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Thursday, October 28, 2004 - Page updated at 05:47 P.M.
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Correction: A previous version of this article about Patagonia's recent ad campaign aimed at environmental voters incorrectly said that Fenton Communications created the ads. The ads were created by Patagonia.

Election '04 finds some companies into politics

By J. Patrick Coolican and Kristi Heim
Seattle Times staff reporters

PATAGONIA
Outdoor-clothing company Patagonia is spending $500,000 on a voter-registration advertising campaign, "Vote the Environment." One features surfer Chris Malloy.
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Never talk about religion or politics, goes one of the oldest rules of business.

This political season, however, a number of companies are breaking that tradition — the politics part of it, anyway — lending their marketing leverage to politics while trying to enliven their brands with socially active coolness.

Companies using their advertising dollars to sell politics — Patagonia, Kenneth Cole, Clif Bar — all profess to be nonpartisan as they seek to increase voter turnout. But political scientists say these turnout efforts probably will help Democrats, who generally do better in elections with heavy turnout.

Moreover, many of the companies serve customers who political scientists suspect are more likely to vote Democratic.

That could be countered by many small businesses happy to display Bush/Cheney and other Republican material in their stores and sell President Bush to one customer at a time, which political operatives say is a highly effective vote-getting technique.

There's more than just politics at play here, marketing experts say. Businesses such as Stonyfield Farm and Working Assets hope to burnish their brand image, thinking their customers will want to be associated with a sheen of social activism in their buying habits.

Marketing experts add, however, that businesses carry great risks of alienating customers by seeming to take a side in a caustic electoral contest.

These get-out-the-vote efforts — will contribute to the highest turnout since 1992.

Patagonia, based in Ventura, Calif., has always given 1 percent of its sales to environmental projects and causes. But this year, a spokesman for the outdoor-clothing company said, owners Yvon and Melinda Chouinard decided they could have an impact on environmental issues by using the Patagonia brand to get customers to "Vote the Environment" as the campaign is called. They're spending $500,000 on the effort.

KENNETH COLE
Shoe and clothing company Kenneth Cole is running ads and billboards encouraging people to vote.
"The environmental crisis becomes more of a crisis all the time, and the political process is a way people can get involved and do something about it," said Rick Ridgeway, vice president for communications.

Though the campaign is nonpartisan, the company hired Fenton Communications, a premier public-relations firm for liberal groups, including MoveOn.org. Climber Dean Potter and surfer Chris Malloy appear in full-page magazine ads in which they say they've never voted before, but will do so this year because pollution threatens their active lifestyle.

Ridgeway said the company discovered that 30 percent of Sierra Club members didn't vote in 2000; they and people like them are being targeted, he said.

Dean Mayer, spokesman for Berkeley, Calif.-based Clif Bar, said the organic energy-bar company passed out 14,000 voter-registration cards this year. Like Patagonia, the company focuses on environmental defense.

And, as in past years, Stonyfield Farm, a Londonderry, N.H., yogurt maker, is using its lids to promote environmental protection and other social causes.

Given that Democratic Sen. John Kerry has won the endorsement of nearly all mainstream environmental groups, these efforts would seem to help him, though some people may vote for the Green Party's Ralph Nader, said professor John Gastil, who studies campaigns at the University of Washington. "They could certainly be in the Nader camp. But, yeah, you're not selling them on Bush," he said.

Match.com has signed up voters who are single, a group that polls indicate leans toward Kerry.

Kenneth Cole, head of the New York-based shoe and clothing company that bears his name, is married to the daughter of a liberal lion, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Cole has run ads — many on towering city billboards — that say "Over 100 million eligible voters made an impact on the last election. They didn't vote. Are you putting us on"?

Getting some of them to the polls will help Democrats, Gastil said. New voters tend to be on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder and lean toward Democrats. "The deeper you go into the electorate, the stronger Kerry's support gets," Gastil said.

The companies using their brands in this election probably have more in mind than just political issues, candidates and do-gooder civic activism. Their efforts will have an impact on how the company's brand is perceived, said Mark Forehand, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington.

"A brand is a collection of associations and feelings. Activism can create positive associations."

But companies must be scrupulous in at least seeming nonpartisan, Forehand said, lest they alienate their customers, which can be a lifetime punishment. "The risk is that one negative piece of information far outweighs many positive pieces of information," Forehand said.

Patagonia has seen some backlash, spokesman Ridgeway said. "It irritates many people," he said. "We get calls and e-mails saying stick to making clothes, keep the seams from unraveling and keep it waterproof. But we're not only in the business to make money."

Forehand said Patagonia is insulated from the disaster that has befallen Sinclair Broadcasting, the media company that incited an advertising boycott over plans to air an anti-Kerry documentary on its 62 television affiliates. Patagonia's efforts are at least nominally nonpartisan, and the company's market skews toward environmentalists anyway.

Sinclair, on the other hand, is a huge company with an audience split among Democrats and Republicans.

Small, specialty businesses don't have the same problem, and their efforts may cancel out those likely to help Democrats.

Terry Rodgers, who owns All American Arms in Spokane, has registered voters at his gun store, displayed signs and handed out brochures. He said he reminds customers to vote, and vote for President Bush, all the time.

He began recruiting voters in 2002 after encouragement from Robin Ball, chairwoman of the Spokane County Republicans and owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range. Because of the threat of gun control, "where my business is concerned, I'm a single-issue voter," she said, although she conceded that Democrats have lately dropped the issue.

Gastil, the UW political scientist, isn't convinced any of this business activity will have an impact on the November outcome.

"When Kmart does it, my ears will perk up."

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or jcoolican@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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