I'm Bill Gerba, and I approved this message. If you're living in the US, you've probably heard that sentence (sans my name, of course) a zillion times over the past few months as candidates for all sorts of offices have tried to claw their way out of the TV and into your brain to influence your decision on election day. In addition to the endless commercials, direct mail flyers (I've somehow been invited to numerous $1,000 per-head dinners by both parties -- no thanks!), and blogs and Internet "news" sites, the candidates' minions have also been busy putting up signs and placards on every street corner -- plus posters on every visible space that will allow them. So it's a bit counter-intuitive to think that the places that typically contain the most commercial messages per square foot -- retail stores -- have been a safe haven from political ads. The question is: why?
Every store is a purple store
It's not that retailers can't run political ads. Stores are private spaces, so the corporate powers-that-be can do virtually anything they want as far as internal messaging is concerned. But regardless of what the mass media might feed us about "red" and "blue" states, the simple truth is that there are plenty of Democrats, Republicans and independents wherever you look. Thus, promoting one candidate means you're always going to be ticking off a certain percentage of your customer base, and that's not good for business. I don't claim to know the contents of every network operations contract and ad sales agreement signed between retailers and digital signage companies, but I'm willing to bet that most have an implicit understanding, if not an explicit clause, keeping political ads off-limits for that very reason -- greater good be darned.
I use the phrase "greater good" above for maximum effect, because my more politically-inclined friends still insist that being an activist for your preferred candidate somehow improves the world. I've never really bought into this on an individual level. And I'm downright positive that it's totally untrue when applied to retailers, hotels, restaurants and other commercially-driven private and semi-public spaces. Pick a candidate, and you alienate some portion of your customer base. If your guy wins, you've essentially locked in that alienation for the next four, six or eight years, depending on the office. If your guy loses, your customers' memories of your activism will likely fade more quickly, but you still haven't encouraged any additional loyalty. Unless there are considerable political favors to be had if your candidate prevails (which I understand is a big no-no), it's a lose-lose situation for the retailer.
Gas stations and retailers are in the spotlight
Gas Station TV (which sells ads on pump-top digital screens) was in the news recently for coming to this very conclusion. Apparently, the Obama campaign approached the company about buying ad time to talk about the energy crisis behind $4/gallon gas. However, Gas Station TV made "a conscious decision not to run political ads" and eventually refused to accept the placement. It doesn't take much imagination to guess what might have happened had they run the ads. Regardless of where you lean on the political spectrum, it's not going to be very comforting to hear about why gas is so expensive while you're right in the middle of pumping that expensive gas into your car. And that discomfort might get transferred to the station or brand of stations playing the ads, which could easily translate to future lost sales.
The nation's largest retailer, Walmart, has taken a different approach to handling political ads. Instead of explicitly endorsing one party or another, they've decided to air voting-oriented public service announcements on their in-store TV network. Arranged like a series of old-school gym posters, the "Exercise Your Right to Vote" campaign will be seen by 136 million customers and 1.4 million US store employees every week. Superficially, at least, the Walmart behemoth appears to be doing good and encouraging the democratic process. Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, think the retailer has a preferred candidate and a good understanding of how core shoppers are likely to vote, and believe that the latter might help get the former elected if enough of them can be encouraged to go to the polls. If that theory is true, Walmart could score a major coup by getting their choice for president elected while never running a single political ad in their stores -- all the while encouraging fair play by airing public service announcements instead.
Taking sides is unlikely to pay off
When I was growing up, discussions about religion and politics were generally off-the-table at our family gatherings. (Things were loud and fractious enough without broaching those topics.) That same rule definitely carries over into the retail space, as well it should. Unless a retailer has a significant vested interest and a predictable upside in seeing a particular candidate win office, they're much better off avoiding the entire debate. And while a mom-and-pop operation probably isn't going to run into too many problems supporting their man (or woman) for the city council, that doesn't carry over to national retailers. When you have to present a unified image and message to multiple idiosyncratic audiences in cities and towns all around the country, the game changes considerably.
Say what you will about capitalism trumping politics. I'll take ads for Pop-Tarts over presidential candidates any day.
Did Gas Station TV and Walmart make the right decision to avoid politically-charged ads? Leave a comment and let me know your opinion.