Well, you could see this one coming.
On Thursday, Target Corp., a company that prides itself on its ability to be closely attuned to its customers' whims and desires, apologized profusely for a six-figure donation of its customers' money to MN Forward, a business group that so far seems to exist to back conservative Republican candidates. Target was facing a boycott and a severe backlash from groups of its customers, particularly gay rights advocates.
There was nothing illegal or untoward about the donation; in fact, it was somewhat pioneering, steeped as it was in the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in January of this year.
That ruling, as you will recall, put corporations on a par with individual citizens by stating that the government cannot ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.
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But to those of us who have spent decades tailoring advertising and communications messages for corporations as well as for nonprofit causes, advocacy organizations and political candidates, this was a train wreck waiting to happen.
In fairness, the Citizens United ruling did not just benefit corporations that wanted to use their profits to do more than dabble in electoral politics. It was a sword that cut both ways, in that it removed restrictions on labor unions and all other incorporated organizations.
Earlier this year, I had a conversation with backers of a candidate for governor in an eastern state. They wanted to support a progressive candidate in the upcoming primary, but they were nervous about the candidate's ability to raise money, and most of all, they wanted to support a winner. Their preferred candidate didn't have the money to win and it was unlikely his campaign could raise it.
I told them I thought the answer to their problem was in the Citizens United ruling.
But first, some background: In the 20-some years our company has been making at least part of its money in politics, there are two things I've learned about our electoral process:
We fund our political campaigns much differently from the rest of the world and in about the goofiest way anybody could dream up.
And the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is pretty much the most toothless and inept organization in our government, specifically designed by both the Republicans and the Democrats to create as much stasis and inaction as bureaucratically possible.
And that's why I told the people back east that unions and basically ANY incorporated entity now have carte blanche to do what they want with their money in elections. In my view (and apparently, that of the Supreme Court), if unions or other organizations decide they want to wholly underwrite a candidate's campaign, the logic behind the Citizens United ruling makes that a possibility well worth entertaining.
Ultimately, they didn't do it. But even if they had, they would not have found themselves in the quicksand Target found itself in, and where other companies are also destined to flounder.
You see, the FEC's idea of quick and dramatic action is to take a few years to study a complaint, then issue a ruling that no laws were violated or that a fine is in order. One action it NEVER contemplates, however, is overturning an election. So even though some of these fines are occasionally sizeable--into six figures--winning campaigns that collected tens or scores of millions of dollars in election contributions merely snigger and pay the fines. The election ends, there is a winner and a loser, and what's done is done. The voters accept the result and move on and the FEC breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to sleep.
But for corporations with customers, there is no end to the election. Their voters are consumers who get to vote every time they enter (or don't enter) the store and make a purchase decision. And that makes navigating these waters particularly tricky. Red Wing makes great boots. But so do other companies. Polaris makes good snowmobiles; but so does Arctic Cat. If Polaris makes a contribution to MN Forward, does that make me more likely or less likely to buy the Arctic Cat instead?
So while unions and other organizations who are long-time players in the political games might read the Citizens United decision, do what they want, and in the end take the attitude of "so sue me" after the election, most corporations cannot afford to take the same stance. (And corporations should not expect the organizations they are funding to be looking out for them -- they just want the money. Soliciting political contributions is just another form of selling; caveat emptor is a good motto to live by.)
As the Target controversy proved, at least some of its customers don't want corporate boardrooms in their bedrooms any more than they want the government in their bedrooms. If corporations want to be players in electoral politics without a lot of blowback, they need the skilled guidance of communicators who know the political landmines.(People who do what I do.)
Otherwise, unlike the unions -- who can distill the Citizens United ruling down to two words: "Sue me" -- corporations will continue to find themselves in situations that require a very different two words: "We're sorry."
Bill Hillsman is the author of "Run The Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time" and the president of North Woods Advertising, a Minneapolis-based consumer and political communications company. His firm did media consulting work for the campaigns of Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone.