Will Apple's Stance on Ballot Measure Come Back to Haunt It?

Apple made headlines when it donated US$100,000 to defeat a measure appearing on Tuesday's California ballot that would ban gay marriage in the state. But even more noteworthy than the size of Apple's contribution was the prominence given the decision--Apple posted a statement on its Hot News page outlining its opposition to Proposition 8.

Many Silicon Valley executives have outlined their opposition to the ballot measure, which Californians will vote on Tuesday. Google has announced its opposition to Proposition 8, and both of that company's founders have donated heavily to anti-Prop-8 efforts.

Still, it's rare for consumer-oriented companies to weigh in on potentially controversial topics. For Apple to publicly commit to a specific political stance is unusual, both for the company and for corporations on the whole since it runs the risk of alienating the percentage of its customer base that may not share those views. But, some argue those risks may be outweighed by the rewards.

Liz Loden, who heads cause-marketing firm iRainmakers, says that companies typically donate to multiple candidates or special interests. It's a way of ensuring the corporation keeps its business options open. "They want to promote conversation and dialogue on both sides," she said.

Taking a specific stance could certainly risk potential lines of revenue. But when a company takes a public stance on any issue, the first and most immediate risk comes not from the outside, but internally.

Take Microsoft, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a progressive employer. The software giant was one of the first major companies to provide domestic partner benefits and to include sexual orientation in its corporate nondiscrimination policy, it's lobbied against various local anti-gay initiatives and bills, and it has donated sponsorships or equipment to numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil-rights and service organizations. But in 2005, the company withdrew its support from a Washington state bill that would have banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and insurance. The reason, according to an e-mail Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent, was the potential for divisiveness in the company.

"I don't want the company to be in the position of appearing to dismiss the deeply-held beliefs of any employee by picking sides on social policy issues," Ballmer wrote at the time.

As of press time, there has been no reports of dissent from Apple employees over the company's donation to No on 8. Apple has described its involvement with the ballot measure as a civil rights issue, not as a social one.

While Apple may see the California proposition as a civil rights issue, some longtime customers do not share that perspective. Former Mac User Group leader and longtime Mac user Allen Hall told Macworld that his commitment to Christianity was a reason why he'd no longer buy Apple products.

Jeff Bell, another long-time Apple customer, plans a similar boycott. "I have no problem with Steve Jobs giving the gay rights movement all of his money but to put Apple Inc. as the donor makes my blood boil," Bell told Macworld. "I don't want to have my hard earned money wasted on this cause that I do not believe in."

However, iRainmakers' Loden says the likelihood of a company suffering a serious business setback over its stance on one social issue is small. Usually, she says, consumers take a wider view based on a number of different issues. For example, a consumer may not care for a company's position on gay rights, but applaud its environmental efforts.

In fact, it may be in a company's best interest to start speaking out on social issues. Loden says that there's been a shift in consumer sentiment--people like when corporations take positions on social issues because it's perceived as proof that corporations are concerned with what's going on in their consumer's communities.

"More and more consumers are looking for companies that are helping their communities to thrive. Visibility on issues for social good can be beneficial to corporations," Loden said.

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