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  • A marketer's guide to corporate political contributions

       August 20, 2010

    The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission brought out a bunch of hand wringing about how this was the end of fair elections and from now on seats would be bought by the corporate monoliths.

    One of the major criticisms of the decision was that it bestowed personhood on corporations. The counter argument is that corporations are already people - they're a group of people just like a newspaper or a union or a non-profit organization entitled to the same right to speech.

    To me, the flap over Target's $150,000 donation to MN Forward shows not only that this latter view of corporations is correct, but also vividly demonstrates the pitfalls of corporate political contributions and why the Citizens United decision really isn't the death of democracy after all.

    I think Target's executives decided to make the donation with a combination of thoughtlessness and arrogance. I think they made a personal decision that Emmer's social politics were either a) in line with their own and/or b) were dwarfed by MN Forward's general pro-business agenda. In doing so, they neglected to consider that many of the corporation's shareholders, employees and customers feel exactly the opposite - in fact, a corporation is actually made up on a large number of individuals with different opinions. Gasp. While shareholders empower executives to make business decisions, making political contributions on their behalf is taking that power too far. I expect that many corporations are going to have to write specific guidelines for corporate political contributions. It's not going to be as simple as writing a check to a charity.

    So as a marketer, here are some of my suggestions for corporations considering political contributions:

    • Don't do it.
    • No really, don't do it. How much more than $150,000 has Target spent to deal with its donation? Couldn't those hours have been put to more productive use, especially in the middle of Back to School season?
    • Okay, if you're pretty much a "one issue" company, then go ahead and make political donations. But, I'm defining "one issue" pretty narrowly. One issue isn't "retail" or "food". One issue is something like the example I've gone back to with Churchill Downs. CHDN can probably get away with making political donations to pro-gambling PACs and candidates. But only probably. What if that same pro-gambling candidate opposes anti-horse slaughter legislation? Wouldn't that upset lots of their shareholders and employees and customers? See how messy this gets? Okay, so again, maybe the answer is simply - don't do it.
    • So, to sum it up, don't do it

    Just because we can speak freely and donate freely doesn't always mean we should. That holds for individuals and certainly corporations too. I suspect that many corporations will still make political contributions and plenty of marketing and public relations people will spend much of their time cleaning up the ensuing mess.

    Posted by kris at August 20, 2010 12:56 PM

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