The Unhappy Meal: Santa Clara looks to ban unhealthy children’s meals with toys

April 28, 2010

An issues that been appearing off and on in the news for years has been childhood obesity in the U.S.  Kids in the U.S. eat unhealthy foods and generally weigh too much resulting in health problems.  The argument is that fast food restaurants target children with the marketing thereby encouraging them to eat unhealthy food.  Fast food restaurants spent over $1.6 billion in 2006 to target children.  One ploy is to put toys in the meals designed for children.  Children want the toys, children nag their parents, parents buy the meals, children eat unhealthy meal, and children become unhealthy.  We can argue with the links in this chain of logic but it is the fundamental argument in this case.  The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors considered a proposal that “the proposal would forbid the inclusion of a toy in any restaurant meal that has more than 485 calories, more than 600 mg of salt or high amounts of sugar or fat. In the case of McDonald’s, the limits would include all of the chain’s Happy Meals — even those that include apple sticks instead of French fries” (latimes.com/business/la-fi-happy-meals-20100427,0,6290206.story).

The idea is that the proposal would pressure fast food restaurants into creating more nutritious meal options for children.  A key concern is all the sodium, sugar, and fat that can be found in existing children’s meals.  Here is summary of the proposal from its creator:

“Ken Yeager, the Santa Clara County supervisor who is behind the effort, says the toys in kids’ meals are contributing to America’s obesity epidemic by encouraging children to eat unhealthful, fattening foods.  ‘People ask why I want to take toys out of the hands of children,’ said Yeager, who is president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. “But we now know that 70% of the kids that are overweight or obese will be overweight or obese as adults. Why would we want to burden anybody with a lifetime of chronic illness?’” (latimes.com/business/la-fi-happy-meals-20100427,0,6290206.story).

Every issue has at least two sides.  So who is arguing for unhealthy food that will children obese?  The answer is the California Restaurant Association (CRA) who see the issue differently.  Here is how their interpretation of the issue:

“’Ultimately, parents decide what their children eat and whether a meal includes a toy or not – that is the role of a parent,’ the CRA’s President + CEO Jot Condie said. ‘Based on our survey of the county’s residents, parents prefer to continue making those decisions, as opposed to following Supervisor Yeager’s proposal that would take that choice away. Saving us from our kids is overreaching. Most parents can resist their children’s pressure to get a toy. The county government does not need to serve as the parent of the parents.’

Most restaurants offer healthy options, such as fruit, sandwiches, milk, juice and water with kids’ meals. The variety of offerings continues to grow, but ultimately consumers want a choice in what items they can select for a kids’ meal when dining at a restaurant. Seventy-three percent of Santa Clara County residents agree that they should have the option of purchasing a meal at a restaurant that includes a toy or a gift.

“The restaurant industry works with policymakers every day to craft serious, comprehensive solutions to public health issues, including childhood obesity,” Condie said (http://www.calrest.org/go/CRA/news-events/newsroom/poll-santa-clara-county-residents-against-toy-ban/).

The CRA took their message to the people of Santa Clara through newspaper advertisements.  The CRA also conducted a poll and found that 80% of residents felt lawmakers should not be involved with this issue.  The poll had a sampling error no more than 4.1 percentage points with a 95 percent level of confidence.  However, we do not know the exact wording of the question in the survey used for the poll (http://www.calrest.org/go/CRA/news-events/newsroom/poll-santa-clara-county-residents-against-toy-ban/). 

While in isolation the toy ban does not seem like much of an issue.  It is a limited proposal covering a very small geographic area.  However, the larger issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. is a serious concern.  Moreover, the childhood obesity issue is repeatedly being linked to fast food restaurants so there is reason for the restaurant industry to be concerned.

Questions to Consider

  1.  How viable is the CSR response that food choice is the responsibility of parents?
  2. How do the marketing actions of restaurants undercut parental decision making about what their children eat?
  3. What are the ethical considerations of marketing to children?  Should restaurants adopt a code governing marketing to children that covers the healthiness of the food being promoted?
  4. Which side of the issue would you support and why?
  5. How was each side using public relations in this issue management effort?
  6. What is the benefit of the CRA managing the issue rather than individual fast food restaurants?
  7. How might the issue of childhood obesity be a serious threat to the reputations and sales of fast food restaurants?

