If it’s a Sunday, it means Chick-fil-A stores all across America are closed — just as they have been since the company’s founding in 1946. Longtime patrons know they will have to wait until Monday to get their spicy chicken sandwich.

Many will stop by then simply because they are hungry. But for others, ordering the restaurant’s famous waffle fries will serve as a vote against gay marriage or for free speech — or both.

A month ago, on July 2, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told a North Carolina Baptist website that his privately owned company supported the “biblical definition of the family unit.” When the story was picked up in mid-July by the Baptist Press, it quickly became the religious publisher’s most-read article of 2012.

Cathy’s comments soon turned into a takeout feed bag for politicians and cable news shows. A social media war erupted. And suddenly chicken sandwiches were at the center of the culture wars.

Calls for boycotts ensued. The mayors of Chicago, Boston and Washington announced their opposition to the fast-food chain. Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and conservative talk radio hosts came to its defense. And Mike Huckabee even went so far as to organize a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, which last Wednesday resulted in record sales, lines out the door and live TV shots from local news helicopters.

How did Chick-fil-A make money by being attacked? The answer lies in the partisanship of fast-food consumers.

We first started exploring the politics of consumption in 2004 when we were designing the advertising buys for the Bush presidential reelection campaign. Analyzing more than 200,000 interviews of American adults conducted each year by Scarborough Research, we were searching for clues on what TV shows Republican, independent and Democratic voters watched. As a result of our research, for example, the Bush campaign bought time on the then mildly controversial prime-time sitcom “Will and Grace” — not because one of the characters was a gay man but because it reached higher-turnout, younger, independent voters.

We continue to be fascinated by the partisan differences in consumer purchasing behavior. Democrats, for example, have fallen in love with Subaru — it’s the new Volvo. Americans who drink diet soda — especially Diet Dr Pepper — are more likely to vote and to be Republicans than Americans who drink sugared beverages. Republicans prefer dark liquors, while reform-minded Democrats prefer the transparency of vodka and rum.

And it turns out that when it comes to fast food, Republicans love their Chick-fil-A restaurants. Democrats are more likely to head to Popeyes and Church’s, open seven days a week. Chick-fil-A customers are very, very Republican.

Chick-fil-A’s website now contains this caveat: “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” But given who its customers are, the firm probably didn’t need to do that. (The website also announces surging sales since the story broke.)

Corporations, nonprofits and entertainers are increasingly at risk of being caught up in political debates that are far from their core business or service. Sometimes this is intentional, but more often it is not, as was the case for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. The problem comes when an organization takes a stance that is at odds with its customers, constituents or fans.

In order to plan, brands need to understand where their consumers and fans stand politically. Marketers will spend millions to understand their customers’ product preferences, but most only guess about their customers’ political preferences. Too often, they find out only after the storm comes, and unlike Chick-fil-A, most brands don’t have an army of loyal consumers ready to ride to the rescue at 1,600 drive-throughs.

Need a cautionary tale? Think about the Dixie Chicks, who in 2003 dared to criticize President Bush in wartime during an overseas gig. Their top-10 single disappeared in days from the top of the charts, conservative country radio stations banned them, and the American Red Cross broke off a marketing relationship. Liberals rightly protested, but they weren’t the Dixie Chicks’ fan base, so that didn’t help much with album sales or concert tickets.

On the other hand, Chick-fil-A got lucky. The people it alienated weren’t its loyal customers.

On Monday, thousands of former Dixie Chicks fans will eat even more Chick-fil-A. American consumers can be loyal or fickle friends, particularly if they’re Republicans.

Will Feltus is a media researcher at National Media in Alexandria, Va. Mike Shannon is a partner at Vianovo in Austin, Texas.

©2012 Los Angeles Times

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