Invasion Of The Mba Liberals

Peter Barnes's slogan might be "Reach out and lobby someone." On Sept. 30, the president of Working Assets Long Distance, a San Francisco-based long-distance discount service, got many of his 50,000 subscribers to campaign for allowing abortion counseling at federally funded clinics. That day, 20,000 letters and postcards from Working Assets customers deluged the U.S. Senate. Each letter contained a miniature coat hanger, a pro-choice symbol. "We want to give people the opportunity to communicate in the same timely way that lobbyists do," he says.

COUNTERWEIGHT. Barnes and his customers didn't get their way, but this new breed of corporate arm-twisters is undaunted. They hope to use 1960s-style activism as a savvy, 1990s-style marketing gimmick. "Social awareness is the lifestyle fashion" for the decade, says Susie Tompkins, founder of Esprit de Corp., the San Francisco clothing maker and retailer.

But is it just a passing fancy? At least 70 corporate executives bet it won't be. Such companies as Working Assets, Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Lotus Development, Reebok, and Hasbro have joined a group formed earlier this year called Businesses for Social Responsibility, aimed at countering the pinstriped conservatism of other business groups. So far, BSR has lobbied unsuccessfully to get Congress to cut funding for Vice-President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, a darling of right-wingers. BSR has yet to pick its next cause, but it's more likely to push for environmental awareness than, say, trimming dairy-price supports or reducing the number of toy commercials on Saturday morning kids' programs.

Others have chosen to project a socially conscious image without actually getting entangled in controversy. Natural soap and shampoo seller The Body Shop Inc. is registering voters in its stores, as is Esprit. And menswear maker Members Only has devoted its entire fall ad budget of $3.5 million to a get-out-the-vote campaign.

The bottom-line benefit of all these efforts isn't clear. Working Assets and BSR have yet to score a lobbying victory. And while activism might get free publicity for Esprit and Members Only, others in the rag trade think they know what really catches the public eye. As retail consultant Alan G. Millstein notes, "Calvin Klein knows that the most important marketing tool is sex." It's hard to top topic A, but Barnes, Tompkins & Co. aim to make their liberal agenda a close second--even as they try to make a few extra bucks.

      THE BODY SHOP Purveyor of politically correct beauty products registers voters 
      in its 100 stores nationwide
      ESPRIT Clothing retailer is registering voters in 17 of it stores across the 
      MEMBERS ONLY Menswear maker is devoting its $3.5 million fall ad budget to ads 
      encouraging voter registration
      WORKING ASSETS LONG DISTANCE Long-distance reseller gives subscribers free 
      calls to lobby for selected issues, such as abortion choice. Sponsored mailing 
      to legislators to back Freedom of Choice Act. Each letter included miniature 
      wire coat hanger
      DATA: BW