, if someone opposed to same sex marriage bought Kraft food, s/he made some microscopic contribution to the rainbow Oreo. Likewise, if a person who is for gay rights ate at Chick-Fil-A, then s/he helped fund anti-gay organizations. Naturally, a person’s responsibility can be mitigated by legitimate ignorance. For example, I know people who had not heard about the rainbow Oreo or Chick-Fil-A’s donations until I mentioned these things.
Because being a customer of a company that engages in advocacy helps fund that advocacy, it would seem to follow that a person who regards the advocacy position taken by a company as immoral should not patronize that company. Otherwise s/he would be contributing to something s/he regards as wrong and that would certainly seem wrong.
That said, there is obviously the question of whether the person is right in his/her moral assessment. For example, if homosexuals are morally entitled to equal rights, then Chick-Fil-A would be acting wrongly in supporting groups that seem intent on denying gay rights. Kraft would, in contrast, be acting rightly in showing its support. In this scenario, boycotting Chick-Fil-A would seem right, but boycotting Kraft because of its support of gay rights would be wrong.