Toyota Fights Back: In this the Corporate Rope-a-Dope

March 8, 2010

Toyota has been like a boxer on the ropes taking punch after punch from the media, Congress, consumers, and other critics.  Mohammad Ali used a strategy called the rope-a-dope.  Ali would lean against the rope taking punches in order to tire his opponent out and counterattack when given the chance.  In more general use, rope-a-dope is when an entity places itself in what appears to be a losing position in an attempt to become the winner.  With the march 8, 2010 counterattack, perhaps Toyota is making its move to “win” in this crisis.  It is still far too early to tell.  However, the counterattack is far cry from the apologies and verbal punches Toyota has been absorbing the past few months. 

As a quick recap, Toyota has had a series of recalls related to sudden acceleration in vehicles.  The sudden acceleration is serious having caused a number of deaths as cars would speed up often exceeding 100 mph.  Toyota’s recall have addressed floor mats and then the gas pedal itself.  Toyota service departments have often been open 24 hours to handle the repair/replacement of the gas pedals.  The televisions airwaves are filled with Toyota advertisements talking about the repair and testimonials from customers saying how they still love their Toyota vehicles. 

Recently Toyota has been taking punches from Congress that have been amplified by the traditional and online media.  The key charge is that Toyota has not really found that problem.  The argument is that the problem is really in the electronics, not the mechanical system as Toyota says.  This is pivotal distinction.  If Toyota has not solved the problem, its customers are still at risk from its flawed product.  At best, Toyota looks incompetent as it cannot find the problem,  At worst, Toyota looks like it is ignoring a safety problem by pretending the pedal design is at fault when they know it is the electronics.

A key piece of evidence being used against Toyota is an “experiment” conducted by David W. Gilbert, an automotive technology professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. 

“Gilbert told a congressional hearing Feb. 23 that he recreated sudden acceleration in a Toyota Tundra by short-circuiting the electronics behind the gas pedal — without triggering any trouble codes in the truck’s computer.

The trouble codes send the car’s computer into a fail-safe mode that allows the brake to override the gas. Gilbert called his findings a “startling discovery.”

House lawmakers seized on the testimony as evidence Toyota engineers missed a potential problem with the electronics that could have caused the unwanted acceleration.” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_toyota_recall_electronics;_ylt=AhF0kk4JAJTINoJOzqYMv5cEq594;_ylu=X3oDMTNocnYwbTBnBGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMTAwMzA4L3VzX3RveW90YV9yZWNhbGxfZWxlY3Ryb25pY3MEY2NvZGUDbW9zdHBvcHVsYXIEY3BvcwM2BHBvcwM2BHNlYwN5bl90b3Bfc3RvcmllcwRzbGsDdG95b3RhZGlzcHV0

Toyota could no long rest against the ropes and is now fighting back.  The cornerstone of the counterattack is testimony from Stanford University professor Chris Gerdes, director of Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research, and a consulting firm, Exponent Inc.  For most people, Stanford would seem more credible that Southern Illinois.  However, the Stanford Center for Automotive Research and its engineering school receive money from Toyota.  Gerdes maintains his analysis is independent but there are reasons for doubt to creep in.  Experts seem to agree that the conditions found in Gilbert’s “experiment” are extremely unlikely to occur in the real world. 

The stakes are high.  In addition to reputation and sales loss, Toyota is facing intensified Congressional scrutiny over the electronics concern.  This includes accusations that Toyota has ignored the safety issue since 2006.  Toyota has hired a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation to head an internal examination of its quality and safety issues.  A third-party expert is a way add credibility to such investigations.  Here part of the announcement:

“Toyota Motor North America, Inc. (TMA) announced today that former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater will lead an independent North American Quality Advisory Panel to advise the company’s North American affiliates on quality and safety issues.

The panel will work closely with Toyota’s North American leadership team, and will have direct access to Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda.

