PULLMAN, Wash. — Even gift cards aren’t immune to America’s acute political divisions.
When liberals and conservatives receive gift cards for politicized brands that clash with their own opinions, they appreciate the gift giver less, new research shows.
“When we started this work, we asked ourselves: ‘Does it matter? After all, it’s just a Starbucks card or a Chick-fil-A card,” said Jeff Joireman, professor of marketing at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, who co-authored the research. .
It turns out that it is. While people still liked receiving gift cards for brands representing political views they disagreed with, their level of appreciation dropped, according to research published in the Journal of the Association for ConsumerResearch.
For their research, the study authors first asked people to describe the political orientations of 12 brands. Starbucks emerged as the most liberal brand, while Chick-fil-A was seen as the most conservative. Both were familiar brands that people liked, which was important for comparison purposes, the researchers said.
Over 500 US residents were then asked to imagine receiving a Starbucks or Chick-fil-A card from a friend. People who strongly identified as “politically liberal” or “politically conservative” reported the largest drops in appreciation when they received a gift card from a brand with opposing political views. Survey participants were recruited through the crowdsourcing site Amazon Mechanical Turk.
“Let’s say I’m a liberal, and my friend gives me a Chick-fil-A card,” Joireman said. “I like the Chick-fil-A card; it’s a nice gift. But I’d appreciate it more if I got a card for Starbucks, which is known for its progressive political stances.
Perceptions of gift givers’ motivations also mattered. If the recipient thought the gift card was an attempt to influence their political beliefs, their appreciation dropped sharply.
The researchers tested the effect of motives by asking participants to imagine one of two scenarios: Obtaining the politically incompatible gift card through a gift exchange at an office party or directly from from a friend who knew their political affiliation.
“If it’s just a random giveaway, the brand’s political orientation doesn’t matter much,” Joireman said. “But if there is an inferred attempt at persuasion, the appreciation takes a hit.”
Exchanging gifts is a common way for people to bond, he added. “So if you’re buying a gift for someone else, you might want to consider the political orientation of the brand.”
The researchers’ findings also offer a partial solution to the dilemma. Embedding symbols on gift cards that support the political identity of the recipient has reduced the decline in appreciation of incompatible brands. Conservatives, for example, liked getting Starbucks gift cards best when the cards had an American flag image.
“Adding the flag – a symbol of patriotism – increased appreciation for the gift from the Conservatives, and we have not had a negative reaction from the Liberals,” Joireman said.
“You could probably do something similar with a conservative brand, although that’s an open question,” he added. “It would probably depend on the symbol and the brand.” The corresponding author of the review article was William Ding, an assistant professor of marketing at Southern Connecticut State University, who began the research during his doctoral studies at WSU. David Sprott, professor of marketing and dean of Claremont Graduate University, also collaborated on the research.