Are Consumers Motivated by Politics?

April 30, 2012, 5:25 PM GMT+0

In a recent New York Times article, Thomas Edsall documents the extent to which Democrats and Republicans differ not only in their political views, but also their day-to-day lifestyles—the cars they drive, the restaurants they frequent, and even the beers they drink. But do these differences reflect politically-motivated consumer decisions? In other words, are Republicans more likely than Democrats to drink Coors Light because the Coors Corporation donates to Republican candidates and causes?

We asked a sample of 1000 YouGov respondents about the influence of politics on their buying habits. When asked about the various factors influencing their purchasing decisions, just 23% considered the political leanings of a company to be “extremely” or “very” important, far less than factors like price (77%), quality (85%), or convenience (55%). Just 12% of respondents said they “always” or “often” consider the political leanings of a company in their purchasing decisions.

Moreover, when asked to identify the political leanings of several companies—Coors, Costco, Domino’s Pizza, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Wendy’s, Hilton, and Marriot—few people had a clue. Just 11% of respondents correctly guessed Domino’s Pizza leaned Republican, 10% correctly identified Costco as Democratic-leaning, and fewer than 9% thought Wendy’s was Republican-leaning. Starbucks was the most likely to be correctly identified, with a still-paltry 26% saying it was Democratic-leaning. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, each of these companies or their owners gave more than 90% of their political donations to one party or the other between 2004 and 2008.

Overall, then, it seems that the lifestyle differences observed by Edsall may reflect not deliberate political consumerism on the part of the public but simple demographic differences in the clientele of various companies. In looking at the alcoholic beverage preferences of Democrats and Republicans, for example, Edsall asks, “Who would have guessed that the most Democratic drink by a long shot is Cognac?” Yet, it’s not actually that surprising given that African Americans are the core consumer base of Cognac, and they tend to be a loyal Democratic voting bloc. Likewise, patrons of Bob Evans restaurants likely skew Republican simply because it is a Midwestern chain that’s a favorite among senior citizens. In many cases, then, knowledge of consumer choices offers little more than imperfect demographic and geographic indicators.

That said, there are reasons to believe that political consumerism is becoming a more important form of political participation. First, in easing the restrictions on political giving by corporations, Citizens United has also increased scrutiny of corporate political donations. New websites have emerged with the aim of disclosing the political activities of major companies. Second, social media and political blogs can provide the necessary organizing force to successfully coordinate consumer boycotts – a lesson recently learned by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Target, and Best Buy. Bloggers on both sides of the aisle now maintain boycott lists to make it easier for like-minded readers to choose or avoid certain companies because of their political leanings [see, e.g., here and here]. Finally, while consumer boycotting remains uncommon—25% of the YouGov sample said they had personally boycotted a company or product in the last 12 months for political, environmental, or moral reasons—it is actually more common than many other types of political activity. For perspective, the 2008 American National Election Study found that just 13% of Americans had made a political donation, 9% had attended a political meeting, and 4% worked for a party or campaign. It may well be that the more visible role of corporations in politics will encourage more people to give political voice to their consumer dollars.