August 1, 2012
Chick-Fil-A, Boycotts, & the Power of Brands
How a chicken sandwich came to symbolize so much more, and why it's a problem.
It’s been about two weeks since Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, made his now infamous comments about marriage during a radio interview. "I pray,” he said, “God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.” Whatever one thinks of Cathy’s original comments, it’s clear that his words set off a storm of hot air and lightening-fast judgments. My own mayor – rather ridiculously in my opinion – jumped quickly into the fray suggesting that no more Chick-fil-A franchises be allowed in Chicago until the restaurant “reflect Chicago values.”
The Chick-fil-A craziness has reminded me of a summer during college when I interned at a Southern Baptist church in the suburbs of Washington DC. This remains my closest association with the Southern Baptists and it’s one I remember happily despite being regularly reminded that I was a visitor to the SBC culture. This crystallized when I learned of the congregation’s discussion about participating in their denomination’s boycott of the Walt Disney Company. My denominationally unaffiliated self had been unaware of the possibility of a boycott and the reasons behind it.
With the Disney and Chick-fil-A boycotts there are two ideologically opposite groups calling for boycotts on companies that don’t share their values. I’m sympathetic. Abstaining from certain companies or national regimes for dehumanizing and exploitative practices seems a legitimate option. It’s unclear to me whether any participant in a globalized world can rest easy in her ethically pure purchases, but that doesn’t take away from the conscious decision to do less harm.
In a thoughtful article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt defended the besieged restaurant with a question directed at each side of the culture war: “In a nation that's as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed?” It’s a helpful and exceedingly practical question. Much of the time when we shop we’re probably not assuming the storeowner shares our particular values and beliefs. This is true of both small businesses and larger corporations: the thought of shared values doesn’t cross my mind at the local hot dog joint nor while picking up a prescription at Walgreens.
More interesting to me than their practicality is what the boycotting tendency says about our identities as consumers. Both Disney and Chick-fil-A inspire loyalty and evangelistic zeal among the faithful. If you doubt this hang around the next time I half-jokingly explain my goal of never visiting Disney World to someone who has recently returned from the best week of their life at the Magic Kingdom. Or observe the pity when I explain how a nasty case of food poisoning made that world-famous chicken sandwich repulsive to me.
These companies and others like them ask for more than our dollars; they’re interested in our identities. Disney is more than a vacation destination; it’s symbolic of our longings, so much so that we willfully entrust our very young children to the brand’s narrative and teachers. And Chick-fil-A doesn’t just want customers but, as the CEO puts it, “raving fans.” Those who have camped overnight in a franchise parking lot or dressed up as the restaurant’s mascot for the chance at a free meal might be who he has in mind.
In The Divine Commodity Skye Jethani calls this the “identity-forming power of brands.” It’s a strategy that makes great sense for the company but much less so for us. Discovering something about our favorite brands that obviously clashes with who we hope to be creates – to slightly overstate it – an identity crisis. So while I agree with Merritt about the impracticality of boycotts, I think there’s another level to be uncovered. These brands, after all, aren’t simply interested in our commercial and political lives; they’re working overtime to claim our very identities.
Not long ago it was common to hear of companies who would pay to have their logo adhered to your car. The next logical step was for individuals to sell space on their bodies for a brand’s tattoo. We’ve now arrived at the point when no such fee is required: earlier this year Sailor Jerry Rum tattooed their logo on eager costumers in Brooklyn. Their compensation? Free rum.
It’s an extreme example perhaps, but the how much difference is there between tipsy and tattooed in Brooklyn and bothered and boycotting in Atlanta? Brand loyalty, the powerful ways these companies have formed us, elicit strange behavior among the faithful.
Christians are people who don’t construct our identities or have them sold to us but, rather, have them secured for us in Jesus. We are who we are because of who God is rather than anything so profane as a corporate marketing strategy. Does this mean Christians of all political leanings shouldn’t boycott? I don’t think so. But living differentiated from the shallow identities of savvy corporations may allow us to think differently about what we abstain from, and why.
In my next post I’ll look at why Christians seem to be as susceptible as everyone else to brand identity, and how the church as Christ’s body could be the community that fortifies against all identity imposters.