‘I am pleased that Secretary Slater has accepted our invitation to lead the distinguished group of safety and quality experts who will help Toyota to improve its quality controls in North America,’ said Yoshi Inaba, President and Chief Operating Officer of TMA. ‘We are committed to more transparency regarding our safety and quality controls, and the independent advisors will have our full cooperation and access to any information they believe they need.’ http://pressroom.toyota.com/pr/tms/former-u-s-secretary-of-transportation-154569.aspx

Questions to Consider

  1.  Is it appropriate for Toyota to try to disprove the claims of an electronics problem?  Why or why not?
  2. What does Toyota have to gain with a counterattack?
  3. What does Toyota have to lose with a counterattack?
  4. Can a corporate rope-a-dope be an effective crisis response?  Why or why not?
  5. What ethical issues arise when a corporation uses a counterattack?
  6. What are the ethical issues for Toyota and Stanford in the funding connection?

Taliban using Public Relations in Afghanistan: Worth a Look

January 22, 2010

Critics of Edward Bernays like to note that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, used the writings of Bernays to help build the Third Reich.  The focus is on the knowledge that Goebbels had a copy of Crystallizing Public Opinion.  Keep in mind it was not an autographed copy nor did Bernays ever consult with Goebbels.  Bernays was Jewish and was dismayed his work was used by Nazi’s.  http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Edward_Bernays. However, the story illustrates that fact that public relations theory, once written, can be used by anyone.  Of course the same holds true for medicine or any other form of knowledge.  Yet when unsavory groups use public relations, the industry as a whole seems to get tainted.

The New York Times reported in late January of 2010 on a public relations operation by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The focus was on how the Taliban were trying to build greater public support by softening its reputation.  The Taliban were using a new code of conduct that showed their gentler side.  Here are some of the changes:

There is some evidence that the new code was being used but many of the Taliban were still not abiding by these more civil rule of engagement.  However, the Taliban have a history of cruelty, drug trafficking, and extreme violence that served to create their current negative reputation.

So why the need to change a reputation. Analysts claim that the Taliban are trying to win support at home and abroad with this new reputation.  If the war is a long term affair, the Taliban will need additional support for their cause.  It is hard to win support either at home or abroad when your reputation is for violence and cruelty.   The Taliban are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan so the old reputation is well earned.  The public relations effort is in part public diplomacy aimed at an external audience as well as an internal effort.

NATO feels they are at a public relations disadvantage when competing with the Taliban.  “The Taliban can shape the narrative about attacks sometimes before NATO public affairs even puts out a statement. Unlike the NATO press machine, the Taliban are willing to give details, and while some are patently exaggerated or wrong, others have just enough elements of truth that they cannot be entirely ignored” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/world/asia/21taliban.html?pagewanted=1).  NATO has a time lag and a concern for accuracy that does not limit Taliban public relations.  It should be noted that being close to the truth is an effective way to spread rumors.  Good rumors (ones that spread) have some element in them that makes them seem believable.  Truth and accuracy should matter but being just believable enough can result in a message spreading and appearing to be true.

The Taliban are using a wide variety of tactics and channels in their public relations operation.  Their action have used word-of-mouth, cellphones, and the Internet, all of which are staples of viral campaigns.  Not long ago the Taliban denounced the Internet as evil but now the Taliban are posting their own videos to the Internet.  The same viral techniques used to promote products are being used to promote the Taliban’s new reputation.  It should be noted that the Taliban efforts are not the simple image projection of past public diplomacy efforts.  Oppressive regimes often hire public relations firms to win them positive media coverage without ever changing policies.  The Taliban have at least tried to make some policy changes that serve as a basis for the reputation management effort.  If civilian casualties do decrease from these changes, that is positive change.  Still there are many other reasons to dislike the Taliban, their methods, and their ideas.

