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The Chik-fil-A Flustercluck: What’s Next?

The Chik-fil-A Flustercluck: What’s Next? July 31, 2012

For all the buzz about “boycotting” Chik-fil-A, we haven’t really seen anything that formally organized yet.

Basically, thus far, what we’ve seen is a big corporation telling part of the public that “We don’t want your money here,” and that part of the public unsurprisingly responding “OK, then, you can’t have it.”

This latest corporate flustercluck is mostly following the standard script for what happens when a business decides to fire off a volley in the culture wars on a matter wholly unrelated to its actual business.

Smart businesses don’t do this. When you politicize and polarize your non-political product, you reduce the overall pool of potential customers.

Think of the Ronald McDonald House. Even if you view McDonald’s support for its flagship charity as nothing more than a cynical PR ploy to purchase good will with the public, you have to acknowledge that it works. Named after the World’s Least-Funny Clown, this charity aids and comforts the families of sick children. Who could possibly object to that? The philanthropy boosts good will toward the company without alienating any potential customers.

Or think of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the philanthropic focus of rival fast-food chain Wendy’s. It promotes adoption for foster children. Who’s against foster children? No one. (Well, actually, pretty much everyone. The deck is mightily stacked against these poor kids from the get-go and they’re always first in line for budget cuts. But what I mean is that no one harbors a visceral antipathy to foster kids. In the abstract, at least, everyone is in favor of them.)

Shrewd businesses that rely on a broad consumer base tend to support innocuous, utterly unobjectionable charities. If you’re starting a new fast-food chain, I’d suggest making a big show of your philanthropic support for, say, Alex’s Lemonade Stand. If you come out in favor of research to fight childhood cancer then you’ll appear more favorable to everyone else who favors that. And you know who favors research to fight childhood cancer? Everybody. You won’t have to worry about losing the business of people who are pro-childhood leukemia because no one is pro-childhood leukemia.

(Yet. Eventually it will occur to the tea partiers that “Obamacare” is anti-childhood cancer, and that means they’ll have to be for it and we’ll start seeing pro-leukemia rallies across the country. I’m not joking. We’ve already seen rallies vehemently opposing medical care for poor children, and elected officials “proudly” prohibiting medical aid for families who can’t afford it. So we should expect the right wing eventually to be as explicitly pro-leukemia as it already implicitly is.)

Chik-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy seems to subscribe to a marketing plan modeled on the sort of political campaign that thinks it’s more important to “fire up the base” than to try to win over swing-voters and independents. He’s banking on the idea that by telling LGBT customers to take a hike, he’ll see an increase in the enthusiasm of the anti-gay teavangelical Chik-fil-A fans who currently provide a big chunk of his company’s revenue.

That’s possible, in the short run. But in the long run it seems self-destructive. Enthusiasm wanes, but customers can carry a grudge forever — particularly when it’s a deeply felt and completely legitimate grudge.

So again, this seems to be following the standard script. Chik-fil-A will take a short-term PR hit which will eventually fade somewhat, but millions of customers will be reluctant to eat there ever again as Chik-fil-A comes to occupy in their minds the same space as Domino’s pizza or Brawny paper towels — a right-wing company that has declared itself an enemy of their interests, their families and their freedoms.

Chik-fil-A has also secured for itself an enduring status as a punchline, a joke. That ensures that its brand will, for a long time to come, be associated with prudery and bigotry. Like all big companies, Chik-fil-A has spent millions over the years trying to make its brand “cool.” The “eat more chicken” billboards with the cows were an effective campaign to make the brand seem friendly, funny and likable. The company seems determined to undo all of that, cementing a reputation as unfriendly, unfunny, unlikable and the epitome of uncool.

That will likely prove expensive in the long run. Which means the company may soon realize that it needs to find a way of undoing its own undoing of its reputation.

And that means that an actual boycott could be particularly effective here. A boycott demanding a specific, focused change from the company would have a good chance of achieving that change because it would also, in a sense, be throwing Chik-fil-A a lifeline — a way to clean up the PR mess it has made for itself.

Now, this isn’t up to me and no one has any reason to seek or to heed my advice. But I’m a blogger, after all — tossing out unbidden and unwarranted advice is my job. So below the jump is a hasty sketch of what I would do if I were organizing a boycott against Chik-fil-A.

