American Girl And Politics (2005 Nov)

by Barry A. Liebling

What should you expect if your company publicly supports a controversial political organization? Prepare yourself for the inevitable backlash, because people who are on the opposite side of the controversy are likely to fume with irritation.

Sometimes businesses plunge into the political arena without adequate preparation and are surprised by what occurs.

Recently the doll maker American Girl elected to sell “I Can” wristbands at its stores and donate a portion of the proceeds to Girls Inc – an organization that aims to inspire “girls to be strong, smart and bold.” It turns out that some official positions of Girls Inc include approval of a woman’s right to choose an abortion, acceptance of homosexuality, and sanctioning girls’ access to contraception. Each of these is unacceptable to certain religious conservative groups including the American Family Association and the Pro-Life Action League.

Representatives of the religious conservative groups have demanded that American Girl sever its ties to Girls Inc. If American Girl does not comply the conservatives are threatening a boycott.

Even more interesting than the conservatives’ demand is the response by American Girl. The company released a statement saying they are “disappointed that certain groups have chosen to misconstrue American Girl’s purely altruistic efforts and turn them into a broader political statement on issues that we, as a corporation, have no position.” Apparently American Girl management is shocked that having a monetary affiliation with a political organization would be interpreted as being political.

Consider the options of American Girl. The default position, where most companies are most of the time, is to stay away from political advocacy altogether. American Girl could devote all of its efforts to making excellent dolls and related products and simply not participate in the “culture wars” being fought over abortion and sexuality. Perhaps the owners of American Girl are not committed to particular positions on these topics, and they are comfortable focusing their attention on their core business.

Alternatively, the owners of American Girl might have strong opinions about the state of the culture and a yearning to participate in the ongoing debates. Still, this does not necessarily mean that the company gets into the fray. The owners might decide to participate in political advocacy privately – not on company time or with company resources.

And now we come to the case where the owners want to engage in political advocacy and calculate that having the company take positions will be good for the business. They might conclude that American Girl and Girls Inc share the same values, an alliance between them makes sense, and the relationship will enhance the company’s profits. Notice that in these circumstances the affiliation is not “purely altruistic” – a mushy description that indicates something is amiss – but is instead mutually advantageous.

Some famous companies have been able to thrive by connecting their products to political advocacy. Both Ben & Jerry’s and Newman’s Own boast that some of their resources are earmarked to support leftist political causes. The managers of these businesses know that some consumers are pleased to buy products from companies that proclaim their opposition to free markets and strive to bring about governmental economic interventions. At the same time, Ben & Jerry’s and Newman’s Own management must be aware that their political activism can be a turn off. Consumers who favor capitalism might find it distasteful to do business with their political opponents and will deliberately look for other brands of ice cream and salad dressing.

When American Girl gets together with Girls Inc, management should be prepared for the polarization that comes from taking a public stand. While some customers and business partners will be pleased by the affiliation, others – including religious conservatives – will find it obnoxious. The management of American Girl should carefully evaluate the merits, and potential liabilities, of affiliating with Girls Inc. If the case for Girls Inc is sound then American Girl support should be whole-hearted, and executives should be able to explain to outsiders why the relationship is appropriate.

The political arena is a world of conflict. Once you get into politics you had better be ready to fight battles. American Girl must realize that the company’s prosperity depends on their being “strong, smart and bold.”

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.