Public relations has a body of knowledge that anyone can draw upon for their use.  There is no high council who decides who can and cannot use public relations.  Even though it may not be great for the field, the Taliban engaging in public relations is a reality. At least no U.S. public relations firm has agreed to represent them.  We could just claim the Taliban are engaged in propaganda not public relations.  However, that would be disingenuous bordering on ethical.  Some of the actions legitimately qualify as public relations while some are bastardizations of public relations that should be condemned (fabricating stories for instance).  One could note that the Taliban practice medicine as well as public relations.  Does that make medicine “bad?”  A profession cannot control who uses their knowledge base.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Why do the Taliban’s actions qualify as public relations?  Public diplomacy?
  2. From the article, what ethical concerns emerge from the Taliban public relations efforts?
  3. Why might practitioners be concerned about the Taliban practicing public relations?
  4. Is it fair to compare the Taliban practicing medicine to practicing public relations?  Why or why not?
  5. Why is it important that the new code and changed policies to be linked to the Taliban reputation management effort?
  6. What advice could you give NATO for improving their effort to combat Taliban public relations?

Cyber Attack Spurs Google to a Human Rights Stand

January 14, 2010

On Jan. 12, 2010, Google changed its relationship with China.  China is a massive market so it is very attractive to businesses.  There are more Internet users in China that there are people in the U.S.  So it follows that Google has been a part of the Chinese Internet market.  However, the Chinese government does have wide ranging control over businesses, including foreign businesses, that operate in China.  Google in China is not the same as Google in the rest of the world.  The Chinese language version of Google (Google.cn) was censored as per requirements of the Chinese government.  This practice dates back to 2006.  The censorship restrictions included what terms people could search and the web sites they could access.  The focus of the censorship involves issues related to governmental policies and challenges to them.  Many news and human rights sites were blocked along with information on the Tiananmen Square massacre (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4645596.stm)

So Google decide nearly four years later to stop censoring with a post to the Internet.  Here is part of that post:

“We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that “we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.”

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.” http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

As the part of the message notes, the change was due in large part to a cyber attack on Google traced to China.  The focus of the attack was the Gmail (Google e-mail accounts) of Chinese human rights activists.  Some 20 other companies experienced similar attacks designed to access information about human rights activists.  The groups Human Rights Watch congratulated Google for finally ending censorship nd taking a stand in China saying, “Google’s resolve to avoid complicity with such flagrant violations of freedom of expression and association deserves praise.” http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601080&sid=a9RFgswPERxg

Clearly this is not the end of the story.  There will be reactions from the Chinese government to these actions.  Google may well leave the Chinese market and Google.cn could be dismantled. In addition to attempts to gain information about human rights activists, the cyber attack also resulted in the theft of proprietary information from Google.  It appears the cyber attack was state-sponsored and that was finally enough for Google to take a stand in China.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Does the tail of Google in China support the need for corporations to develop foreign policies (guidelines for how they will relate to foreign governments)?
  2. Would you argue this case is more about business or more about human rights?
  3. How might this incident help Google’s reputation?
  4. How could Google justify censorship in China for so long?
  5. What ethical implications do you find in this case?
  6. How does this case serve as an example of public diplomacy?
  7. What, if anything, has Google done previously to help promote human rights?

When a Rumor is a Good Thing

January 1, 2010

Publicity efforts in public relations are primarily a “push” effort.  PR people try to get others to use or view their information.  It is rare when publicity is a “pull” effort where people seek out your information.  Crises are an example of “pull” efforts as stakeholders want to know what happened.  However, no sane managers want to build publicity efforts around a crisis.  Yes, you can get positive effects from an extreme well managed crisis but that is not a option with a high reward value given the costs (damages) and risks.  It is within the realm of crises that we find rumors and the right type of “pull” effort.

In crises, rumors or rumours are defined as incorrect information circulating about your organization.  More generally, a rumor is information that lacks verification—people do not know whether or not it is true.  We typically think of rumors as a bad thing, as in crises, but rumors can be true and beneficial.  One popular view of rumors is that they are sensemaking efforts designed to reduce uncertainty.  As rumor experts Bordia and DiFonzo (2004) stated, “Rumors arise in situations that are personally relevant but ambiguous or cognitively unclear, and when credible explanations are not available from traditional sources” (p. 33).  [To see the first page of their article go to http://www.jstor.org/pss/3649102 which is Social Psychological Quarterly (2006) volume 1].  Most rumor research still focuses on how sensemaking is used to cope with problems (dread).  But the research also examines wish rumors which can be linked to opportunities.

