What can a disappointed consumer do about a “bad” company or brand? Not use anymore? Send a complaint to that company asking for an answer? Tell Facebook friends to avoid the company? Take out an Internet ad complaining about the company?
Some angry consumers go further. Consider the members of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA is an animal rights organization with more than 6.5 million members and supporters. PETA members focus their animal rights activities in four areas: in laboratories, the food industry, the clothing trade, and the entertainment industry. PETA’s aim to discourage consumers from buying products which have come from companies that violated animal rights. Against “bad” companies, PETA uses public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and boycott campaigns.
Business historians, company leaders and marketers need to consider the role and power of boycotts in the protection of consumer rights. Boycotts have occurred throughout history.
In the evening of December 16, 1773 in Boston Harbor, a group of Massachusetts colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded three British tea ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. They complained “no taxations without representation.” Not long after, American colonial merchants called for boycotting all British products. The Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War ended up creating a new country, the USA.
The term “boycott” didn’t come into use until 1880. An English land agent, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, chose to raise rents and evict a lot of his tenants in Ireland. The local community rebelled and joined together and refused to pay or work with Captain Boycott. He was forced to leave. Boycott left his name to history.
We define a boycott as “a concerted refusal to do business with a particular person or business…in order to obtain concessions or express displeasure.”
To examine the role and power of boycotts, we ask:
- What are the main types and examples of boycotts?
- Why do people organize boycotts?
- How to organize a successful boycott?
- How can the boycotting entity respond to the boycott?
Types and Examples of Boycotts
A group can decide to boycott a large number of entities: an industry, product, brand, company, person, country, practice or idea. The motive might be economic, political or social. Here are some of the best known boycotts in American history.
Boycott against an Industry: Alcohol and the WCTU
As a product, alcohol is a stimulus as well as a curse. Women started temperance leagues in the early 1800s aiming to limit drinking and “demon rum.” By 1830, the average American over 15 consumed at least 7 gallons of alcohol a year. Male drunkenness led to family abuse of wives and children and health problems of all kinds. The World Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was organized in 1873. Its second president, Francis Willard, helped to grow the WCTU into the largest women’s religious organization in the 19th century and helped the drive toward establishing women’s voting rights. Alcoholics Anonymous later was formed with the aim of teaching “teetotalism” or total abstinence to victims of alcoholism. .
Boycott against a good product – Grapes and Chavez
In 1965 on Mexican Independence Day, Cesar Chavez organized Filipino American grape workers to protest for better wages and working conditions in Delano, California. The workers were paid a pittance. Consumers decided to boycott grapes. This decision led to an international boycott of grapes. Grape growers were left with the choice of paying more or letting their grapes rot. The boycott led to the organization of the U.S.’s first farm workers union, The United Farm Worker of America. The strike lasted for five years before reaching a settlement.
Boycott against a bad product – Nestle and Instant Formula
Nestle advertised its infant formula to be “better than breast milk” and more convenient to use. Infant formula was a powder to which water is added. In 1977, many consumers worldwide complained and boycotted the infant formula saying that Nestle mislead customers with inaccurate nutritional claims. In poor countries sadled with infected water, babies often got sick. Nestle refused to compromise for seven years. The boycott ended when Nestle agreed to comply with the World Health Organizations (WHO) standards concerning the marketing of infant formula.
Boycott against a dangerous product – Dow Chemical napalm
The U.S. dropped napalm incendiary bombs in Vietnam in 1979. This led to international outrage against the U.S. and Dow Chemical. Though napalm accounted for only about one-half of 1% of Dow’s $1.6 billion annual sales, the company had become a target for acrimony. Clergymen led picket lines at Dow’s annual meetings.
Boycott against a company – British Petroleum (BP) the Gulf Coast Oil Spill
An explosion on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 resulted in the largest U.S. oil spill. The explosion caused 11 deaths and the spilling of 30 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. The spill lasted 87 days when the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010.
Boycott against a company – Coors Brewing Company and LGBT Rights
In hiring people, Coors Brewing Company discriminated against persons from the LGBT community. In 1973, labor unions organized a boycott to protest Coors antagonistic practices. The boycott was joined by African Americans, Latinos, and the LGBT community. Finally, 14 years later the AFL-CIO and Coors came to an agreement in 1987, ending the official union boycott. But Coors continued to carry a bad name in certain communities.
