Entrepreneurs' Use of Controversial Political Messages - the Effect on Potential Patrons

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

An increasing number of studies show the importance of social competence and social interaction to the success of entrepreneurs in business settings. Behavioral characteristics of entrepreneurs may lead them to be overzealous in their efforts to influence others, which may result in a negative impact on their business's performance. The purpose of this study is to examine the effect of an entrepreneur's indirect social interaction on potential patrons by testing reactions to controversial messages posted on reader-board signs outside of businesses. Such messages are occasionally seen in the communities inhabited by the researchers and may contain extreme statements such as, "Nuke our Enemies Now," and "Gun Control Means Using Two Hands to Shoot."

The research was conducted using a quasi-experimental design with three different treatments. The dependent variable was "likelihood of business patronage." Independent variables included "degree of message controversy," "agreement with the message," and "importance of the message to the respondent." Results indicate that controversial messages evoke less likelihood of business patronage. Important messages with which respondents disagree also elicit less patronage.

INTRODUCTION

A drive down the thoroughfare of any of America's many commercial districts, often called "golden strips," will yield a cacophony of images from numerous commercial entities vying for the attention of the quintessential American consumer. Billboards, blinking neon, and elaborate signs all compete to attract potential customers. One mainstay communications medium of many small businesses and retail establishments is the reader board, a simple sign with interchangeable letters used to convey temporary messages. While reader boards are often used to advertise current sale prices, new product information, or promotional events, they can also be used to convey sentiments about current events or political views. A recent example of a typical political reader-board message is the popular "Support Our Troops" message displayed on numerous signs across America.

A perplexing choice made by business owners in some communities is to display readerboard messages containing some element of political controversy. For example, a business's sign in one community temporarily admonished government to "Stop All Aid to Countries Who Don't Support Us - Give the Money to Our Own." Still another invoked drivers-by to "Vote No Big Fat School Levy - Fix Da [sic] Streets" (Guilfoil, 2003). Such reader-board messages are nearly always displayed by entrepreneurial or privately-owned businesses, where little interference or filtering influence exists in the way of public relations officers, management committees, or boards of directors (Teal & Carroll, 1999). The private owner is independent when choosing to influence others.

The choice to communicate with customers in such a manner provides a linkage between a business and an issue. That message and linkage may not affect the business at all, it may be beneficial, or it may be detrimental. Little is known about the effect of using a fairly superficial marketing mechanism like a reader board to convey a business's values or to influence the public's opinions. Even in the case where a message conveys a generally well-accepted societal norm ("Support Our Troops"), little is known about the effect on consumers. Perhaps some individuals find such patriotic displays appealing, while others find them inappropriate in a business setting. From some of the reader-board examples included in this paper, we see that messages display values that range from the wholesomeness of patriotic duty to biased simplification of a complex political issue. Yet the effect of conveying such unfiltered messages is unknown.

Why, then, are reader boards used to convey sentiments generally unrelated to the business, particularly controversial political messages? …