In December of 2009, more Internet traffic was being generated for an Apple rumor.  Now Apple has had its share of problem rumors.  The best case being Steve Job’s supposed heart attack that caused Apple stock to drop in price (http://flowtv.org/?p=2259).  But in December of 2009, the focus was on a potential new product, the Apple tablet.  Many legitimate new sources were reporting on the rumor including the Financial Times (http://blogs.ft.com/techblog/2009/12/exclusive-apple-to-host-event-in-january/) and Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-apple-tablet31-2009dec31,0,5542993.story).   The rumor reports are a form of publicity for the “product.”  People, driven by uncertainty caused by a lack of official information by Apple, are searching the Internet for more information about the Apple tablet thereby fueling the rumor.  This is “pull” publicity as people seek information about the product via rumors.

The rumored product is essentially a large version of the iPhone with a screen just over 10 inches.  The device will be very light and capable of being a book reader like Kindle.  It will have a touch screen and virtual keyboard so no need for a mouse.  Evidence to support the rumor come from searches of the U.s. Patent Office records, Apple booking the San Francisco Convention Center in later January for product announcement, and people close to Apple releasing information (anonymous sources).  In addition, people “know” the product will cost around $800 and be released in the summer of 2010.  One of the hot places for information is Mac Rumors, a blog written by Arnold Kim that tracks rumors about Apple http://www.macrumors.com/

Here is sample of content from Mac Rumors about the Apple tablet:

“Exactly what purpose or role an Apple tablet will fulfill is a legitimate question that has been raised on a number of occasions. Since other company’s tablets have so far been commercially unsuccessful, what could Apple bring to the table that will suddenly make them a success? Steve Jobs himself has previously questioned what they were good for besides surfing the web in the bathroom.

Gruber believes the upcoming Apple Tablet will replace the low end of Apple’s portable computer market which is currently held by the MacBook and instead focus on some core functionality and do it well.

And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.

Like all Apple products, The Tablet will do less than we expect but the things it does do, it will do insanely well. It will offer a fraction of the functionality of a MacBook — but that fraction will be way more fun.

Apple clearly has been able to reinvent a class of product like they did with the MP3 player (iPod) and mobile phone (iPhone), and people are certainly hoping they will be able to do the same thing with the Tablet. Much of the differentiation of these products was done in software, so we agree with Gruber that the Tablet OS can’t and won’t simply be a scaled up iPhone OS or scaled down Mac OS.

One common prediction I disagree with is that The Tablet will simply be more or less an iPod Touch with a much bigger display. But in the same way that it made no sense for Apple to design the iPhone OS to run Mac software, it makes little sense for a device with a 7-inch (let alone larger) display to run software designed for a 3.5-inch display.

Exactly how that will be accomplished, of course, is the big secret.

Apple is rumored to be launching their Tablet in 2010 and Steve Jobs has been described as being extremely happy with the upcoming device.”  http://www.macrumors.com/

There is a lot of information out there for a product Apple has never officially discussed.  There is even more interest than information at this point.  The case illustrates the potential of a rumor to fuel “pull” publicity.  Of course not all organizations are Apple and not all products will generate such interest but there is potential for positive rumors when information is scare and interest is high.  The key is find ways to leak information to help move the rumor along.

Questions to Consider

  1. Is it ethical for organizations to fuel rumors about themselves?  Why or why not?
  2. How does the online environment help to make rumors an effective form of “pull” publicity?
  3. Based on the case, what are the optimal conditions necessary for creating an effective rumor to drive positive publicity?
  4. What is the role on a site like Mac Rumors in this process of rumors for positive publicity?
  5. How might an organization transition/build from rumor publicity to traditional publicity?
  6. What are the greatest risks associated with using rumors to develop positive, “pull” publicity?

