When asked to cut an ad for a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 1990, Jordan declined, explaining that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
The year was 1990. Michael Jordan had established himself as the NBA’s most dominate scorer. Within a year, he would win his first of six championships. Nike’s “Air Jordan” line of shoes were flying off the shelves. Kids across the country wanted to “be like Mike.”
That same year, Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt challenged longtime U.S. Senator Jesse Helms in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Jordan’s mom asked him to cut an ad in favor of the upstart campaign of Gantt. Jordan declined. He explained to teammates Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant his reason: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Jordan intuitively understood what famed economist Milton Friedman argued–that earning a profit is a business’s chief social responsibility.
It would be easy to paint this formulation of a company’s purpose as being greed-driven, but such couching ignores the human flourishing and advancement that results from profit.
Earning a profit means that a business is providing a good or service people want, something which makes lives better. It also means a company can keep the lights on, grow, and provide jobs. Profit has done more to raise the position of mankind than any other human force in history.
For Jordan, alienating a sizable portion of his customer base, to take on an issue that had nothing to do with the core business of selling sneakers, was a foolish play with real world consequences.
Be Like Mike: Companies Like Bud Light and Target Should Understand Their Customer Bases
Bud Light recently learned this lesson the hard way. Since 1982, the Anheuser-Busch beer brand has been heavily associated with America’s working class. These are the folks that work in oil fields, listen to country music, and watch football on Sundays. This customer base tends to be more socially conservative.
When Alissa Heinerscheid became Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, she brought to bear a Harvard business degree, but no real understanding of the values of her customers. In fact, she openly mocked them, calling them “fratty” and “out of touch.” In a vacuum, Bud Light’s gesture with transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney was small. It did not build an entire marketing campaign around Mulvaney. It sent some beers with Mulvaney’s face on the cans to the TikTok star.
Even still, the move was an unforced error–one that only had downside for sustaining Bud Light’s core customer base, with very little upsides for expanding the base. Bud Light sales have declined by nearly a third year-over-year since the move. The brand, which long reigned as America’s top selling beer by a mile, slipped from that coveted spot last week.
While the stock market as a whole has rallied in the last several weeks, Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser-Busch has lost $27 billion in market cap since the backlash began.
The decline shows no signs of abating. To be clear, the consequence of the decision to celebrate Mulvaney will include thousands of people who brew, bottle, distribute, and sell Bud Light losing their jobs.
On the heels of the Bud Light controversy, Target found itself in similar hot waters. Target’s core customer base is suburban soccer moms. The upfront display of transgender swimwear and pride apparel, again, arguably does not align with why this customer base shops at Target in the first place. Presumably, it’s the throw pillows. Target’s market cap is now down $15 billion.
The Perilous Tightrope for Corporate America
As is evident in the cases of Bud Light and Target, the latest culture war flashpoint centers around transgender activism. While the issue has been framed as a civil rights struggle akin to sexual preference, or even race, polling shows Americans are slow to accept those equivalencies.
Race is an obvious immutable trait–something ingrained in people’s DNA from birth. Sex is also ingrained in our DNA at birth. Females have two of the same kind of sex chromosome (XX). Males have two different kinds of sex chromosomes (XY).
This means that every cell in the body of someone born a biological male is male, not just their genitalia. The same is true for women. In this sense, classifying someone as a gender other than their biological sex at birth is the actual opposite of recognizing an immutable scientific trait. It’s separating gender from what is biologically immutable.
Over the last five years, the number of people identifying as transgender, particularly among youth, has nearly doubled. Advocates argue that this is a byproduct of more social acceptance. Critics argue that this is proof that the phenomena is being driven by social determinants and not biology. They point, as well, to wide variances based on geography and political persuasion.
In that same five year span, the percentage of Americans who say that whether someone is a man or woman is determined by sex at birth has actually climbed by over 10 percent. A majority of 60 percent now express that belief. In other words, the more Americans have heard the arguments in favor of dividing gender from biological sex, the less convinced they’ve become.
Republicans Buy Sneakers, Beer
“Joe Six Pack” just does not buy that someone born a biological male, like Fallon Fox, should be able to step into an octagon and beat the pulp out of biological women, that a transgender prisoner should be put in the female prison population to impregnate two female inmates, or that children, who have not yet matured mentally or physically, should be subject to irreversible treatments that have the effect of sterilization.
Republicans in particular hold these views. 85 percent favor requiring athletes to compete on teams that match their biological sex. 72 percent favor restricting physicians from offering transitioning treatments to minors.
There are scientific, moral, and practical bases for these beliefs, even if there are countervailing arguments. Treating someone who holds these beliefs like a bigoted troglodyte may elevate one’s sense of superiority on the elite cocktail circuit, but it actually creates resistance to social change. It certainly does not help sell a product to act like you’re better than the people buying it.
The easiest way to win a fight is to avoid inserting yourself into the fight. Weighing in on culture wars, particularly when it cuts against your core customer base, seems like a no-win proposition. Of course, not taking a position can also be perceived as “picking a side.” It’s a perilous tightrope act for corporations.
In the end, Bud Light, Target, and others are free to do whatever they want with their businesses. But they would be wise to remember that Republicans buy sneakers, beer, and throw pillows, too. For the first time in my life, it looks like conservatives are prepared to vote with their dollars.