PUBLIC POV: How Consumers are Influencing the Gun Control Debate

What’s behind the growing list of companies cutting ties with the National Rifle Association?

School shootings in the United States have typically followed a certain pattern. The tragic loss of lives is followed by “thoughts and prayers” from public figures. Heated debate around gun control ensues, punctuated with proclamations that tragedy is “no time to talk policy”. After a few short weeks of debate, the conversation hovers uncomfortably in the air … until the next school shooting.

But, in the wake of the February 14th shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, we’re seeing a different pattern.

Following this tragedy, social media activists launched the #BoycottNRA movement, encouraging companies and advertisers to do away with the perks, discounts, and affiliation programs that NRA members enjoy. A group of teenagers who survived the Florida shooting insisted that policy be the focus of the public conversation, launched the Never Again movement, and orchestrated marches across the country. The combination of these efforts applied enough pressure to lead over a dozen brands – including two major airlines (Delta and United) and insurer MetLife – to cut ties with the NRA (see the full list).

But Stoneman Douglas is not the first school shooting of the year: it’s the eighth such tragedy. So, why is it that many brands are taking a stand for gun control now, and breaking the formulaic response to school shootings?

One factor is that the scale of recent public pressure has demonstrated to companies that ignoring their consumers’ values on important social issues is not only an ethical issue, but a business risk. Cone Communications’ 2017 study reported that 76 per cent of Americans would not purchase a company’s product if it “supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.” Pertaining specifically to the issue of gun violence, the study found that 65 per cent of Americans believe that companies should be actively addressing gun control.

To be sure, the NRA remains a powerful force in the United States. Last year, the association spent $5.1 million on lobbying against gun control efforts (nearly $2 million more than its 2016 spending). The NRA has also been highly active during presidential campaigns, spending millions to oppose candidates who sought to control or regulate guns in the United States. It’s no easy feat for a corporation to stand up to a power like the NRA.

However, heightened political tensions under a Trump presidency and shifting consumer expectations have contributed to an effective “consumer republic”, in which a corporation’s path to profit can be accelerated by aligning its values with its actions. As PUBLIC Inc. CEO Phillip Haid notes, the expectation that brands will champion the social issues of their consumers is a trend on the rise, due to the proliferation of social media and importance of consumer influence. Gun control is one of many recent examples of brands acting as activists, and profiting along the way. Apparel company Patagonia has doubled down on its commitment to environmental activism, and has seen its revenue quadruple under CEO Rose Marcario’s leadership. Heineken recently launched its “Generations Apart” campaign in India, to address the culturally common father-son communication gap.

In addition, as consumer voices are amplified through digital technologies, organizations are also increasingly focused on mitigating reputational risk. Aaron Kwittken, a crisis communicator based in New York, told USA Today that being connected to the NRA is “highly detrimental to brand” for companies not directly connected to an “adjacent industry” such as hunting. Motivation aside, what is clear is that brands are listening to their consumers and taking public feedback seriously.

In fact, some observers even suggest that it’s corporate America, rather than Washington, that has the reach and scale to influence gun control policy. After all, major airlines and car rental companies serve hundreds of millions, while the NRA has indicated its membership is roughly 4 million.

As the gun control debate in Washington continues, the best thing activists can do is to show corporations their values by voting with their wallets. If we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that consumer votes count.

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