Do CEO Activists Make a Difference? Evidence from a Field Experiment

by Aaron K. Chatterji and Michael W. Toffel
 
 

Executive Summary — Corporate leaders are speaking out on social and environmental issues that are largely unrelated to their companies’ core businesses. Does such CEO activism actually change citizens’ opinions about these public issues—or their consumer attitudes toward these CEOs’ companies? Focusing on Apple CEO Tim Cook’s denunciation of potential discrimination resulting from Indiana’s proposed religious freedom law, this study finds that CEO activists can frame issues in ways that do influence public opinion, and to the same extent as political leaders. Moreover, while CEO activism risks alienating consumers who disagree with the CEO’s public stance, this study finds that Cook’s statements increased consumers’ intent to purchase Apple products, especially among those who agreed with Cook’s statements.

Author Abstract

Several CEOs are receiving significant media attention for taking public positions on controversial social and environmental issues largely unrelated to their core business, ranging from gay marriage to climate change to gender equality. We provide the first evidence that such “CEO activism” can influence public opinion and consumer attitudes. Our field experiment examines the impact of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public statements opposing a pending religious freedom law that critics warned would allow discrimination against same-sex couples. Our results confirm the influence of issue framing on public opinion and suggest that CEOs can sway public opinion, potentially to the same extent as prominent politicians. Moreover, Cook’s CEO activism increased consumer intentions to purchase Apple products, especially among proponents of same-sex marriage.

Paper Information