“Company boycotts are not new, but they have increasingly become the weapon of choice for NGOs and other activists aiming to further political and social goals. Social media and the sped-up news cycle it fuels have created a broader platform for activists, while making it harder for companies to maintain control of their messages. And many activists have given up on governments and are focusing instead on companies as the main engine of social change. As the public raises its expectations about appropriate corporate conduct, ranging from sustainability to global labor standards to animal welfare policies, more companies will find themselves in the crosshairs more frequently.” – Daniel Diermeier, When Do Company Boycotts Work, Aug 6 2012, Harvard Business Review.
It’s clear that boycotts are an increasingly popular form of protest, but popularity is not necessarily synonymous with effectiveness. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the LGBT consumer boycott of Stolichnaya (Stoli) and other Russian vodkas. The boycott was instigated in July by openly gay columnist Dan Savage, as well as the owners of several prominent gay clubs and bars – all of whom supported the Russian vodka boycott as a response to anti-gay laws instituted by the Russian government.
Shortly after the boycott began, Stoli released a formal statement expressing unwavering support for the LGBT community in the U.S. and abroad. The CEO of SPI, the holding company that owns Stoli, conducted a lengthy interview on XM Radio to clarify that SPI is not actually a Russian company.
As more information came to light about Stoli’s ownership and the track record of support they’ve shown for the LGBT community, many people voiced their opposition to the boycott. Even a cursory Google search for Stoli illustrates a substantive backlash to the boycott amongst journalists and community leaders. It has been characterized as misguided and premature, and an example of the risks associated with generating immediate support for a boycott via social media without having all the necessary facts.
In addition to the Russian vodka boycott, a segment of LGBT journalists and activists were calling on the United States to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – again in response to the Russian government’s vehemently anti-gay laws. In this instance, members of the sporting community questioned whether an Olympic boycott would have a measurable impact, or if it would punish the athletes who have trained a lifetime for the opportunity to compete at the highest level of international competition.
Led by athletes who were prohibited from participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics due to the boycott, it seems that cooler, more strategic heads have prevailed. Progressive journalists and activists have joined athletes in opposing an outright boycott, while appealing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to assure the safety and security of everyone competing in Sochi.
Even if a boycott has the right “target” in its crosshairs, it’s important to consider the (often unintended) consequences of taking this type of public action. For an example of the boomerang effect created by a consumer boycott, look no further than last summer’s Chick-fil-A boycott in response to the CEO’s anti-gay marriage position. The boycott itself generated editorial press for Chick-fil-A valued in the tens of millions. Although the coverage was not always positive, Chick-fil-A received more attention in the news than any other similar restaurant chain in recent history.
Media coverage penetrated big cities, suburbs and small towns throughout the U.S., and it was the catalyst for a counter-boycott initiated by conservative consumers who felt Chick-fil-A was being unnecessarily attacked by the LGBT and Allied community. The counter-boycott culminated in “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” which gave even more press coverage to a brand that never rose to such extreme levels of national prominence or notoriety until the boycott.
These examples illustrate that it’s more common for a boycott to go awry than to have the intended effect. Consumer boycotts may be effective in limited circumstances as a tool to create awareness and visibility, or to have some impact on the target’s reputation or bottom line. But the instances where the benefits outweigh the risks are few and far between. Just because it may be quick and easy to organize a boycott using social media doesn’t mean it will have lasting, meaningful effects. Troup there it is!