The Goya boycott isn’t an example of cancel culture—it’s the free market at work

July 18, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC
The Goya Dilemma: Cancel Culture or Market Dynamics?
The Goya boycott over its CEO's comments praising President Trump isn't an example of "cancel culture."
Ron Adar—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In the past couple of weeks, Hispanics have found themselves in the spotlight, starting with the visit of the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and President Trump’s promise to sign an executive order to provide Dreamers with a path for citizenship. Then came the controversial Hispanic Prosperity Initiative ceremony. The content of this initiative, which seeks to bolster education and economic opportunities for Hispanic Americans, was overshadowed by the hullabaloo caused by the statements of Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya, as one of the ceremony’s speakers.

After Unanue said we were all “truly blessed…to have a leader like President Trump,” social media erupted with negative reactions. Perhaps you have encountered trending hashtags such as #Goyaway or #BoycottGoya, accompanied by pictures of Goya products in the trash, along with oaths to never buy these products again. 

This call for action has been labeled by critics as an example of “cancel culture.” But is it actually—or is this simply the market in action? In my opinion, we are not seeing cancel culture play out in this instance, but what I have coined “alignment culture.” 

A primary characteristic of cancel culture is its binary nature. Once an individual or entity is targeted, cancel culture seeks to deplatform, remove, or silence the perceived transgressor, or some combination of the three. 

Alignment culture, on the other hand, emerges in scenarios in which it is possible to convey contrasting opinions. The ultimate goal of alignment culture is to prove who has more power in a market scenario. It also offers the opposition an opportunity to push back and seeks to compel a party to amend or walk back a statement to one that aligns with the opinions of a given market segment. Boycotters are clearly stating which opinions they are willing to tolerate.

Within this alignment culture clash, two “competitors” emerge. One side finds the statements of Unanue unacceptable, exhibited in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s and Julián Castro’s denunciations of Unanue’s opinion and encouragement of a boycott of Goya products. On the opposing side, there are those who stand behind the supposed offender, echoed in figures like President Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Marco Rubio supporting Unanue and endorsing Goya products.

In the case of Goya, the low cost and variety of their products yields few barriers to being targeted by alignment culture. Here, consumers can readily signal their support or dissent for Unanue’s statements by radically changing demand for Goya products. Had such controversial statements been issued by the president of a luxury automobile company, for example, it seems unlikely that we would see social media posts of people trashing their high-end sedans (or buying more of them). When the costs of signaling through market participation are high, it is more likely that cancel culture will prevail and seek to have its demands met by way of social pressure.

Within alignment culture, the goal of the participants is to prove who is “right.” In the alignment culture arena, competitors seek to demonstrate their leadership, organizational capacity, and power to influence and control markets.

Alignment culture participants understand very well the potency of radical modification to demand as a means of signaling political statements. Could such a strategy be extended to supporting candidates in the upcoming presidential election? It remains to be seen.

Liliana Gomez Fernandez is an economist and policy consultant.

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