Helena Lyng Blak
8 weeks ago

Do boycotts actually … work?

Amid global unrest and conflict, boycotts are thriving. But do they actually work?
McDonald's cup abandoned in the ground
bascoro / Shutterstock.com

As the war in Gaza continues without even a temporary ceasefire, so too do the numerous boycotts.

Online, activists, influencers, and regular social media users alike are encouraging consumers to boycott companies who are perceived to be in support of Israel and their military offensive in the region.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

One of the most significant hallmarks of these boycotts is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the ‘BDS movement’. 

It is a Palestinian-led movement that since the early 2000s has called for a non-violent protest against Israel. 

The movement is inspired by South African anti-apartheid activism.

Current boycotts

Despite BDS’ influence, the majority of widespread targets of boycotts are not picked by the movement–but rather by public opinion–perhaps due to the companies’ recognizable brands. 

Some of the most famous companies to be boycotted by the supporters of Palestine are fast food chain McDonald’s, coffee franchise Starbucks, both American, and the clothing companies H&M, Swedish, and Zara, Spanish.

But do they work?

Whether or not boycotts in general and the boycotts of Israel in particular “work” is a complicated question. 

From a profit-focused point of view, one could argue that, yes, they do work.

In 2023, Target and Bud Light experienced significant sales decreases after some conservatives boycotted them over pro-LGBTQ+ marketing and products, according to Vox.

According to Time, McDonald’s and Starbucks have both admitted to seeing significant drops in sales. 

Both companies’ shares have fallen some, but overall not a really significant amount. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the majority of the drop in sales is due to lower spendings and declines in consumer sentiment.

And although Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser-Busch’s shares took a hit in the spring and summer of 2023, the company’s stock has already bounced more or less back. 

As has Target seemingly, who earlier this month announced that it would double the bonuses for salaried employees. 

So on the other hand, from a strictly monetary standpoint, one could also argue that, no, boycotts do not work. At least not in the long term. 

“If the aim is to hurt company sales, boycotts rarely succeed,” says professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania Americus Reed to The New York Times in 2017. 

“But if the aim is to undermine companies that stand in the way of a movement, there is a greater chance that a boycott may tarnish a brand.”

The tarnished image

So, if boycotts do not do much to disrupt large companies’ earnings, why would anyone care? 

Well, first of all, they have worked in the past. In the Forbes article “Do Boycotts Actually Work? Examining The Use Of Boycotts To Drive Social Change”, Janice Gassam Asare convincingly illustrates the importance of boycotting as a protesting tool during the American civil rights movement, as well as other 20th century anti-racist movements. 

Maybe that is why US legislators seemingly still fear boycotts: According to Time, 33 US states have between 2015 and 2021 passed legislation that allows punishment of persons or companies who express support of boycotting Israel.  

To Brayden King, an associate of the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University, the threat of boycotts is more a matter of reputation rather than revenue. 

“The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” he said in 2017.

A matter of alternatives

To Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, the effectiveness of boycotts may also have something to do with the availability of alternatives for the consumer. 

 “When the brands are more easily replaceable, then they’re more vulnerable to a consumer boycott,” he says to Northeastern Global News

“As long as you occasionally go out to buy those brands because it’s convenient for you, then clearly the boycott is not going to work. If it doesn’t translate to mass behavior of consumers actually switching away from brands, then it doesn’t work.”

So … Do boycotts work?

Ultimately, the consensus seems to be, well, sort of, maybe, sometimes. 

The threat of a boycott appears to mostly boil down to its long-term effects, rather than its effect on the bottomline right here, right now.

If a boycott manages to do irrepairable, large-scale damage to a brand’s reputation, or if consumers simply get out of the habit of purchasing products from the company as a result of the boycott, it may actually do some damage to said company. 

But in order for the boycott to work as a vehicle for political or social change, businesses have to fear those consequences. There needs to be competitors, ready to steal the boycotted business’ customers. There needs to be a sense of longevity in consumer opinion of the brand. 

In many scenarios, public outrage switches so frequently and so quickly that many brands may simply just wait for the boycott to blow over and be forgotten. 

In 5 years, will the majority of consumers even remember what McDonald’s or Starbucks did or said during the current conflict in Gaza? Will they care?

Time will tell. 

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