Tara Isabella Burton on How the Chick-fil-A Controversy Shows That Morals and Values Influence the Brands We Buy

Chick-fil-A’s signature chicken sandwich. Photo by John L. Reed/Creative Commons

Tara Isabella Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

It was a culture-war white flag. Chick-fil-A, the Christian-led fried chicken fast food chain that had become a cause célebré among conservatives for its “family values” — including donations to anti-LGBTQ groups like the Salvation Army — announced this week that it would no longer be making donations to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, another faith-based group often under fire for its anti-LGBT stance.

Conservatives were quick to throw Chick-fil-A under the bus. “The left will never be satisfied,” Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro told Fox News. “Once you give an inch to the left with regard to your fundamental principles, the left will never stop … They’re going to lose a lot of supporters on the right who feel like they surrendered to nasty, censorious cancel culture.”

Meanwhile, Orthodox Christian writer (and American Conservative blogger) Rod Dreher angrily tweeted, “Just gave ten bucks to Salvation Army bell ringer because of those stupid chicken cowards.”

Chick-fil-A’s decision to stop donating to socially conservative groups may have been a capitulation to market forces. But both its original donations and its about-face say less about the demands of “cancel culture” than about the contemporary American spiritual marketplace, in which brands — conservative and progressive alike — have come to double as purveyors of value-laden ritual.

Buying the “right” product, boycotting the “right” product — and, of course, pointing out the virtue of one’s choice on social media — have all become formalized ways of allying oneself with a metaphysical or ethical value system.

Indeed, it seems to be (the perception of) morality, rather than, say, sex or money or glamor that governs most contemporary brands’ marketing strategies. According to a 2018 study by Vice’s branding arm, Virtue, 54% of millennials say they were hungry to spend their money on brands that “enhance(d) their spirit and soul.” Seventy-seven percent say they sought out brands that shared their “values.”

For progressives, these brands have in recent years included the razor company Gillette, whose recent high-profile commercial campaigns have included one titled “Be the Best a Man Can Be” — which encouraged men to call each other out on their behavior — and another that featured a father helping his transgender son shave for the first time. (Less successfully, brands like Pepsi have made headlines with a spectacularly ill-advised Black Lives Matter themed advertisement starring Kendall Jenner.)

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Source: Religion News Service