There’s a lot of discussion going around gaming sites about Stardock CEO Brad Wardell announcing that his company would boycott UPS because UPS was pulling its ads from Fox.
Wardell’s backtracking since the story began to circulate is the kind of mix-and-matching of gestures that makes me rub my temples wearily. His objection to the UPS boycott, he said, had nothing to do with Fox News or Glenn Beck, just that UPS had made a public statement that they were conducting a boycott. His own statement wasn’t intended to be a public action, because he made it on a Facebook page to hundreds of friends. He doesn’t like companies that try to push ideology, but he’s not trying to do the same. The Internet twists what people mean to say or do.
Ok. Wardell is not the first to feel that what happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook. I’m sympathetic when the person saying that is an 18-year old who is stunned that some stranger is making fun of a humiliating picture or statement from a Facebook page. I’m not so sympathetic of a professional who has by his own recounting been in business with digital media for 20 years professing equal surprise that what was said on Facebook circulated beyond Facebook.
I’m also a bit confused by Wardell’s views on companies, ideology and advertising. Stardock makes interesting games, but it’s equally known for a taking a very strong position against conventional forms of DRM, a position which Wardell and others have definitely seen as extending beyond their own products. That makes perfect sense: DRM protection is a core issue for digital media producers. But consumer products companies that advertise on television similarly have every reason in the world to be concerned with the associations that can form between the content of such media and the products advertised alongside that content. If you were hoping to reach the audience for some programming at a particular network, but that network as a whole had gained a very strong negative reputation with some of your customer base due to one or two provocative programs, why not try to influence the network towards being a more favorable advertising environment? If you’re trying to influence the network, why not say something publically about your own company’s position?
Let’s suppose Wardell’s decision to prefer FedEx as a carrier was completely private, that he just told his fulfillment people to switch and didn’t tell anybody why he was doing it. So now UPS doesn’t know what they’ve done to lose Stardock’s business. If Wardell doesn’t want politics to influence business, he can’t even tell them that he’s made a switch for some reason other than pricing, because surely it’s a political position to argue that in some aspect of life, we shouldn’t have political positions. So what’s the point of calling down to his employees and telling them to switch to FedEx? Personal whimsy fueled by quick-fire emotional reactions, I suppose. I’m kind of thinking that’s not really the best way to run a business, but there’s precedent enough for eccentric if successful CEOs sending off OCD-fueled memos about the seams in the fabric of an employee’s shirt.
If a CEO is entitled to shift company policy based on momentary annoyance, it’s even easier for consumers to let momentary annoyance influence what are already whimsical buying decisions. I have a lot of things to play and view, my cup runneth over. I tend to find, though, that it’s these kinds of quick and emotional reactions to companies that become lasting buying rules for me. I need a lot of persuading to get involved in a formal, highly coordinated boycott campaign, but very little to trigger a kind of private decision to avoid a particular company. When I get really irked by dumb management of a product launch, for example, that tends to lock in a “don’t buy from those guys unless they give me some reason to reverse my feelings” attitude if the company’s products are ones that I can take or leave or are interchangeable with products from other companies.