Boycott against a company – Chick-fil-A
In 2012 the CEO of the restaurant Chick-fil-A publically blamed the country’s woes on accepting gay marriage and continued donating money to anti-LGBT groups. Many Christians kept dining at this restaurant chain and others boycotted Chick-fil-A. The company finally gave into pressure in 2019 to stop donating to companies that supported anti-LGBT talk and turn over more of their donations to promoting youth education, combating youth homelessness, and fighting hunger.
Boycott against a State law – Religious Discrimination against Same-Sex Couples
The state legislature of Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2015 allowing state businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples based on religious grounds. The business community strongly and swiftly reacted against this law. The state legislature reversed course and modified the law a week later. The RFRA cost Indianapolis more than $60 million.
Boycott against Segregation: Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks and Racial Discrimination
In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her act of civil disobedience launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 13-month protest during which black residents refused to ride city buses. Martin Luther King Jr and the Montgomery Improvement Association organized the boycott, which launched civil rights into the national spotlight. The Supreme Court ultimately outlawed segregation on public buses.
Boycott against a country – India, the Salt March and Mahatma Gandhi
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a 240-mile march in India to the Arabian Sea to protest Britain’s colonial salt laws. Britain didn’t allow Indians to process or sell their own salt. Gandhi and his followers, in front of thousands, broke the law by evaporating seawater to make salt. He encouraged others to do the same. Gandhi reached an agreement with India’s British viceroy in 1931 in exchange for an end to the salt tax and the release of political prisoners. Colonial rule remained, but the act of civil disobedience stoked the fires of independence. In 1947, the British rule ended and the country was divided into India and Pakistan.
Boycott against a Country – Russia and the Summer Olympics
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to send American athletes to the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow as a protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More than 60 nations joined the U.S. The Soviet-Afghan War continued until 1989. The Soviets subsequently led their own boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Boycott against a Country – Israel and the Arab League Boycott
In 1945, the Arab League (Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) launched an economic boycott of Israel. In the 1970s, the U.S. adopted two laws that prohibited U.S. companies from furthering or supporting the boycott of Israel. Today a new boycott comes in the B.D.S. (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement that seeks to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of the West Bank.
Boycott against a Political Practice – South Africa and the Anti-Apartheid Movement
An international campaign against the oil company Royal Dutch Shell was launched in 1986 to protest apartheid in South Africa. There were nationwide calls in America from labor and civil rights groups asking the public not to buy gas from Shell stations. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 that banned South African imports, airlines, and foreign aid from the U.S. The end of apartheid began in the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were freed. Apartheid officially ended in 1994, when Mandela became the country’s first black leader.
Boycott for Animal Rights – Protecting whales at SeaWorld
In 2013, a documentary was released which criticized marine parks for its practice of keeping orcas in captivity. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for boycotts of the park SeaWorld, and SeaWorld’s public attendance declined. In 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would no longer breed or feature shows with orcas.
Boycott against Men – Women Withhold Sex to End Violence
In 2003, Liberian women went on a successful sex strike to end the country’s civil war. Leymah Gbowee won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. In 2006, female partners of gang members in Pereira, Colombia, withheld sex as they demanded fewer guns and less violence in their city. By 2010, Pereira’s murder rate had fallen by 26.5%.
Boycott against Consumerism – International Buy Nothing Day
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. With big crowds, sometimes violence ensues. An anti-consumerist group in Canada launched an anti-shopping movie, “Buy Nothing Day,” in 1992. Some retailers, but very few, decided to stay closed on Black Friday,
Boycott – President Donald Trump as an Active Boycotter of Companies
President Donald Trump has launched personal political attacks of several U.S. companies and people hoping to persuade U.S. citizens to avoid these companies. He attacked Nike for running a successful ad in September 2018 favoring the quarterback Colin Kaepernick who took to his knee during the national anthem in protest to racial injustice. Trump in 2018 lashed out at Google and CNN saying that these media are rigged and report only bad stories or no stories about Republican/Conservatives. He recommended boycotting Apple products for refusing to give cellphone information about a radical group and making most of their products abroad. He attacked Goodyear for banning MAGA hats in the company and tweeted “Get better tires for far less,” and recommended replacing the Goodyear tires on his Presidential car. He issued an executive order to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok unless it found an American buyer for its U.S. operations.
Why Do People Organize Boycotts?
Boycotts are often the result a clash of values between a company and some members of the consuming public. Consumers, in choosing a product, consider two things:
- Value of the product. Does the product and its price and accessibility deliver high value to the potential consumer?
- Values of the company. Are the values of the company acceptable to the values of the consumer?
Most consumers put the most weight on the value of the product. However, some consumers also consider the company’s values. Many grape lovers stopped buying grapes to protest the low wages that grapefield owners paid to grape workers.
