It used to be that if you wanted to vote with your dollars, all you had to do was decline to buy a chicken sandwich. Now, as the Trump administration begins to implement its campaign promises, big companies are trying not merely to avoid boycotts like the one of Chik-fil-A over gay rights issues, but to get consumers to signal their politics by spending. Instead of you putting down your fast-food bag, corporations are making political gestures intended to recast picking up a cup of coffee or hailing a car from one company rather than another as an act of liberation. At a moment when the word “resist” is everywhere, and attached to every conceivable action, even shopping can be dressed up to look like the revolution.
When President Trump signed his executive order on immigration last weekend, for example, he set off a round of protests, and escalated an already-bitter business rivalry.
Lyft announced it would make a $1 million donation over the next four years to the American Civil Liberties Union, a move that helped it rival Uber in the Apple app charts — crucial positioning for snagging new customers who have come looking for a car-hailing service. Uber countered by setting up a $3 million fund to provide legal and logistical support to any of its drivers who might be affected by the administration’s policies.
These financial commitments are substantial. But the chess moves don’t fundamentally reshape the business models of the companies, or remove objections that might give liberal consumers a twinge.
The ride-sharing companies competing to appear more opposed to Trump’s executive order have other ties to the administration. The venture capitalist and Lyft investor Peter Thiel is a Trump adviser who spoke at the Republican National Convention, providing a veneer of gay political cover to a ticket that included Vice President Mike Pence. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sits on a business advisory council that provides advice to the president, a choice that has drawn some criticism, though Kalanick has said it is an opportunity for him raise objections, including to the executive order.
The root of Uber’s current trouble was that the company appeared to be breaking a strike by New York City taxi drivers, who refused to drive to John F. Kennedy International Airport during protests against the executive order, by dropping fare surcharges. But both Lyft and Uber have objected to a Seattle proposal that would allow at least some of their drivers to unionize. And pledges to support employees don’t mean much when Lyft and Uber are looking at how to replace those same drivers with robots.
Once the flush of these headlines passes, consumers who genuinely want to spend their money with companies who offer comprehensively progressive workplace policies, or adopt ethical practices around safety and sourcing, are left with pretty much the same options they had before.
Taking a splashy political stand as a marketing strategy isn’t a new tactic. And in the past, corporations have tried to woo consumers with politics to get them to buy products that are actively harmful to their health, or that undercut the very movements these companies are exploiting.
In 2006 preface to a new edition of her feminist classic “Backlash,” Susan Faludi, who has herself been solicited “to place my feminist seal of approval on brands of blue jeans, high heels, even breast implants,” points readers back to a 1929 “Freedom March” commemorating the 19th Amendment. The protest was pulled together by the American Tobacco Company and featured cigarettes as “torches of freedom,” an idea that Virginia Slims cigarettes would replicate decades later in their ads that told young women, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Faludi notes that, “Hanes even persuaded a [National Organization for Women] official to endorse its ‘liberating’ pantyhose.”
Uber and Lyft may take you a long way for less money than a local taxi company. But when it comes to political progress, consumers should never forget that the only thing that shopping will take a long way is their money.