Celebrating the people and projects of TU's Division of Administration and Finance

Brand Name Politics – Diversity and Consumer Culture

by Eric VanLieshout

When I worked at Starbucks, I found myself uncomfortable when the company began a campaign professing their politics, at the behest of the CEO. “Wait, I serve coffee, not politics – especially not someone else’s politics,” I thought.  And considering the irony existing between the campaign’s object and my hourly wage, the whole scenario bothered me, albeit not enough to reject my new position as politico-barista and quit my job. (In my defense, self-preservation generally trumps personal convictions.)

In ever increasing numbers, prominent American business executives are pronouncing – publicly – their political beliefs and causes, often funding pet organizations and think tanks with what ultimately amounts to consumer dollars. Top executives at Facebook, Starbucks and most recently Chick-fil-a (to name a scant few) have all injected politics into their image; each brand has come to represents a subtle dogma, in a manner of speaking. Putting aside personal convictions and contentions surrounding this practice, what implications exist for Towson, as some on-campus vendors are now, in essence, political entities?

Towson University prides itself in the diversity it harbors and nurtures – rightly so, too. Through trial and tribulation, the university has remained steadfast in tolerating all ideologies that seek expression and acceptance on campus (within peaceful and lawful limits). Yet perhaps more importantly, Towson has successfully integrated this diversity to the point of normalcy, an innate feature as opposed to a hyperbolic “goal” or “quota.” That said, “trial and tribulation” is not just an idiom, and litigating challenges, such as the hate/bias issues of last autumn, can be stressful efforts. And by general practice, politics is more often than not synonymous with challenge.

Joe Oster, the AVP for Auxiliary Services, weighed in on the matter: “I do not like it when businesses, one way or the other, profess their beliefs and then others try tell the general population whether they should use their product or not. Customers today are very savvy and make their political decisions with their purchases. I may have different viewpoints from the owners of Google, Chick-fil-a, Walmart and Facebook, but I use, or shop, with all of them.” Having worked for the Associated Students of UCLA, Mr. Oster understands first-hand the difficulty created when an institution’s board tries to counter politics with more politics, explaining “it often made finding products and services very challenging.” Instead, he favors a more neutral approach, believing that students, faculty and staff will “dictate their preferences via their purchases.”

Thus (and in my opinion),  choosing and/or retaining on-campus vendors could remain a more neutral supply and demand issue, better circumventing more overt and controversial politics. That said, my object is not to analyze or problem solve. Instead, my goal is simply to entice interest and spur reflection on Towson University not as school, but as an important social institution. As times change and new challenges emerge, it is intriguing and exciting to see how forward-thinking institutions such as Towson University navigate these new challenges without disparaging their founding principles.

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