I can say unequivocally that the boycott does not work. It’s never complete enough to have impact unless it’s backed by force, and I don’t think anybody in America seriously proposes that. —Helen Suzman
There is a very real chance that I am going to offend some people today, and, according to comic Ricky Gervais, that’s not a bad thing. The man who has made the better part of his living off hurling insults at people and making them feel bad thinks we all should stop trying to be so damned politically correct and speak our minds. Of course, the danger in such a statement is that not everyone’s mind is running on all cylinders which could end up being a dangerous thing that ultimately leads to this stupid thing called a boycott.
I follow trends pretty closely, not because I want to adapt them, but from both fashion and advertising perspectives they are important in taking the temperature of a given society or specific demographic group. The latter part of this week I’ve seen a trend emerging quietly, among white people primarily, folks who aren’t necessarily inclined to be terribly upset by Prince’s death, that makes me ill. Some people want to boycott Target stores because they are willing to allow transgender people to use the restroom facilities of the gender with which they identify. Another incredibly insane movement wants to boycott the twenty dollar bill because they oppose the Department of Treasury’s decision to put Harriet Tubman on the currency, replacing one of our worst presidents ever, Andrew Jackson.
Let me state, unequivocally, that if you support either one of these boycotts you are a fucking idiot. The Target boycott won’t work because its based on an unrealistic fear that no intelligent person believes. The twenty dollar bill boycott won’t work because it’s just plain stupid and fueled by ignorance and racism. More than both those factors, though, boycotts don’t work because they’re ineffective and the sooner we stop throwing the word around as though it were some magic tool for getting our way, the better.
Do you have any idea how many different groups are attempting pointless boycotts right now? The website ethicalconsumer.org, which I neither support nor endorse, keeps a list of ongoing consumer boycotts that is about as complete as any. The list is ridiculously long and includes a number of companies that always seem to have someone boycotting them, such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Ben & Jerry’s, H&M, Kellogs, and that company everyone loves to hate: Monsanto. Guess what: NONE OF THE BOYCOTTS ARE WORKING! They won’t. They never will.
Why? Because the boycott as an economic tool is fundamentally flawed and even in cases where it might appear that a boycott worked, it was other external factors that likely led to any significant change.
I was impressed by a report done by Stephen J. Dubner over at Freakonomics this past January. The report, originally done for radio, takes a look at one of the most famous boycotts of modern times: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. If ever there were a boycott that seemed to work, that would be it, right? That one would appear to be a shining example of what can happen when a group of people exerts their economic force onto a situation. But Daniel Diermeier, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, doesn’t think it was necessarily the boycott that led to the desegregation of buses. He states:
Being able to identify the actual causal impact of the Montgomery boycott is very difficult, probably impossible. There are some people that argue, at the end of the day, it was really the legal strategy of the NAACP that really was the decisive component. And it’s difficult to disentangle that. I think most scholars that have looked at this particular case would argue that the boycott became a symbolic event that triggered an entire social movement.
As historians have broken down the event, we come to understand that Rosa Parks was no random bus rider, that Montgomery was no random location, and the boycott was no random activity hastily slapped together by a preacher from Atlanta. Rather, the event was but a part of a longer-term strategy to effect a chance in the civil rights laws across the country. The boycott put a face on a burgeoning movement but it was the strategy of the movement, not the boycott itself, that resulted in change.
The same applies to any other boycott we see that one might consider successful. There has to be an over-arching strategy and organizing force capable of widespread support and influence that understands how boycotting is a very specific tool and, like trying to use a hammer to thread a needle, doesn’t work when applied incorrectly. The vast majority of announced boycotts don’t even come close to having the reason and authority behind them to be successful.
Too often, boycotts such as the ones announced this past week amount to nothing more than an attempt at moral bullying. The same organization that announced the boycott of Target has also tried boycotting Disney multiple times for a variety of reasons. I’m sure you’ve noticed how well that boycott is going [insert sarcastic eye roll here]. Their entire purpose behind the boycott is to force Target into changing their policy for no reason other than to match up with the organization’s right-wing religious-based morality. What they’re doing is nothing more than an attempted “might makes right” tactic that is doomed to failure.
If anything, this week’s boycotts are likely to backfire. Even when the cause is a good one, and neither of these are, boycotts often end up having the reverse effect. Why? No one likes to be told what to do. We especially don’t like to be told where to shop, what to eat, or what to wear. Boycotts that attempt to affect those industries are doomed before they even start.
For boycotts to work, they have to appeal to a matter of conscience that exceeds our commitment to our buying habits. Interestingly enough, there is one form of boycott that might actually have an impact. Note what is happening in the move against North Carolina’s HB2 law, aka the bathroom bill, which prohibits people from using any other restroom facility than the one determined by the gender identified on their birth certificate. This has to be one of the most stupid laws on the planet and people are responding appropriately by leaving the state of North Carolina to wallow in their own ignorance. Not only have a number of entertainers canceled performances in the state, but major corporations that had been planning expansions there have decided to move their operations elsewhere. While not officially an organized boycott, at least, not as far as we can tell at this point, the movement has gained so much momentum that the United Kingdom has warned LGBT tourists against traveling to either North Carolina or Mississippi because of their anti-gay laws. This movement is still developing, though, so we’ll see what it takes to actually get the laws overturned, which is the only acceptable outcome.
Generally speaking, though, and in overwhelming proportion, announcing a boycott is rather like saying you don’t like pea soup because of the way it dribbles down your great-grandmother’s chin. You’re being a stupid, ignorant bully and the rest of the world would kindly thank you to shut-the-fuck-up. Boycotts don’t work. If that offends you, tough. Deal with it.