If A Boycott Works, It’s Not Just Because People Stopped Buying Stuff

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Whenever a company (or a company’s top executive) does something that ticks off a segment of the population, there’s usually talk of people calling for boycotts of that company’s products and services. But can a boycott bring about change on its own, or does it risk only hurting the low-level employees who are probably not the target of the protest? A boycott’s success frequently has less to do with an immediate loss of revenue than it does with the public’s reaction to the boycott.

Yanking On The Purse Strings

protsidbSometimes, money really does talk and a well-organized boycott can result in changing the way a company does business.

Take Fruit of the Loom for example. In 2009, a group called United Students Against Sweatshops launched a campaign in response to reports of workers being mistreated, forced dismissals, factory closures, and trade unionists facing death threats in Honduras.

The activists succeeded in persuading 96 U.S. colleges and 10 British universities to sever their contracts with the undergarment company. After losing an estimated $50 million, Fruit of the Loom re-opened the factory and rehired employees who had lost their jobs.

But for every boycott that succeeds in bringing about the desired change, there are dozens that fail or only result in compromise. These cases often go beyond a company’s business activities and involve moral and ethical questions about a company’s owners or corporate leadership.

Tilting At Very Expensive Windmills

For example, consider the current attempts to boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air and other ritzy hotels, spas and restaurants run by the Dorchester Collection, which is in turn owned by the Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei.

These protests are in response to the recent declaration by Brunei’s billionaire Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah that he will be imposing strict sharia law — including harsh and potentially deadly penalties for homosexuality and adultery — on his country’s residents.

While the celebrity-driven boycott has resulted in several organizations changing plans to host events at the hotel, the boycotts haven’t effected the laws in Brunei.

“They won’t stop the implementation of the new laws,” the hotel group’s CEO recently told the L.A. Times about the boycotts, adding that they will “only hurt the [hotel's] employees.”

Indeed, given the Sultan’s immense personal wealth, the Dorchester hotels’ reputation among the world’s wealthiest travelers, and Hollywood’s tendency to give up on a cause after a few minutes, it’s highly doubtful that even the combined star-power of boycotters Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres will halt the rollout of these cruel laws. The best that protesters could hope for is that Brunei sells off its hotels, but so far that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Earlier this year, activists called for boycotts on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in response to the country’s treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Many people, including President Barack Obama and German President Joachim Gauck, supported a political boycott of the Sochi games by not attending, but continued to support the athletes at the games.

The boycott may have sent a message that the United States and other countries value fair human rights, but it seemed to have very little impact on the Russian human rights issue or the success of the games.

Sometimes You’ve Just Gotta Boycott

Just because the Dorchester boycotts may not result in policy change or the hotels’ sale doesn’t mean that upset consumers should just give in and start hosting their big galas and dirty weekends at these top-dollar getaways. Similarly, those opposed to Russia’s anti-LGBT policies shouldn’t feel cowered into conceding victory and booking that Moscow vacation they’ve always wanted to take.

Our history is filled with examples of boycotts that were less about bringing about an immediate response, but more about drawing a line in the sand.

The boycotts in response to the Tea Act of 1773 ultimately led to the Boston Tea Party, itself a step toward the eventual war for independence from England.

In the wake of numerous incidents, including the Dec. 1, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks, black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted the city’s public transportation system. The boycott that lasted nearly 13 months and helped to start a national discussion on civil rights and segregation.

Lots Of Boycotts, Not Much Success

While these boycotts were just the first stages in battles for human rights and independence, most boycotts do not deal with matters of such gravity.

“Boycotts are shockingly common,” writes Maurice Schweitzer, a professor of operations and information management at U.Penn’s Wharton School. “One group or another has boycotted almost every major company at some point, whether it’s Walmart for its development procedures or union policies, Procter & Gamble for the treatment of animals, Nike for employment practices or Kentucky Fried Chicken for the treatment of chickens.”

And though terms like “boycott” and “protest” may evoke images of a small group picketing in a circle, chanting while brandishing handmade signs, that’s only one possible way of raising one’s voice against a company’s business practices.

A successful boycott really needs both dedicated activists and the support of consumers. And most importantly, it should be based on verifiable and definitive reasons.

“Also needed are an issue and solution easily understood and appreciated by consumers,” explains Monroe Friedman, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Eastern Michigan University, to Consumerist.

Friedman says you’ll also need a “savvy and well-financed organization familiar with boycotts” that is willing and able to continue the campaign and support activists for an extended period of time. He says organizers need to think in terms of “months, rather than weeks or days.”

