It is no surprise that Donald Trump’s use of Twitter can influence political attitudes. But new research provides evidence that his tweets can alter consumer perceptions as well.
The study, published in Political Research Quarterly, suggests that Trump’s calls to boycott companies can have swift and polarizing impacts on corporate brands.
“I have long been interested in the different ways Americans participate in politics. Many of my recent and ongoing research projects focus on political consumer behavior, where individuals boycott or buycott products or services for partisan, political, or policy reasons,” said Kyle Endres, an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa and corresponding author of the study.
“The frequency and suddenness in which Donald Trump has used Twitter to call for boycotts (or elevate existing calls for boycotts) provided my co-authors and I with a great opportunity to evaluate Trump’s ability to shape both opinion towards these brands and purchasing behavior.”
The researchers used data from YouGov’s BrandIndex, which conducts daily surveys to track perceptions of more than 1,700 brands, to examine how Trump’s tweets impacted consumers’ views towards Macy’s, Nike, and Apple. They found evidence that Trump’s statements could quickly polarize the public’s evaluations of companies.
“Donald Trump’s criticism of brands on Twitter can have immediate effects on how Democrats and Republicans evaluate those brands, with the views of Democrats and Republicans moving in opposite directions. The impact of these tweets on both brand evaluations and purchasing intentions can persist for weeks,” Endres told PsyPost.
For example, on July 1, 2015, Trump used Twitter to call for a boycott of Macy’s after the department store announced they would no longer be selling Trump-branded products. This resulted in improved perceptions of the company among Democrats and worsened perceptions among Republicans.
An even more dramatic polarization occurred after Trump used Twitter to call for a boycott of Nike on September 5, 2018, after the footwear company released an advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. Prior to Trump’s tweet, there was only a small difference between how Democrats and Republicans perceived the company. But during the month after the tweet, the difference in perceptions was “especially large.”
In the case of Apple, however, Trump’s call to boycott the technology firm in 2016 did not produce a large difference between Democrats and Republicans. This might be because many Democrats were also critical of Apple’s decision not to unlock an iPhone used by a terror suspect.
“When Donald Trump and prominent Democrats were criticizing the same brand, we did not observe a polarized response,” Endres explained.
“Our study is limited to brands that were already being tracked, and as such, we were only able to evaluate brands that Donald Trump criticized. However, Donald Trump has also praised brands on Twitter — such as L.L. Bean in 2017 and Goya Foods in July 2020. Our findings suggest the views of Democrats and Republicans towards these brands will move in opposite directions, but the relative impact of these favorable tweets, compared to his critical tweets, remains an open question.”
The new research builds upon another study published in the Journal of Politics, which also found that partisanship could influence consumer preferences.
“In the Journal of Politics paper, we evaluate changes in consumers’ preferences when consumers learn about firms’ partisan allegiances through a series of experiments in which Democrats and Republicans were presented with factual information about corporate political donations,” Endres said.
“Consistent with our findings in the Political Research Quarterly study, subjects in these experiments became significantly more (or less) likely to patronize chains that support (or oppose) their party based on both future shopping intentions and revealed consumer preferences. Both brand evaluations and behaviors can shift when Americans begin to associate a brand with either the Democratic or Republican Party.”
The study, “Elite Messaging and Partisan Consumerism: An Evaluation of President Trump’s Tweets and Polarization of Corporate Brand Images“, was authored by Kyle Endres, Costas Panagopoulos, and Donald P. Green.
(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)