Major corporations used to keep mum about controversial social matters — until relatively recently, when they began tackling LGBTQ issues, voting rights and racial inequality.
In 2015, after the Indiana legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that could have allowed business owners to refuse to serve LGBTQ customers for religious reasons, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff immediately spoke out. “We are forced to dramatically reduce our investment in IN based on our employee’s & customer’s outrage over the Religious Freedom Bill,” he tweeted.
The next day, after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law, Benioff escalated to a boycott: “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination,” he tweeted.
Benioff was not alone in this fight. Apple CEO Tim Cook blasted the law in a Washington Post op-ed. More than 70 other tech executives, including from Microsoft, Netflix and Intel, signed an open letter decrying “proposed bills and existing laws that would put the rights of minorities at risk.”
“The transparent and open economy of the future depends on it,” they declared, “and the values of this great nation are at stake.”
The full-court press worked: A week later, the law was revised to explicitly forbid discriminating against LGBTQ people. That campaign became a template for corporate pushback over future issues, notably trans “bathroom bills” and voting rights.
And then came abortion.
Conservative states have been teeing up restrictive abortion laws in the hopes that a conservative-majority Supreme Court will finally overturn Roe v. Wade or, at least, dramatically narrow its scope. The left is outraged, and pressure has been mounting for corporations to weigh in. Yet now corporate America seems once again rather muted.
The first big open letter debuted Tuesday, weeks after a controversial Texas law took effect, and emphasizes mainly that restricting abortion will be economically costly, preventing businesses from deploying the best possible workforce. The list of signatories shows a few big names, including Lyft, among a lot of smaller ones, with a noticeable tilt toward brands that sell to affluent women.
As for Benioff, Salesforce has offered to relocate any employee who is concerned about access to reproductive health care. But its corporate memo declined to take a position on the law, saying: “We recognize and respect that we all have deeply held and different perspectives. As a company, we stand with all of our women at Salesforce and everywhere.” As of this writing, Salesforce has not signed the open letter.
Why does corporate America suddenly seem eager to stay on the sidelines of one of the major issues of our time? Longtime critics of “woke capital” might suggest this is proof that these campaigns are less of a sincere moral crusade than an elaborate marketing scheme.
That strikes me as unnecessarily cynical; the CEOs who led those earlier charges were clearly outraged. But it’s also fair to say that companies want to choose their battles — with one eye on their bottom line. Notice how many protest American injustices while maintaining a polite silence about much larger abuses by the Chinese government.
Same-sex marriage, transgender bathroom access and even voting rights were relatively easy battles to choose. They all integrate smoothly into a free-market liberal paradigm where individual choice is sovereign and no customer — er, citizen — should ever be unwanted, uncomfortable or unheard. The left has framed abortion the same way: “My body, my choice.” But most people never quite forget that there is another body involved, however small.
Speaking of abortion thus unavoidably arouses more negative associations than offering gauzy tributes to “love” or “democracy.” It would be understandable if corporations were leery of attaching those negative emotions to their brands. Especially since that extra body’s stubborn presence has kept Americans from “evolving” on abortion the way that the bien-pensants of 1973 no doubt imagined we would — and the way we actually have done on racial equality and gay rights.
On abortion, our views remained remarkably stable and also muddled: Most Americans say they want to keep Roe and that abortion should remain legal in at least some circumstances. But if you ask them to specify circumstances, the ones that command majority support are relatively few — and suggest a much more conservative set of laws than the no-restrictions-until-the-point-of-viability dictums imposed by the Supreme Court.
The CEOs who jumped into a dispute about LGBTQ rights in 2015 could be confident that they were swimming with the tide of public opinion, particularly among the most desirable consumer demographics. But CEOs who speak out on abortion can’t be sure that their efforts will place them on the “right side of history,” much less the upside of their own balance sheet. It’s not surprising that so many refuse to expend their reputational capital on a campaign with no clear winners — and a lot of potential losers.