Boycotts: A Small Conversation about Huge Effects

February 8, 2017; New York Times, “Opinion Pages”

This may be the decade of the boycott gone to scale as far as social movements are concerned, so the fact that there has been so little actual study of how its dynamics have changed is confounding. But yesterday’s New York Times featured a quasi-debate between two observers about the role of boycotts in sustainable social change.

Americus Reed provides one side, arguing, “If the aim is to hurt company sales, boycotts rarely succeed. But if the aim is to undermine companies that stand in the way of a movement,” it definitely works to tarnish a company’s brand. He writes, “Outrage comes and goes, and so do boycotts. Companies may suffer short sales dips, but social media boycotts seldom hurt the business bottom line of organizations in the long run.”

However, there is a very strong exception. If the ultimate source of a boycott is constantly featured in the 24-hour news cycle—say, because he is president of the United States—and continues to engage in controversial and outrageous behavior, the boycott has an increased chance of living beyond its usual few days.

He concludes, “If the boycott reflects a movement—rather than a moment—it can change the world around it.”

Judith Samuelson, on the other side, asserts that boycotts can work to a larger purpose:

In the book The Naked Corporation, Don Tapscott and David Ticoll examine novel business risks that have popped up with the Internet. The democratization of free information and rise of social media means business practices can be discovered and scrutinized on a much wider scale.

“You’re going to be naked,” the authors warn businesses, “so you’d better be buff.”

And she points to a fundamental shift that may be afoot:

As people take to the streets to protest the actions of the new president, CEOs of corporations are being challenged to take a stand—something many have been reluctant to do in the face of market pressures to keep one’s head down and focus on the numbers.

The challenge today for all corporations is clear: Citizens are looking for leadership on issues of real consequence, and they are aligning their dollars with their ideals.

She also talks to the dynamics of industry networks rather than individual companies being called to taking positions on contentious social issues, as in the case of the tech companies and the travel/Muslim/immigrant ban. In this case, however, the ban was injurious not only to their social image but also to their business models, a happy confluence that has existed in other recent boycotts.

In any case, we will try to spend more time exploring the boycott as both a historic and protean tool of social action in the next few months. We’d love to hear from readers on this issue.—Ruth McCambridge