Sunday, December 5, 2010

The effectiveness of boycotting - point/counter-point

Back to boycotts. As I mentioned previously, it seems like boycotting trash means boycotting consumption, which means, in a way, boycotting popular culture and trends. It means much more than just boycotting some company because I don't like how they treat their employees. Many people have asked me whether what I am doing can make a big difference. Probably not, but I am sure that at least come people have been affected by it, hopefully positively. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how to measure "success" of this boycott. Let me know. But for now, I would like to present a point/counter-point on the effectiveness of boycotts. The match up: Geov Parrish (Seattle Weekly News) vs. Todd Putnam (a guy that wrote a response to Parrish's article on

First up, some passages from Parrish: 

The Futility of Boycotts  
Planning to boycott Microsoft? Get in line.

The flamboyant pastor of the Eastside's enormous Antioch Bible Church, Ken Hutcherson, has announced a nationwide boycott of multiple corporations. Microsoft, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, and Nike are among the companies that signed a letter this month supporting a statewide gay-civil-rights bill, legislation that conservative Christians virulently oppose. Hutcherson says he is launching a boycott campaign targeting the letter's signers.

I'm glad that progressives aren't the only people who waste their time with this crap.
Boycotts can be successful. But it's very, very rare. For every success story—grapes, Nestle, South Africa—there are many thousands of failures.
Political activists of all stripes are often eager to find a handle with which to influence the perceived sociopathic actions of big corporations. The problem is that when you target a company as large as Microsoft or Boeing—both of which have earnings greater than most of the world's countries—even if their retail products can be boycotted easily, it's virtually impossible to imagine a circumstance in which enough people join the boycott to cause a perceptible drop in earnings. Even then, unless participants tell the company what they're doing (which most don't), sales fluctuations can and usually are attributed to a thousand other factors first.
Boycotts are almost always a waste of time. So, alas, are minority shareholder resolutions. Corporations are not democratic institutions, and by definition, they do not have a social conscience. They exist solely to make money for their owners or shareholders, and they spend far more polishing their image than any boycott campaign does tarnishing it.

It's fine and well to shun a product or company because of dislike for the company's policies...But don't expect to influence the company's behavior.

This is why the growing economic and political power of big global corporations is so dangerous. With government, there's not much accountability, but at least there's a little. By contrast, the number of times big companies have been held accountable by ordinary consumers for social policies can be counted on two hands. And even then, after the campaign closes up shop, the behavior often resumes.

This is why, noxious as it is, for left, right, or center the only institution powerful enough to consistently influence corporate behavior is government. That's one of the reasons corporations work so hard to influence governments.

What can ordinary consumers do? Buy local. Get involved in the political process. Create alternative institutions. By all means, use your hard-earned money to patronize big companies only when you want to support them. It'll make you feel better.

But usually, they won't feel a thing.

And now in response, Putnam.
Geov Parrish’s speculation that for every boycott success there are many thousands of failures is a baseless, ridiculous and an irresponsible assertion. During the 10 years that I tracked boycotts for the National Boycott News, it wasn’t one in a thousand boycotts that succeeded; it was more like one in two. Of course, in those days boycotts tended to be launched by organizations. Today with the internet in full swing, anybody can simply post their call for a boycott. And they do, by the hundreds.
...Geov states that boycotts are almost always a waste of time. I think it would be more accurate to say that with boycotts, what you get out of them tends to correspond to what you put into them. Nobody can really expect Microsoft to stop its donations to Republican politicians because a handful of webpages has endorsed a call to boycott Microsoft for its past donations to Bush. It obviously takes much more than that. Successful boycotts require campaigns, strategic planning, coalition-building, persistence and patience.

Contrary to Geov’s assertion, that more than a dozen boycotts he listed had “absolutely no effect”, in fact, some of the cited companies (McDonalds, Shell, Starbucks, Mitsubishi) gave in and met boycotters’ demands, while others on Geov’s list suffered notable economic repercussions...

By the early 1990s, about half of all boycotts eventually succeeded at getting the primary changes they were demanding from the targeted corporations. For serious boycott campaigns, I doubt this ratio has changed much.

Boycott failures can’t simply be blamed on the tactic of boycotting, but rather, other factors such as message clarity and simplicity, the level of public interest or sympathy, creative and effective publicity, media coverage, and the availability of comparable substitute products are all critical factors in determining the success or failure of a boycott.

Also, boycotts have proven an excellent way to help educate and involve the public about issues –particularly because people are slow to inform themselves about issues where they have no impact. Instead of sounding like whiners, boycotters top off their complaint with action –not buying a product, which in itself can feel empowering and thereby lead to an increased level of personal involvement.

As corporations have grown evermore enormous the strategy for boycotting them has also evolved. Instead of being fixated on the company’s bloated bottom-line, sophisticated boycotts target the all-important corporate image as a means of exerting leverage. These days, most smart corporations settle long before they begin to feel the pinch in sales. They simply look to see which way the trend seems to be moving, and if it looks as if over time their image might suffer from a particular campaign, they take steps to settle before much harm can be done. Protracted boycott standoffs against Nestle and Coors in the 1980s did such lasting damage to the companies’ images that now most companies don’t wait until their image begins to get tarnished. After only 2 years, Heinz sat down with boycott organizers to discuss how it could avoid becoming forever labeled the “dolphin-killing” company, and quickly implemented measures and verification to make its Star-Kist brand tuna –and all other Heinz foods-- the first major brand to be certified as “dolphin safe.” As a result, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee, feeling vulnerable, quickly followed suit.

Heinz had guessed the change to dolphin-safe would cost them a nickel on each can of tuna. But even when their polling indicated that the public was only willing to pay two cents more for a “dolphin-safe” brand, they saw the trend moving in that direction and took proactive steps to stop any more negative publicity.

...I utterly disagree with his view that the government is the best and proper arena for dealing with issues of corporate behavior. Boycotts have historically served as an important tactic when political options proved fruitless or were nonexistent. The numbers of boycotts exploded in the 1980s during the Reagan years, when there was no way to get government to address corporate behavior. Growing frustration and cynicism with government led groups to go directly to the public to address social issues and corporate misbehavior. (During that same period, boycotts began succeeding in greater numbers and in less time than ever before.) In the years since, government has only grown less responsive.

Ironically, I’ve found that when you complain to corporations about their behavior, in addition to extolling their many virtues they typically tell you that they are not the appropriate target for such concerns, and to instead contact your government representatives.
In an often-cited survey of business leaders, boycotts ranked at the top as a major headache for a corporation; even a greater concern than class action lawsuits.

The greatest drawback of boycotting is pervasive myth that it is ineffective. By badmouthing boycotts, Geov has done the corporations’ work for them.

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