1. Set aside the comments made by executives and focus on the financial support the corporation is providing to anti-gay political efforts. Two reasons for that. First, comments made by executives don’t really work as the focus of a boycott. “The CEO must stop saying stupid things!” isn’t the kind of specific, measurable demand that a boycott can effectively address. A boycott could demand that a CEO resign, but that’s unlikely to inspire broad public support unless the CEO in question is guilty of something seriously criminal. (Plus, keeping a chastened CEO in his post is sometimes more effective than scalp-collecting.) And second, it’s Chik-fil-A’s financial support for anti-gay lobbying groups that is the real, tangible harm here. So I would focus the boycott on stopping that tangible harm.

2. Some of the groups Chik-fil-A supports hold anti-gay beliefs. Others are dedicated to an anti-gay agenda. This distinction matters quite a bit. It undermines the argument against Chik-fil-A to confuse the two groups. The Family Research Council is a hateful, pervasively political group dedicated to denying civil rights and legal protections for LGBT people.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is not like that. FCA is not a political organization or a lobbying group. It’s something more like Campus Crusade for Christ. It’s run by conservative evangelicals who all seem to believe the weird set of urban legends about sexuality that most conservative evangelicals believe, but that’s not the group’s focus. It’s focus is on proselytizing and on putting a Tebow in every huddle, not on using power politics to do others harm.

Don’t misunderstand me. If the question were “Is FCA anti-gay?” then then answer would be a clear yes. And God have mercy on any LGBT young person who gets caught up in that “ministry.” But that’s not the primary or secondary focus of either the group itself or of its supporters. Donors to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — including Chik-fil-A — contribute to the group in order to support its “muscular Christianity” and its proselytizing. If you want to promote an anti-gay legal agenda you don’t give money to the FCA, you give it to the Family Research Council. Which leads us to my next point.

3. The Family Research Council hates LGBT people. It hates them and it works hard to hurt them at every turn. The Family Research Council is a far, far bigger threat to the LGBT community than Chik-fil-A will ever be.

FRC’s crimes against its neighbors include telling hateful lies about LGBT people every day, 24/7, in every media outlet and every media platform it can find. It tells those lies to promote hate — to stir up anti-gay sentiment and spread it as widely as possible so that they can solicit funds from anti-gay donors and so that they can use those funds, in turn, to influence legislation. The legislation FRC supports denies civil rights and legal protections to LGBT people. It hurts them. It changes the law so that the law will hurt them. That makes the Family Research Council a much worse enemy of LGBT people than Chik-fil-A. So let’s put the focus on them. Let’s go upstream and use this boycott opportunity to make the corner boys roll over on the bosses.

4. Given all the above, the specific goals I would set for this boycott would be: 1) A public apology for supporting the Family Research Council and its affiliates, because financial support for a hate group is unacceptable; and 2) A corporate policy restricting charitable contributions from going to political lobby groups.

The apology is necessary because an apology is called for, but it’s also an effective reminder that the Family Research Council is shameful and that even associating with the FRC is shameful. Decent people do not give money to the Liar Tony Perkins.

The change in policy would prevent Chik-fil-A from using its foundation to funnel money to political groups and to political action against its neighbors. It’s a post-Citizens United world, of course, so Dan Cathy could simply turn around and create a “super pac” that he could use to secretly pour company profits into whatever anti-gay political efforts he saw fit to support. But the change in policy would deal a blow to the idea that anti-gay politics somehow counts as “charity.” And it would deal another blow to the FRC by setting a precedent against their claim to be philanthropic.

5. I think Chik-fil-A could be persuaded to take that deal as one of the few options they have for damage control at this point. They don’t seem to be interested in such options right now, but a few more weeks of doubling-down and seeing how much worse that makes things for them will likely persuade them otherwise.

It may seem that this bargain let’s Chik-fil-A off too easy. Frankly, I’d accept letting Chik-fil-A off easy if that also meant shifting the pressure onto the Family Research Council. But here’s the thing about boycotts — they linger. Back in the 1990s, one activist nun told me that her congregation still avoided California table-grapes. If a boycott is based on a legitimate grievance, then the negative associations with the product will endure long after the organizers’ demands are met.

In exchange for the policy change and the apology, organizers would call an official end to the official boycott. But those millions of people reluctant to patronize right-wing, anti-gay businesses would remain reluctant to eat at Chik-fil-A. And comedians looking for the epitome of bigoted prudery will still be using the chain’s brand as a punchline. So I’m not really sure this bargain would let them off that easy.

"Filking this away for future use.Edit: Filing, not filking."

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