Boycotts are nothing new in America. After all, arguably the most consequential consumer movement in American history—the Boston Tea Party—predates the republic itself. But due to the recently increasing number of popular boycotts, we must consider how effective they are.
Upon a closer look, boycotts’ overuse could be undermining their purpose. Even worse, boycotts are actually taking power away from those who are the least able to effect political change.
Lost in the discussion is what exactly boycotts are supposed to achieve. People who organize them are often outsiders who lack financial or political power. This means they must pursue social and political change through nontraditional tactics—such as targeting companies—because they don’t have the resources to contribute to political campaigns or lobby policymakers directly. Usually, their goal isn’t to hurt a firm’s bottom line, but rather to make the public aware of what they believe are unethical corporate practices.
It’s no surprise then that research finds little evidence that boycotts impose significant and lasting economic costs on companies. Instead, boycotts can succeed by harming companies’ reputations, changing how firms engage with stakeholders, and pressuring politicians to distance themselves to avoid guilt by association.
These successes, however, have introduced challenges and disadvantages.
First, although boycotts have traditionally been weapons of the weak, we have seen recent efforts by those in power to coopt the tactic for their own ends. One such example was back in February, when President Donald Trump criticized Nordstrom and his supporters called for a boycott after the retailer stopped selling his daughter’s fashion line. Although a boycott inspired by a presidential tweet is not necessarily more likely to succeed than others, the use of the tactic by people with power can delegitimize the serious calls for boycotts by those without it.
Second, boycotting can have adverse effects on companies’ decisions. The most recent example of this was the public pressure on advertisers of Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” to withdraw their sponsorship of the show in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against the host. Although this boycott succeeded, it introduces a risk identified by Politico’s Jack Shafer: Weary of consumers’ and advertisers’ reactions, media firms may be more cautious in airing controversial voices, in effect giving advertisers implicit control. It’s easy to see how giving sponsors veto over content is undesirable for marginalized voices on both the left and right.
Additionally, the recent increase in boycotts is likely limiting their effectiveness by overwhelming the public. Between 1990 and 2007, only 213 boycotts were mentioned in the six largest U.S. newspapers; by contrast, in the 200 plus days of its existence, the anti-Trump #GrabYourWallet campaign alone has launched boycotts against over 50 companies. Beyond this campaign, if you’re on social media or have friends who are, you already know that you’re expected to boycott Target because of its transgender bathrooms, Chick-fil-A because of its opposition to gay marriage, Fox News because of its sexual harassment culture, and Nordstrom because it was unfair to Ivanka Trump. This explosion in activism is overwhelming for consumers, and each new boycott decreases the likelihood of any individual one’s achieving its broader goals.
Furthermore, firms are learning how to to deal with the political consequences of being targeted by boycotts. For example, a colleague and I found that when activists boycott a firm, politicians respond by distancing themselves, lest the politicians’ reputations be sullied by the boycott. In a follow-up study, we found that targeted firms do not simply withdraw from politics due to this reaction, but instead reach out to politicians using tactics that require less disclosure and are harder for the public to trace. As a result, a successful boycott may be a hollow or temporary victory.
Sociologists and political scientists have long viewed boycotts as an important (if not always successful) tool for those who lack the resources or access needed to participate in the formal political process, but this view needs rethinking. Positive first steps for those pursuing change are to be more selective in their targeting and to launch “buycotts” that support firms that share their values. Though academic research has yet to systematically examine buycotts’ effects, they may be able to help buffer a firm’s reputation and performance. For example, the highest single day of revenue for Chick-fil-A came when its customers rallied to its defense following a highly publicized boycott.
As it stands now though, the boycott’s efficacy as a weapon of the disenfranchised is lessening in our increasingly polarized world, further reducing the limited power of those who feel that their voices go unheard.
Timothy Werner is an assistant professor in the business, government, and society department at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. His referenced research is co-authored by Mae McDonnell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.