Keep it to Yourself

You know that old caution about discussing religion and politics? Nowhere is that advice more relevant than in the marketplace.

By Anthony Noel

Waiting among stoplight traffic the other day in a nearby city, I noticed an SUV lettered to promote a business. It was obvious the messages were carefully composed for maximum impact, and equally clear the text had been professionally applied.

Then I noticed something else, something that made me wonder why the company had bothered with the rest of it. Plastered in an upper corner of the rear window was a political bumper sticker.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid!!" I thought. (And I can assure you my reaction had nothing to do with the sticker's message.)

It has been said that in almost any discussion between two or more people, the surest path to disagreement is the broaching of one of two subjects: religion and politics. And like it or not, marketing is a discussion.

Here was someone who took his business seriously enough that he not only carefully considered which message would most effectively promote it, but also went the extra step of having that message presented professionally. In short, he left as little to chance as possible, in this particular marketing effort.

Then he turned around and threw the dice. Big time. He gambled that a political message would not alienate potential customers.


The political divisions in this country are stark; that's no secret. Red states. Blue states. The discourse from both sides is increasingly laced with provocative statements that only aim, most often, to provoke. In a climate such as this - where nearly every political discussion quickly devolves into a shouting match - where is the logic in turning off maybe half of your target clientele?

Some may argue that it's a free country.


That their business is theirs to run as they see fit.

Also true.

And that if a potential customer has a problem with their stated political leanings, that is the potential customer's problem.

Well, not quite. Because it is money out of the business' coffers. And less money coming in is a problem for any business - any serious business, at least.

Many business owners contribute to political parties. Others take an even more activist role in politics. That's great. The money you make is yours to spend however you please. But when you advertise your political beliefs on a company vehicle, in company literature or as part of any other company marketing effort, well, that's just not very bright.

What is smart is realizing that every customer's money spends the same. If you are really sincere about supporting a particular political stance, ask yourself this: Isn't it wiser to make as much money as you can from every customer, regardless of his or her politics, than it is to limit your income potential by offending a segment of your target market simply because you put a bumper sticker on your car?

Those who still see this as no big deal might be surprised to learn of the lengths to which the major parties are now going in efforts to hit their opponents where it hurts most: their checkbooks. One case in point is, a Web site that calls itself "a concerted effort to lift the veil of corporate patronage, so consumers can make informed buying decisions that coincide with their principles."

The site grew out of an idea posted online the day after the 2004 election, by a blogger named Karma Mechanic. It was actualized by a well-intentioned but misguided (my opinion) group of Democrats, who apparently have forgotten a key caution contained in one of the founding blogger's posts: "What I agree with most is that we should keep this as a positive operation. Revenge against red states might seem like a good idea right now, but negative energy will only serve to alienate people in the end."

That's a very nice idea, but human nature doesn't support it. However its founders may try to position it, BuyBlue and similar efforts, given the current political climate, are weapons pure and simple.

Please understand that I'm not trying to talk politics here. We can all rest assured that a similarly misguided effort is afoot on the other side of the political wall (FYI, it ceased being a fence a long time ago).

My purpose is not to analyze the tone of such efforts. Rather, it is to provide further proof that the wall exists - a high, thick wall, with contentious fools (read: pundits and talk-show hosts) in the watchtowers. The point here is that by voluntarily signaling which side of that wall you are on, you take the very real chance of harming your earning potential.

To coin a phrase: It's economics, stupid!

Wearing your politics on your marketing sleeve is a choice. You can choose to purposely use your business in efforts to bring about change, without concern about alienating a significant portion of your audience. If you make that choice, more power to you.

But there's another business in which you can do the same thing, one in which you stand less chance of alienating those you count on for support. It's called politics.

So maybe what you really need to decide is this: What business are you in?

Anthony Noel is a management consultant and has written the "Management Strategies" column since 1994. E-mail him at



Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.