“Boycotts Don’t Work”

Bad Argument Vol. 8


It seems at least once a month we hear about some gaffe or another that a person or company has made, and by extension, we hear the outcry of moral indignation and demands of massive boycotts of the company in question. We all heard of the Chick-fil-a boycott and not one but two boycotts of the NFL. There are many that ended up saying “What’s the point of that, boycotts don’t work.” In some cases, they are right, but not the way they think. To simply claim that boycotts do nothing is a bad argument against them, and I will explain why below.

The biggest example of a working boycott is, of course, the Montgomery boycotts. In the late 1950s after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus African Americans in the Southern USA began to boycott the public service. It started grassroots, and eventually gained support from prominent civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others. This boycott and other great work associated eventually (although this is a simplification) led to the end of segregation.

Another, more recent, example of a working boycott comes from the 1990s when it became apparent that Nike had been using child labor to manufacture their products. Massive public outrage followed with millions of people swearing off of their products. Now you might say “Well that didn’t work because Nike is still around and a multibillion-dollar company.” That response ignores different forms of success. Since the massive boycott, Nike has become a sustainability leader in the industry. They went from being the face of the evils of globalization to becoming a prime example of what a multinational business can be ethically.

While there are tons of boycotts that have worked, there are many that have failed. A question left then is “What makes them work?” The effectiveness of a boycott has to do with its level of organization and of size. Montgomery worked because they had a clear plan, goal, and overall operation to accomplish the change they wanted. The Chick-fil-a boycott, by comparison, was a loose “Say no” kind of boycott that temporarily hit their sales, but ultimately accomplished nothing. The reason this one didn’t work was that it was countered by those that supported the CEO’s stances, and because of the lack of organization. They weren’t universal in their protest of the brand, and while some did call for the resignation of the CEO, because of a lack of size for the movement chick-fil-a bounced back.

A key item of consideration that gets avoided here when discussing the effectiveness of a boycott is what the end goal truly is. If it is some form of massive protest aimed at having a policy changed or a CEO fired then we can measure the success from there. If it is to hurt the brand for their actions as it was with Nike we can measure that as well. The success can be measured not just by the damage done, but also for the actions taken thereafter to correct them.

For many, though the success of a boycott can be measured simply by the individuals boycotting enjoying the fact that their money is no longer going to a corporation, they disagree with. It was that individual-level shift in purchases that led to the rise of things such as green energy lighting or fair trade coffee. In those cases, a more ethical option hit the market, and consumers responded by swearing off of the competition. Now, much of the market pushes to showcase their wares as ethical, environmental, or in some form or another socially conscious. Boycotts work because A) we know historically that they have worked, and B) There is no universal measure of success for a boycott.

Boycotts are important to the market as well. If I dislike a brand, and they stop receiving my money then my boycott has been successful. The market is driven by the choices of the consumers. For a market to function, consumers need to decide what it is they look for in a brand or product. By extension, every time we decide to not go to a particular business we are, in our own way, boycotting them. To claim boycotts do nothing is to claim that the choices of consumers mean nothing. Let’s do away with this terrible argument, perhaps it’s a boycott that will work.

Read more articles from Killian on Think Liberty here.


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