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The Consumer’s Political Influence (Craig Douglass On Consumers)

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Political consumers. Just one segment of consumerism, they are defined as those who purchase or choose not to purchase for political reasons certain goods and services. And those reasons could vary from a corporate brand’s reputation to the type of ingredients in, access of raw materials for or the workforce used to produce or deliver the product. Or it simply could be one group’s disagreement with another over moral responsibilities.

The variable in this equation is whether consumers can influence politics and policies that could affect the provision of goods and services in a capitalist democracy. Academicians and market watchers will throw into the query the fact that ours is a free-market economy based on private enterprise — but fully understanding the government’s role balancing personal and collective freedoms with the public good through laws, rules and regulations. Attempting a level playing field is where politics come in.

We look to research to begin answering the questions. One would think that advertising intrinsically influences consumer decisions, encouraging us to buy a particular product or service. The fact is that corporations spend millions of dollars annually to research consumer preferences. This research is implemented in several ways, including consumer surveys, tracking purchasing behavior, following social media and conducting focus groups.

What savvy marketers do is simply play back to consumers what they want in the form of product development, product performance, packaging, pricing, promotion and distribution. Consumers often drive marketers, rather than the other way around.

The above is an example of an internal dialogue between brand and consumer. Where the politics may come in is when the brand’s behavior is negatively perceived by a group of consumers who find that behavior offensive. This becomes an external discussion that can rouse the conscience of discerning consumers. But this occurs in limited circumstances.

One example is athletic shoes, or other garments and consumer products, being made offshore in sweatshops by child labor. Those products suffer in the marketplace when this type of abhorrent manufacturing policy is discovered and exposed. Case studies of this type covered by The Washington Post included Nike. When college student organizations began to boycott the brand due to abusive worker conditions, Nike quickly required its overseas suppliers to live up to American labor standards.

Political reputations may also be an influence. The Post study highlighted several instances where retailers carrying products with the Trump brand — everything from wine to clothing to jewelry — discontinued sales. There were surely instances where those brands enjoyed some sales increases among supporters, although some of those luxury brands appeared not to appeal to the MAGA voter. Remember, too, when there was news-leading publicity about Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby and their LGBTQ stance. They were either shunned by those who did not agree or embraced by those who did.

Recently, we’ve seen an example in Arkansas. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Walton Family Foundation, Acxiom, LiveRamp, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and others recently signed a friend-of-the-court brief to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The brief argues against the state attorney general’s appeal of a court ruling that blocked Arkansas’ prohibition on gender-transition treatment for minors.

The Legislature approved the prohibition in 2021, after overriding a gubernatorial veto. That veto was a response, in part, to opinions by many Arkansas business organizations that the law could hurt the recruitment of workforce talent to the state. The brief reaffirms that fear, and goes on to state that the law, if allowed to stand, could harm not only commerce but families as well.

These pressures from consumers and corporations can be found on issues of labor, consumer products, the environment and health care. It’s consumerism at work.

Consumers when organized have tremendous power. Never mind that consumer spending makes up roughly 70% of the American economy. It can also guide politics and political behavior.

Craig Douglass serves as executive director of the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County.
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