The recent accusations against Senate candidate Roy Moore triggered a spat between conservative talk show host Sean Hannity and … Keurig. Yes, the coffee company.
Here’s what happened: Angelo Carusone of Media Matters for America took issue with Hannity’s commentary on the accusations, then took to Twitter to try to get companies that advertise with Hannity’s Fox News show to pull their media dollars. Keurig tweeted back that it was pulling its ads. So far, this is a story that could have run any time in the past few years.
But Hannity’s supporters decided to engage in their own boycott, a particularly vivid one: They started finding creative ways to destroy their Keurig machines. Then they tweeted out the links so that like-minded folks could find enjoyment and inspiration in the work. Hannity offered encouraging remarks. Forget latte-sipping liberals; the new symbol of our partisan wars appears to be a K-cup.
But before the conflict reached mutually assured destruction, the two sides managed to reach détente: Keurig offered an apology, and Hannity accepted it, mentioning that he had five Keurig machines himself.
What can we learn from this? First, that a company with Keurig’s business model is going to be vulnerable to this sort of consumer unrest. You wouldn’t think a company would be so worried about consumers smashing up their machines; given the lifespan of the average boycott (somewhat shorter than the attention span of the average third-grader), this just means more future sales for Keurig. But Keurig’s business model is not so much about selling machines as selling you coffee pods, over and over and over again. So one dead machine represents a lot of lost sales. And once you’ve destroyed your machine and have to replace it — even if you’ve forgiven the company — well, maybe next time you’ll buy a different kind of coffeemaker.
The second thing we’ve learned is the dangers of companies getting involved in boycotts. Pulling your ads from a controversial show can seem like a cheap way to curry favor with customers, positioning yourself as the good guy, the company with a heart. And thanks to social media, you can get that message out practically for free.
But what social media giveth, social media taketh away: If you are seen as taking sides in a political dispute, the other side finds it easy to organize its own counter-boycott. Consider what happened when Federica Marchionni, formerly of Dolce and Gabbana, took over Lands’ End, that repository of wardrobe options for sensible middle-age members of the middle-class. She apparently wanted to make Lands’ End a little edgier, so she put feminist icon Gloria Steinem in the catalogue. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that anti-abortionists would not appreciate finding a strident advocate of abortion rights nestled among their fleece parkas and mom-jeans. After a fierce backlash, the company apologized and removed Steinem from the online version — at which point pro-choicers took up the cudgel of outrage.
As this example suggests, once you have gotten involved in a controversy, there is no easy way to get uninvolved. Unless your customer base is overwhelmingly of one political persuasion or another, the safest thing to do is probably to stay out of these disputes entirely. Which suggests that pressure tactics, in which one side or the other pushes corporations to use their corporate spending to advance that agenda, may not be as successful in the future as they have been in the recent past.
But there’s another possibility, which is that everything is going to be politicized, even more than it is now. Yes, some brands are identified with some particular kinds of politics. But the more often these boycott and counter-boycott tactics are used, the more politics will seep into every facet of our lives, until companies no longer even think of launching or promoting a product without first identifying the voting habits of the people who will use it. We will find ourselves thinking of the world in terms of “Charmin people vs. Angel Soft people,” or “Cheerios liberals against Raisin Bran Republicans.”
And the third thing we learn? That American politics has changed, a lot, and not in a good way.
Politics has always involved a certain amount of temptation to overlook scandals on your team. But I’m old enough to remember when a man in his thirties groping the privates of a 14-year-old girl was not one of those overlookable scandals.
As a bemused liberal asked on Twitter, have we really reached the point where people are destroying coffee machines in support of an accused child molester? Well yes, we have. And what does that say about us?
I cannot prove that Roy Moore did this, but 10 or 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered in the political arena whether he’d done it. He would have withdrawn from the campaign days ago, because the powers-that-be in his own party would have told him: “You’re toast, Roy. Time to step aside, or we’ll start applying the thumbscrews.” Whether from moral horror or pure self-interest, party leaders would have gotten him out of the race because they’d have feared the electoral bloodbath if they didn’t.
But the partisan siege mentality is now so strong that many voters seem eager to support him anyway — sometimes by finding reasons to disbelieve his accusers, but often with a frank “Yeah, but Clinton!” And the party, which would very much like to get him out of the race anyway, seems powerless.
Once upon a time, campaign reformers dreamed of a world beyond the tiresome duopoly of Democrat vs. Republican. Instead, we have higher partisanship but parties too crippled to prevent that partisanship from running amok.
And what does “amok” look like? It looks like a reality-TV star in the White House who brags about groping women and panders to racists. It looks like a suspected sexual predator on the ballot for a Senate seat. It looks like the crumpled remains of a bashed-in Keurig machine. Yes, it has come to this.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.