Coming from the CEO of the Walt Disney Co., the political statement about one state’s new law had an impact far beyond the place he was talking about. “I think if it becomes law, it will be very difficult to produce there. I rather doubt we will,” said Disney’s Bob Iger about the state of Georgia, where a stringent anti-abortion law is due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
Iger gave practical reasons for the company’s position, but the issue is unavoidably divisive nonetheless. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there. And we’ll have to heed their wishes in that regard,” he said.
Disney has plenty of company in its peer group. Major corporations including Microsoft, Delta Air Lines, Starbucks and Salesforce have recently taken positions on the most polarizing of issues, including gun control and immigration.
This is a major change in corporate posture. When it comes to political issues, big businesses have traditionally tried to be like Switzerland: steadfastly neutral. But as customers increasingly prefer to align themselves with companies that reflect their personal values, companies increasingly find themselves taking a stand.
Surprisingly enough, it can be good for business, even if it alienates some groups. “A virtuous cycle between social and financial performance is especially strong when it helps to deepen relationships with customers, employees, investors, or other stakeholders by helping them understand the values and motivations of the company,” wrote management experts Daniel Korschun and N. Craig Smith last year in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s time to stop treating political issues as a third rail.”
Georgia’s abortion law, which will prohibit abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, is similar to new legislation in several other states aimed at overturning the Roe v. Wade doctrine. The reason Georgia became such a high-profile target for a business boycott is that the state, which offers lucrative tax breaks for video production, now outpaces even California in its output. Filmmaking is a $9.6 billion industry in the state, creating more than 90,000 jobs last year.
Netflix, AMC Networks and WarnerMedia have suggested that they too would avoid doing business in the state if the law survives court challenges and goes into effect. The prospective boycott is already drawing heat from the other side, with Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network calling for a counter-boycott of Disney and Netflix. Even the tactics for opposing the Georgia law is a matter of debate. Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who nearly won the state’s gubernatorial election last year, has urged Hollywood to stick around and support efforts to challenge the law, organizing a coalition under the name #StayAndFight.
Just as radioactive an issue is gun control, which several companies have publicly supported, typically pointing to America’s epidemic of mass shootings as the reason. While Congress has avoided new restrictions, companies have imposed their own. Salesforce, the business-software giant, recently told its customer Camping World and other gun retailers that they should “stop selling military-style rifles, or stop using our software,” as the Washington Post reported. Earlier this year, Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling guns and ammunition entirely at 125 of its 720 stores; last year Walmart raised the minimum age for buying guns and ammo from 18 to 21.
Can a position by a business made a difference? One notable case was Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, which was condemned by civil-rights groups as likely to foster discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. After the law prompted a clamorous backlash from organizations ranging from Apple to the NCAA, then-Gov. Mike Pence signed a revision of the law to “make it clear that business owners will not be allowed to discriminate when providing services,” the IndyStar reported.
One company recently made news just by trying to avoid politics altogether. An official of Dunkin’, formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts, said in a private meeting with about 30 academics at a trade conference that the company doesn’t want to take sides, an obvious comparison to its more activist rival.
“We are not Starbucks, we aren’t political—we aren’t gonna put stuff on our cups to start conversations,” said Drayton Martin, the company’s vice president of brand stewardship. “We don’t want to engage you in political conversation, we want to get you in and out of our store in seconds. It’s donuts and ice cream—just be happy,” said Martin, whose remarks were promptly tweeted by University of New Hampshire law professor Alexandra Roberts, who was in the room.
The tweet quickly drew thousands of likes. “It was really surprising to me, frankly,” Roberts told the Boston Globe. “I wouldn’t have expected a message about a brand choosing to be apolitical to be perceived as so political.”
Navigating the political waters is a skill that many companies are still learning, especially when it comes to social media. One notabler example emerged from Britain’s wave of milkshake protests, in which liberal activists have doused supporters of Brexit and other divisive politicians with milkshakes they have conveniently picked up at chain stores.
A Burger King representative apparently decided to capitalize on the controversy, “seeming in response to the news that a McDonald’s near the site of a [Nigel] Farage rally in Edinburgh had been asked to halt sales of milkshakes and ice cream,” the Washington Post reported. Burger King mischievously tweeted, “Dear people of Scotland, we’re selling milkshakes all weekend. Have fun. Love BK #justsaying.” While the tweet drew its share of likes, others protested, saying the tweet could incite violence. Burger King quickly backed off its cheeky approach, tweeting: “We’d never endorse violence—or wasting our delicious milkshakes! So enjoy the weekend and please drink responsibly people.”
Steve Koepp is a co-founder of From Day One. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time