U.S. Boycotts Come in Many Flavors, Results Uncertain
By Michael Conlon
CHICAGO — Pick a cause and join a boycott.
Tackling corporate America these days on issues ranging from triple-X video sales to taking Christmas out of Christmas can be as easy as clicking on a Web site. But whether the campaigns do any real damage is hard to measure, experts say.
Even one of the most active boycott organizers, the American Family Association, says there is evidence the threat of a boycott may be more potent than the action itself.
“Everyone’s afraid to be bitten by a snake but the fear can be much worse than the bite,” says Randy Sharp, the AFA’s director of special projects. “Our policy is that before you call a boycott you do everything in your power to avoid it. They’re costly and time-consuming. You take the easy road first and work with the companies in private.”
The conservative Christian group claims it has 2.2 million online supporters, though Sharp said little is known about their demographics beyond their addresses, and it is hard to know how they carry through on an actual boycott.
Last week the AFA canceled a boycott against Target Corp. after the company said it would use the word “Christmas” in its advertising and marketing, instead of something more holiday generic. The group claimed 700,000 people had signed up electronically to boycott Target.
It is happy with a recent decision by Ford Motor Co. to pull some advertising from gay publications after it called off a boycott threat against the auto maker for being too gay-friendly.
Ford said it was responding to a fall in U.S. sales in all but two of the last 18 months and was not caving into pressure.
But a nine-year boycott of the Walt Disney Co. — called by the AFA and backed by churches and others to protest health-benefits to same-sex partners and special days for gays at theme parks — may be a different story.
“It had very little effect,” said Roberta Clarke, a professor at the Boston University School of Management. Disney, she said, had nine record years during the nine years of boycott.
“In the case of Disney there was no alternative. But in the Ford case, are there substitutes? There sure are,” she said. In any case, she said, Ford “killed two birds with one stone. They had to do the cutbacks anyway and they at least gave the appearance of appeasing the AFA.”
Each company is different in terms of the way a boycott would impact them, she added, but today’s pressure groups are probably not as effective as unions were in their early U.S. organizing days.
“It was more than values (then),” she said. “If they called a boycott then they had to do it. But these (groups) are not unions. They are not tied together by a common employer or industry,” she said.
“I don’t think there is any evidence to say that boycotts are particularly effective. All these groups do is alter reality and make people think they’re effective,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay and lesbian group.
“What we’ve been doing (instead of boycotts) is trying to flex our financial muscle” he said, by trying to harness the gay community’s spending power. That is estimated at between $400 million and $600 million annually by Florida-based Simmons Market Research Bureau.
The lobbying group has published a list rating hundreds of companies on internal policies involving discrimination, employee training and benefits to domestic partners, as well as advertising or other spending that benefits gay causes, and whether they act to undermine gay rights.
The AFL-CIO maintains a national boycott list which currently has about two dozen companies on it, mainly relating to organizing issues.
Charles Mercer, president of the labor federation’s Union Label and Service Trades Department, said that unlike widely publicized labor campaigns of the past — such as the 16-year table grape boycott aimed at improving conditions for migrant workers — “today’s activities are done more through unions approaching companies and trying to convince them to change.”
He cited one success involving a brand of pickles which the federation talked a major supermarket chain into dropping from its shelves after the brand made the list.
One labor-related issue resolved earlier this year was a boycott against Taco Bell, called by a Florida farm worker organization over wages and working conditions in that state’s tomato industry.
Taco Bell parent Yum! Brands agreed to pay a penny per pound surcharge for tomatoes, in what boycott organizers said was a breakthrough in the fast-food industry. A spokesman for the Presbyterian Church which backed the boycott said the settlement was a solid example of a boycott victory.
For religious groups, however, calling boycotts may be “as much about defining who they are as having an impact on the economic world,” according to Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at the Boston University School of Theology.
One phenomenon many agree on is that once a boycott is unleashed, getting the word out when its over can be hard to do. There are people, AFL-CIO’s Mercer said, who are probably still boycotting grapes.