Public shame can be an effective tool of radical change, especially when the object of the outrage needs to "get with the program." Consider the California lawsuit filed against eHarmony for discriminating against gays and lesbians by not allowing them to search the site for same-sex partners. (Class action status has been proposed in the matter, but not yet granted.)
But breeding resentment is the least productive way of accomplishing lasting social change. Better to find common ground -- even if it's the profit motive: reaching out ideologically to a consumer base in need that will generate tons of goodwill and likely increased patronage as well.
For traditionally conservative companies, such as Wal-Mart, that may mean baby steps, beginning the equality conversation within a comfortable corporate atmosphere.
Still, more companies than ever are awakening to the social reality in which they operate, and feel inclined to undertake grand gestures of acceptance and camaraderie. P&G's "My Black is Beautiful" campaign falls into this category.
Consider Disney, a self-righteous and classically "All-American" company.
Last April, when the company decided to "open [its] 'Fairy Tail Weddings' program to same-sex couples," a happy shock rippled through the equality-minded world. Theirs was no mere rubber stamp. Few liberals are inclined to publicly declare their support of conservative companies, but no goal-oriented activist with a prayer of success is going to turn down a thumbs-up from Disney.
Beyond bolstering the corporate equality trend, Disney's giant leap toward inclusiveness was a watershed moment for the equality movement. According to MagicalMountain.net, which tracks Disney, the "dramatic change of policy" generated a flurry of criticism from conservative religious organizations that accused the company of pandering and forfeiting its own values.
(Of course, those "conservative religious organizations" have done a great job leading by example over the past year. Prostitution and drug use are model behaviors.)
Certainly, even companies that wear inclusiveness on their sleeve need to stay vigilant. Back in March I excoriated Travelocity, which has long purported to support the GLBT community in particular and equality in general, after one of its media planners decided that the company was "unfortunately not yet comfortable with all of the political issues surrounding gay marriage." Moreover, this planner, who worked at OMD, said, "I think this is an issue that goes above and beyond anything happening in the marketing department at the company."
Immediately after learning of the statement, both Jeff Glueck, the company's CMO, and Jack Hanrahan, former head of print strategy at OMD, contacted me to personally apologize. Glueck's response was one that anyone working honestly toward equality -- rather than special treatment -- can support: "As a business we do not take political positions, nor do we make advertising decisions based on political issues. ...We firmly stand by treating all the various communities we serve with respect, and we think that's what a responsible business does."
One doesn't become a seminal American company without a healthy dose of business acumen; it's no coincidence that exactly 17 out of 30 -- or 57% -- of the Dow components are listed on the Human Rights Campaign's 2007 ranking of the "Best Places to Work for GLBT Equality." From a marketing perspective, these companies have internalized the core message expounded for years by GLBT-focused firms: "Seven in 10 (70%) [gay, lesbian, and bisexual] respondents say they are extremely or very likely to consider a brand that is known to provide equal workplace benefits for all of their employees, including gays and lesbians."
Another example: In its April 10, 2006, edition, Crain's New York Business reported that Goldman Sachs not only empowers its GLBT employees within the corporate structure, it embraces their family lives, too, throwing anniversary and pre-commitment ceremony celebrations for them and their partners -- just as it does for the company's heterosexual contingent.
The payoff of equality is real, even beyond the social good. Goldman is a model of across-the-board inclusiveness for both employees and consumers. And last year, the company's employees raked in more than $16 billion (with a B) in bonuses. Maybe that's serendipity, but I can't help wonder if the two are related.
P.S. Go California! Push that marriage equality envelope! Reflection coming soon.