Basketball legend Michael Jordan was once reportedly asked by a friend why he didn't get involved in a North Carolina election involving Jesse Helms, who once tried to block Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday from becoming a federal holiday. His response: "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
More than two decades later, many consumers still remember it as one of Jordan's rare missteps. Twenty years from today, millions of now-young consumers will remember where today's celebrities and brands stood on the hot-button issues of their time.
The topic is especially timely as at press time, the Supreme Court recently heard arguments for and against California's Proposition 8, which bars gay marriage in the state. A number of companies, from liquor brands Smirnoff and Absolut to Bud Light and Amazon.com, have expressed support for gay marriage, many using a variation of the Human Rights Campaign's equality symbol in their online marketing.
Consumers will remember their support for the issue, but many will note the companies that only jumped on the bandwagon when gay marriage was supported by a majority of Americans. It pays to be first - or at least early - in support of principled topics from anti-sweatshop labor to immigration reform. Of course, some issues are too hot to touch. Look for companies vocally supporting an assault-weapons ban and you can hear a pin drop.
Consumers have mixed feelings on companies that stick their necks out on controversial issues, according to a recent report from Global Strategy Group. More than seven in 10 respondents said it was important for corporations to take action on the important issues facing society, but 56% also said it was inappropriate for a company to take a stance on political issues not related to their business. Then again, nearly 70% of respondents said they agreed with retailer Nordstrom's support of same-sex marriage and partner rights, and 66% said they were aware of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy's comments decrying same-sex marriage.
In other words, the safest place for corporations is on the sidelines, far from any controversial social or political topic. But consumers have good memories, and they'll recall the brands that went out on a limb for the causes they support years before they were popular or part of a fashionable social marketing meme.
Frank Washkuch is the news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.