FTC cleans up Blogging Ethics: Disclosure rules in effect

December 11, 2009

If you have been following the issue, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported in October of 2009 that it would create regulations requiring disclosure of any payment (monetary or goods) made to a blogger.  The move is designed to address the issue of companies “buying” bloggers to generate positive word-of-mouth.  Bloggers must now disclose whenever they receive compensation from a company then write about that company or its products.  Here is a relevant section from the October 2009 announcement:

“The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers.”  http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm  To see the full document developed by the FTC go to http://www2.ftc.gov/os/fedreg/2009/october/091015guidesconcerningtestimonials.pdf  Keep in mind the documents discusses other changes as well related to celebrity endorsements, use of research, and testimonials in marketing and advertising messages.

Not all bloggers were happy about this new regulation and complained during testimony before the FCC and on their blog sites.  If you search blogs and disclosure you will find examples.  Bloggers are worried about the effect of the regulations and that the FTC can punish them for non-compliance.  People were worried on what actually constituted endorsement.  Others debated the need to disclose.  Many bloggers already disclose while some encourage companies to pay them but remain silent on the issue of disclosing that payment to their readers.

So where is the ethical concern?  The concern is about full disclosure including potential biasing factors.  The FTC believes, and PR ethics would agree, that people should know potential biases of a source when they are evaluating a message.  When bloggers do not disclose “payments,” readers are not given an important source of information about a potential bias.  We can call it honesty, full disclosure, or even transparency.  The point is that readers should know if a “payment” occurred so they can more effectively evaluate the message. 

Let us consider real example.  When Microsoft launched Vista in 2007, it reached out to bloggers.  Around 90 influential bloggers were given Vista.  Vista was given to them by loading it on a top-end Acer laptop valued around  $2,000.  The bloggers were free to keep the computer if they choose to.  The bloggers were also free to disclose or not disclose the gift with Vista.  A number of bloggers, but not all, did disclose the arrangement.  However, online critics called it “payola” or “bribes.”  http://www.pcworld.idg.com.au/article/170743/microsoft_woos_bloggers_free_computers_vista

Perhaps a better term is “blog-ola.”  Blog-ola was used in 2009 discussions at the Blog-Her conference in Chicago.  The Blog-Her conference included a focus on the “mommy bloggers,” and influential group, just ask people associated with Motrin at McNeal. (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/products/2008-11-18-motrin-ads-twitter_N.htm)   The discussions at the conference included sponsorship of blogs and the need to be open about any sponsorship arrangements.  The FTC is shifting that debate because disclosure is a requirement.  People can now debate the merits of the regulation. 

Questions to Consider

  1.  How might a company benefit by requiring bloggers to disclose “payments” as part of the arrangement for providing the “payments?”
  2. Do you believe failure to disclose payment is unethical?  Why of why not?
  3. What justification can there be for opposing the FTC requirements?
  4. Should bloggers simply refuse any “payments?”  Why or why not?
  5. Journalists cannot accept gifts so what does paying bloggers mean for the term “citizen journalist?”
  6. Should we expect bloggers to uphold standards similar to journalists?  Why or why not?
  7. What provisions would you put in a blogger relations statement if the organization where you work request one to be written?

Tis the Season for Boycotts: Gap and American Family Association

November 18, 2009

It is November so it is time for US conservative groups and pundits to bring up the “War on Christmas.”  Companies that have employees greet customers with “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” and/or use the term “holidays” in advertising rather than “Christmas” are put on the naughty list.  Yes, the American Family Association (AFA) calls it the “Naughty or Nice List” as it rates retailers on their use of Christmas.  Here is a description of the list:

“Criteria – AFA reviewed up to four areas to determine if a company was ‘Christmas-friendly’ in their advertising: print media (newspaper inserts), broadcast media (radio/television), website and/or personal visits to the store. If a company’s ad has references to items associated with Christmas (trees, wreaths, lights, etc.), it was considered as an attempt to reach “Christmas” shoppers.

If a company has items associated with Christmas, but did not use the word ‘Christmas,’ then the company is considered as censoring “Christmas.”

Color Code:

Company uses the term “Christmas” on a regular basis, we consider that company Christmas-friendly.

Company refers to Christmas infrequently, or in a single advertising medium, but not in others.

Company may use ‘Christmas’ sparingly in a single or unique product description, but as a company, does not recognize it.” http://action.afa.net/Detail.aspx?id=2147486887

The conclusion is that if retailers do not use the word Christmas they are anti-Christmas and, therefore, anti-Christian.  AFA has every right to create their list and use public relations to share it with their members and supporters.  Retailers counter that the US market is diverse and “happy holidays” is more inclusive of a phrase.  So the choice is about inclusion and sensitivity to others for retailers rather than exclusion.  It seems odd that the old concern over exploiting Christmas for commercial gain has lost its appeal.  Retailers are now criticized for not exploiting Christmas.  It can get confusing.

In 2009, Gap became the initial target for the AFA.  They had an announcement about the Gap boycott on the web site and had their interactive site ready.  Go to http://action.afa.net/takeaction/gap/ and there is form to help spread the word about the boycott and a place to sign a boycott pledge.  There is also an explanation of the boycott at the site posted Nov. 11:

“AFA is calling for a limited two-month boycott of Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, the three stores owned by San Francisco-based Gap Inc., over the company’s censorship of the word ‘Christmas.’

The boycott is part of our ongoing campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to put Christ back in Christmas. The boycott runs from November 1 through Christmas Day.

For years, Gap has refused to use the word Christmas in its television commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions, despite tens of thousands of consumer requests to recognize Christmas and in spite of repeated requests from AFA to do the same.

Last year, Gap issued this politically-correct statement to Christmas shoppers: ‘Gap recognizes that many traditions are celebrated throughout this season and we feel it is important to display holiday signage that is inclusive to everyone.’” http://action.afa.net/Detail.aspx?id=2147489466

People visiting the site had mixed reactions to the boycott.  Here is a sample of the responses left on the page:

“11/13/2009 11:08:26 PM
Gap is marketing to all of America. Not just Christians. I think it is great that Gap is including all cultures in their celebration. America is a melting pot, after all. Does the Gap need to commercialize Christ for us to shop there?
11/13/2009 9:45:50 PM
Why is the AFA fighting for the materialism of Christmas? I would be pleased that companies are not using Christmas as a way to make money, instead the AFA promotes the materialism of one of our most sacred days. Sad.

11/13/2009 7:43:29 PM
I also support the boycott.” http://action.afa.net/Detail.aspx?id=2147489466

But a funny thing happened along the way, Gap advertising did include Christmas along with a number of other holidays.  The television ad is complemented by a web site, www.cheerfactory.com, where people can send customized video singing greeting that includes one with Christmas (and the other holidays) in the message.  http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ct-neil17-2009nov17,0,2040716.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+latimes%2Fbusiness+%28L.A.+Times+-+Business%29

The AFA used this opportunity to declare victory over the Gap and express continued distaste with the Gap:

As a result of your actions, Gap has produced a television commercial that uses the word “Christmas.” Here are the words to the commercial:

“Two, Four, Six, Eight, now’s the time to liberate
Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanza, Go Solstice.
Go classic tree, go plastic tree, go plant a tree, go add a tree,
You 86 the rules, you do what feels just right.
Happy do whatever you wanukkah, and to all a cheery night.

Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, go whatever holiday you wanukkah.

AFA believes this ad to be completely dismissive and disrespectful to those who celebrate the meaning and spirit of Christmas. AFA asked Gap for a meeting to discuss the ad, but Gap has not responded.

If this is Gap’s answer to recognizing Christmas, we are deeply disappointed.” http://action.afa.net/takeaction/gap/  

 

Questions to Consider

  1.  Is it ethical for AFA to claim their actions changed Gap advertising when then ads would have been created long before the boycott started on November 11?
  2. What advice would you provide Gap management about responding to the AFA boycott and what is the reasoning behind that advice?
  3. How would you evaluate the reputational threat posed by the AFA boycott?
  4. How could issues management have helped the Gap anticipate and to prepare for 2009 AFA boycott?
  5. The Los Angeles Times article linked in the entry notes that the AFA boycotts have no financial effect.  What other effects are possible with a boycott?
  6. How does this US-based case reflect concerns associated with public relations going international?
  7. Are retailers hypocritical in exploiting Christmas without recognizing Christmas?

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