Americans love a good boycott—whatever their place on the political divide. This week, conservatives began ripping up their socks to protest Nike’s new ad campaign featuring former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Meanwhile, liberals called for a boycott of In-N-Out burger following reports that it had donated $25,000 to California Republicans. The hashtag #BoycottInNOut started trending on Twitter, and Eric Bauman, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, tweeted his support for the boycott with the words, “Et tu In-N-Out?”
In recent years, calls to boycott fast-food chains have multiplied, perhaps because their popularity and ubiquity in everyday life makes them a convenient, high-profile target. In 2012, Chick-fil-A came under fire from progressive activists because the family that owns it donated to organizations fighting same-sex marriage. In 2016, conservatives called for a boycott of Cook Out Restaurant, a fast-food chain whose employees in Colonial Heights, Virginia, once refused to serve Donald Trump supporters. In 2018, progressive activists called for a boycott of the pizza chain Papa John’s because its founder, John Schnatter, used a racist epithet in a conference call earlier this year. And activists have repeatedly called for boycotts of Carl’s Jr., which has been described as “the Fast-Food Chain of Trump’s America,” for reasons ranging from accusations that the company mistreats its workers to complaints about its ads featuring scantily clad women.
Calls for boycotts often make a big media splash. And while studies show they have very little economic impact on the companies they target, boycotts can, and do, put pressure on firms to change the way they operate. That said, people on the right and left should be wary of defaulting to boycotts as their go-to option—lest the boycott lose its power as a tool of political protest.
What makes for a successful boycott?
There is reason to believe that boycotts can influence companies’ behavior. For example, following boycotts, Chick-fil-A has attempted to move away from its conservative image by distancing itself from its owners’ personal beliefs, and some franchisees have even started donating to LGBT Pride events. And following intense criticism of Carl’s Jr.’s labor practices, among other things, the CEO of the company that owns it, Andrew F. Puzder, withdrew his nomination to be labor secretary.
The key to any boycott’s success is the attention it attracts and sustains. As Americus Reed, the Whitney M. Young Jr. professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, wrote in The New York Times, “News of a boycott has to cut through the personal.” But the personal becomes more complicated when it targets one of America’s favorite burgers. As James A. Regalado, a professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, told The Los Angeles Times, ”[t]he stomach overrules the mind … a cheap, good-tasting burger is hard to dismiss politically.” The more embedded a given product is in people’s daily routines—whether it’s Nike workout gear or chicken nuggets—the harder it is to convince others to give it up, no matter what their political agenda.
The risk of too many boycotts
Observers say that the recent explosion in boycott activism may be backfiring. According to Timothy Werner, an assistant professor of business at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies boycotts, “Between 1990 and 2007, only 213 boycotts were mentioned in the six largest US newspapers; by contrast, in the 200 or so days of its existence, the anti-Trump #GrabYourWallet campaign alone has launched boycotts against over 50 companies.” While fast-food chains have become popular targets for political ire, they’re far from the only brands caught in the cross-hairs. As Werner writes, “if you’re on social media or have friends who are, you already know that you’re expected to boycott Target because of bathrooms, Chick-fil-A because of gay marriage, Fox News because of Bill O’Reilly, and Nordstrom because it was unfair to Ivanka.”
That’s a lot of rules for any consumer to keep in mind. Indeed, the calls to boycott In-N-Out seem to have exasperated many Twitter users for that exact reason, inspiring the hashtag #Boycottboycotting.
Boycotts may be backfiring in other ways. In a 2016 study, Werner and his colleague Mary-Hunter McDonnell, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, showed that boycotts drove politicians to want to avoid being publicly associated with a given company. While that may sound good in theory, in practice, it drives corporate donation practices underground, encouraging companies or CEOs to shift towards lobbying contributions or personal campaign donations, which require less disclosure and are harder to trace. “A social movement can only hold a firm accountable for the way that it’s influencing the policy process to the extent that we can see how a firm is influencing the policy process,” McDonnell told Quartz. “And so, if a firm stopped being willing to use overt channels, and start using these opaque channels, and we don’t regulate those … then we have no way of seeing how firms may be shifting the political landscape.”
The stakes of what can be called “boycott fatigue” are high: As Werner writes, ”the boycott’s efficacy as a weapon of the weak or disenfranchised is lessening in our increasingly polarized world, further reducing the limited power of those who feel that their voices go unheard.” The proliferation of politically-motivated boycotts targeting fast-food chains might encourage consumers not to take them seriously. That seems to be the case, even for Bauman, the Democrat who initially called for the boycott of In-N-Out, who told The Fresno Bee that he wasn’t personally boycotting the fast food restaurant. “Are you kidding me?” he asked. “I’m gonna buy my staff In-N-Out burgers to celebrate our victory.”