The difference between buying one brand versus another could mean more than the quality of the product.

Research co-led by two Cal Poly marketing professors finds that political polarization in the U.S. has a substantial and often negative impact on individuals’ everyday lives as consumers, causing them to make purchasing decisions that align with their political affiliations.

The research paper, “Political Polarization: Challenges, Opportunities, and Hope for Consumer Welfare, Marketers, and Public Policy,” was published in March in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. 

Marketing professors Chris Hydock and T.J. Weber analyzed existing marketing research about how political affiliation affects consumer purchases as well as political science research on the broad implications of polarization to develop their findings.

“By bringing those two fields of research together, we were able to generate a model to think about how political polarization might impact marketing and consumer behavior,” Hydock said.

Their research is unique in that it analyzes how the overall political makeup of a population impacts consumer behavior, whereas existing research has only analyzed how political affiliation impacts consumer behavior at an individual level, they said.

“We were essentially asking ourselves, ‘What happens when the majority of the population is either really conservative or really liberal?,’” Hydock said.

Their research found that when a population is politically polarized, the extent that individuals think about their political affiliation and behave in a way that reflects their political beliefs increases.

Hydock said that consumers are now more likely to let political beliefs influence their purchasing decisions and also are more conscious of corporations’ political affiliations.

According to Hydock, this political polarization can also pose challenges for businesses. While this polarized landscape could be beneficial for smaller businesses in politically homogeneous areas as a way to connect with their like-minded consumers, it could also be detrimental to larger businesses that must appeal to a wider consumer base located across many different regions.

Another challenge is that consumers now expect businesses to take a stand on political issues. To remedy this, some companies are trying to be socially engaged without directly tackling the more divisive political issues.

According to Weber, there is no evidence that the U.S. population as a whole is becoming more liberal or conservative in ideology, but rather liberals and conservatives are becoming more consistent or predictable in their beliefs today than they were a few decades ago. 

For example, one could more easily predict someone’s stance on certain issues simply by knowing whether they identify as liberal or conservative, whereas in the past, it was more difficult to do so, as liberals and conservatives shared more beliefs.

Another detrimental effect of political polarization is the recent phenomenon of affective polarization, in which individuals are more emotional about politics than they were in the past, and are more likely to dislike or feel threatened by someone of the opposite affiliation.

According to Weber, political polarization has seeped into business consumption partly due to the outcome of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, a court case that allowed corporations to expand their lobbying from issues that strictly affected their financial interests and allowed them to lobby for more divisive political issues.

For example, under the court decision, Chick-fil-A was able to donate money to anti-LGBTQ organizations, which resulted in significant public backlash.

“So you see firms becoming increasingly political themselves, and then consumers who feel disempowered through the election system — they see their purchase decisions as their way of affecting political outcomes,” Weber said.

Weber said this politicized marketplace negatively affects consumers by reducing their choices — now instead of buying a product based on its quality, consumers might boycott that brand because of the brand’s stance on a political issue.

Weber believes a potential solution to political polarization would be to reverse the decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“There needs to be an appropriate amount of regulation on this,” he said. “I think that would reduce the overall salience of these issues because they would be less in our face all the time.”

According to political science professor R.G. Cravens, institutions within our political system such as partisan primaries and gerrymandering also contribute to the problem by reinforcing this polarizing trend. Additionally, taking a more divided stance on issues can be beneficial for politicians as they can garner more votes this way.

“As long as the incentives remain for politicians to take extreme positions, then polarization is going to continue to happen,” Cravens said. “There are some things that we could change structurally in our elections, but there are also behaviors that we would have to undertake to better understand one another.”

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