Once a target is chosen, the design of the campaign must aim for achievable results: lowering prices, increasing the quality of products, improving the environment for employees or creating a more accepting corporate climate for employees and consumers.

So boycotts can — and often do — include picketing, but the most effective boycotts succeed in bringing together large groups of consumers and an attentive audience.

Do Boycotts Actually Work?

“Boycotts can be an effective means to change in several conditions are present, including a consumer issue which is not resolvable by other means, such as letters to the offending business and to the news media,” Friedman tells Consumerist.

While many boycotts include a call to suspend the purchase of goods and services from the targeted company, this tactic doesn’t always produce the desired outcome.

“Boycotts don’t tend to work in the way people think, meaning by hurting the bottom line,” Brayden King, author of a report on the social movement of boycotts, said about the 2010 protests against BP’s massive 2010 oil spill.

BP wasn’t hurt financially by those drivers who refused to fill up their gas tanks at BP stations (though some operators of BP stations felt the sting). What really cost the company was the huge amount of money it had to spend in an effort to improve its public image. Just ask former CEO Tony Hayward, whose botched attempts at damage control lost him his job.

Alert The Media!

One of the most effective means for activists to enact change is through the media. While this can include rallying like-minded consumers, it often contains powerful, and hurtful, publicity against a company. A number of times these campaigns will include a call for a boycott, but the intention isn’t necessarily to have an immediate financial impact on the targeted business.

“Many are not really boycotts, but calls for boycotts which their advocates hope will be treated as full-fledged boycotts by the affected businesses,” Friedman tells Consumerist. “If this tactic works, the advocates may succeed in getting valuable publicity for their cause that will lead to the desired company changes they are seeking.”

Brayden King’s report [PDF], which studies 221 boycotts between 1990 and 2005, found companies were more likely to give in to boycotter’s demands when the issue garnered a great amount of press coverage.

Additionally, companies were found to give into boycotter’s demands when they perceived a hit to their reputation, rather than for fear of lost sales.

Other Ways To Protest

Creating a successful boycott takes dedication, time, and a supportive community. Even if activists lack some of those qualities, change is possible through other means.

Online petition site change.org bills itself as a platform that “enables anyone, anywhere to start a petition, mobilize support, and win change in anything from local concerns to global issues.”

Tim Newman, deputy campaign director for change.org, tells Consumerist that through he’s seen first-hand the changes online petitions have created.

“Online petitions are just another tool that consumers can use to have their voice heard on issues that are important to them,” Newman explains. “It makes it easier for them to find supporters that agree and mobilize those people.”

One such petition was created by a 22-year-old nanny asking Bank of America to drop an unexpected $5/month banking fee. The petition garnered national attention and support from hundreds of thousands of consumers, and less than a month later, Bank of America dropped the fee.

While the use of petitions on change.org can have a positive impact in-and-of themselves, just like boycotts, it’s often about more than just the number of signatures gathered.

“What we usually see online is just a starting point for a broader campaign,” Newman tells Consumerist. “Someone starts to campaign on issue, then gathers support, then people organize off-line actions with calls, going to stores, all kinds of actions. Sometimes people sign our petitions and deliver it directly to the decision maker.”

The “Buycott”

Another alternative to boycotts is what Friedman calls their flip-side: “Buycotts.”

This tactic takes on a decidedly different characteristic than petitions or boycotts in that it attempts to induce shoppers to buy the products or services of selected companies in order to reward them for behavior which is consistent with the goals of the activists.

In his report [PDF], “A Positive Approach to Organized Consumer Action: The “Buycott” as Alternative to the Boycott,” Friedman points to the Buy American campaign, which persuaded consumers to buy products with “Made in America” labels, as an example of a buycott. By spending money on these products, consumers were effectively boycotting companies that didn’t have the Made in America labeling.

In a sense, this is what so-called “cord-cutters” — consumers who have ditched cable TV in favor of getting all their entertainment over the Internet — are doing in response to rising cable rates. They aren’t merely getting rid of their cable provider; they are telling the cable industry that they are taking some of their money elsewhere.

Note that we emphasized “some” in that last sentence, as most consumers still have to get their Internet access from the very cable company they are trying to leave.

The Future Of Boycotts

While the effort needed to create, organize, and maintain a successful boycott may often be greater than the changes that result, the practice doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon.

In fact, with crowd-sourcing advances like online petitions and social networking, along with a 24-hour news cycle that is always hungry for headlines, boycotts may be coming into their own.

“It’s cool to see micro-movements pop-up and people are able to connect through the internet,” Newman tells Consumerist. “People see they aren’t alone in their situation.”