In our present, politicized age, we’re seeing two things happen at once. First, multiple major corporations have stripped away any pretense of neutrality and are now openly on the progressive side of American political debates. Second, the vast majority of those corporations have paid no meaningful price for their progressive activism.
Just ask Nike.
Days after it announced a multi-million-dollar deal with Colin Kaepernick, prompting a minor stock dip and a torrent of stories detailing how foolish the company was to “alienate half its customer base,” its stock gained back all the losses and it was reported that its sales had actually “skyrocketed” in the days after it launched its campaign.
If you followed the online debate the announcement touched off, you might ask: How can this be? Conservatives seemed furious. People cut up their socks and burned their shoes. Nike had openly flouted Michael Jordan’s famous (and probably apocryphal) warning that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” and it had lived to tell the tale.
Yet If you think carefully and systematically about America’s cultural and economic realities, you shouldn’t be surprised that Nike could survive and even thrive amid a political storm of its own creation.
While America is divided politically, religiously, and ideologically, only a small fraction of Democrats and Republicans pay close attention to political news cycles. And only an even smaller fraction of that small fraction cares enough about politics to actually adjust its buying decisions or sacrifice even a little bit to send a political message.
If you’re reading this piece, you’re already among the most politically engaged citizens in the entire nation. Be honest, how many of you have bought a less attractive shoe, avoided a good movie, or even chosen on a less user-friendly web browser because you wanted to send a political message? If you have engaged in such a boycott, are you confident that there are more Americans who’ve done the same than there are “buycotters,” people who will actively patronize a controversial company in the face of the backlash? if anything, recent history shows that a proper buycott can sustain a corporation in the face of withering public attacks, because it’s simply more fun to treat yourself than to deny yourself. Just ask Chick-fil-A.
Besides which, with very limited (and often debatable) exceptions, it’s simply a fact that when there is sufficient demand for the products they sell, politically controversial corporations can endure considerable online backlash and continue to thrive. Just look at the corporate worth of the most progressive companies, including companies that have directly intervened in American culture wars: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Salesforce, Nike . . . they’re all worth far more today than they were five years ago.
There was a time when I thought there was at least one very important exception to the rule that products trump politics: the NFL. Last year a J.D. Power survey of 9,200 fans indicated that the Kaepernick-led national-anthem protests were the top reason why fans reported they watched fewer games the previous season. In response, I wrote a piece called “Politicize Sports, Pay the Price.” But then, as we received more information — about more sports — the picture grew considerably more cloudy.
It turns out that major sports that have shunned politics have also faced ratings and attendance declines. College football, perhaps red America’s most beloved sport, experienced ratings declines across multiple networks. Attendance at Major League Baseball games is at its lowest level in 15 years. Even Olympics ratings are falling.
Yes, there are individual exceptions. Put the Cubs in position to win their first World Series in a century, and more people will watch. A thrilling College Football playoff can draw more eyeballs — especially when no games are scheduled on New Year’s Eve. But the only major sports league that’s showing a real and broad increase in viewers just so happens to be the most political. The NBA is achieving unheard-of growth in a time of viewer fragmentation and cord-cutting. As I detailed in a piece earlier this year, viewership went up a whopping 20 percent on the major networks during the 2017-18 season, and 17 out of 30 teams saw growth in their local television packages.
Why? Yes, there some “buycotting” going on. The NBA has a heavy contingent of fans in blue America, some of whom no doubt thrill to Gregg Popovich’s rants and applaud LeBron James’s political stands. But, really, the product is just so much better than it used to be. Many of the league’s top stars are extremely likable, high-character family men. The game is fast-paced. It’s blessed with a number of transcendent athletes who are a joy to watch on the court.
You know the old saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”? In 2018, when you build a better mousetrap, you’ll get your chance to preach to the world. Corporate progressives know this very well. Conservatives need to learn it. If you’re going to use your corporate platform for political purposes, Jordans and iPhones can help you weather virtually any online storm.