We are living in an era of increasing political polarization. If a company isn’t careful, it could offend the values of the blues (Democrats) or the reds (Republicans). If a company shows that it favors stricter gun control, it will offend gun owners. The best thing is for the company not to take any position about guns. If most companies remain quiet, their sales and profits are safer.
Yet many other companies are proud and open about their values. Coors Brewery’s leadership had very conservative values and did not want to hire persons from the LGBT community. A boycott started and lasted until Coors finally agreed in 1987 to not discriminate in their hiring practices.
Boycotts are often organized to further social change of the value of some group. The Montgomery Bus boycott aimed to advance the rights of black Americans. The more the boycott can widen and sustain a Common Good message, the more the chance of changing social values.
The lesson is clear. A company has to think about what values it will represent and how these values would impact different consumer groups and how the company should express its values.
How to Organize a Successful Boycott
A boycott organizing group must make sure that the boycott is not breaking any laws. The boycott is an attack that will hurt the value of a particular entity. It may involve picketing in front of a certain entity. If the entity is a hotel, the boycotters cannot block people from entering or exiting the hotel. Some states might require approval of any planned boycott before the boycotters go into action.
The organizing group must raise enough money to buy ads, picket the company, and sustain the campaign until the entity concedes. It doesn’t pay to start a boycott without the means to keep it going. The company’s response to the boycott will partially be influenced by the company’s estimate of the boycotter’s resources. If quite limited, the company may prefer to take a hit for a short time and not give in to the boycotters.
A nonprofit group, called the Ethical Consumer, is organized to watch for and spot unethical companies. Ethical Consumer was formed in Hulme, Manchester, UK in 1989. In 2009 Ethical Consumer became a full nonprofit multi-stakeholder co-operative consisting of worker members and investor/subscriber members. The group’s aim is to apply pressure on an unethical company to change its way or otherwise face a boycott. Ethical Consumer lists a number of companies that they might target for a boycott unless the company changes its ways. Their targets include a number of well-known companies such as Wendy’s and Amazon.
How Can the Boycotted Entity Respond to the Boycott
If a company gets forewarned of an imminent boycott, the first step is to contact the party and try to settle the issue. If the boycotting group is just trying to extract money from the company to avoid a boycott, the company should report this to the police. If the boycotting group is serious, the company should sitdown and try to work out an agreement. If the offense is not very serious, the company might agree to make a change that would be acceptable by the boycotting group.
If no agreement can be reached and the boycott gets started, the company needs to explain its position to the press and seek the understanding of its customers, employees and other stakeholders. The company needs to estimate how long the boycott might last and how much harm it would do to the company. If it will last a long time and badly damage the company’s reputation, sales and profits, the company should give in on the issue and negotiate an agreement.
The company knows that the boycotting group needs to attract a lot of supporters and keep them interested. The earliest supporters are highly engaged in the cause. It gets harder for the boycott to get additional supporters who have a lower level of interest and may even believe that the boycott doesn’t need more supporters.
The company is in a better position to resist the boycott if it has built up a reputation as a caring company, caring for its customers, employees, and other stakeholders. If it has given a lot to charity and fought for high consensus issues such as a healthy environment, it might less often be the target for a boycott. Companies such Coca Cola and McDonald’s have curried a halo image of good prosocial behavior partly because some groups regularly complain that these companies products, if used in excess, are injurious to health.
Consumers have the right to expect companies to be ethical in their behavior. Fortunately, consumers who get angry enough at a company can send complaints to the company or take out negative ads or organize a boycott. Boycotts have a long history not only against companies but against industries, products, brands, countries, or ideas. Many past boycotts, especially those pressing for prosocial change, have had success. Success depends largely on the resources of the boycotting group and the resources of the targeted entity. The boycott organizing group needs a well-thought out attack strategy and the targeted entity needs a well-thought out defense strategy.
All said, consumers generally benefit from the fact that boycotts are possible and legal. Boycotts call upon the boycotting group to present strong reasons for the boycott and the targeted entity presenting strong reasons for either resisting or reaching an agreement.
Sources: There are many lists of boycotts. One excellent list is Chare Carlile, “History of Successful Boycotts,” May 5, 2019. An excellent discussion on why boycotts occur and how companies can deal with them is found in Jim Salas, Doreen E. Shanahan, and Gabriel Conzalez, “Are Boycotts Prone to Factors That May Make Them Ineffective?” in Strategies for Managing in the Age of Boycotts, 2019 Volume 22, Issue 3.