If you’re a fan of boycotts, the past week has been heaven for you. Three major companies have faced boycotts from outraged citizens on either side of the political aisle. Nike was boycotted for recalling a patriotic shoe in compliance with Colin Kaepernick’s demands. Starbucks was boycotted because some police officers at a location in Arizona were asked to leave after another customer complained about their presence. Home Depot was boycotted just yesterday when a retired co-founder, Bernie Marcus, said he’d give part of his fortune to Trump’s reelection campaign.
I am biased, admittedly, but I happen to think that the first two outrages had at least some basis while the third has none. Nike made a cowardly and absurd decision in getting rid of a shoe design just because one whiny ex-NFL player had a problem with it. The manager at that Starbucks store in Arizona obviously behaved atrociously. As for Home Depot, the company has no say over how its retired co-founder chooses to spend his own money. It should be noted, also, that Marcus is giving 90% of his fortune to disabled veterans, autistic children, and medical research. If he wants to throw a little chunk to a political campaign, that’s his prerogative. Boycotting Home Depot will punish Home Depot employees. It won’t have any substantive impact on a billionaire in his 90’s who is getting ready to give all of his money away anyway.
People may have good reason to be miffed about the Starbucks and Nike controversies, but boycotts are equally pointless in those cases. Starbucks didn’t enact a policy banning police officers from entering their establishments. This was a bad decision made by one shift manager at one location. Why would you refuse to buy coffee from a Starbucks in Scranton, Pennsylvania because an employee in Tempe, Arizona did something obnoxious? Nike’s decision about the shoe was indefensible, but it was a marketing calculation made by one person, or one small group. Most of the people theoretically impacted by a boycott are innocent of the crime.
I say “theoretically” impacted because most boycotts these days are merely theoretical. Rarely do the targets of these boycotts suffer any longterm negative effects. Sometimes, the opposite is the case. Nike’s sales went up after conservatives boycotted it for hiring Colin Kaepernick last year, and its stock went up after conservatives boycotted it again over the flag-shoe kerfuffle. In a more dramatic example, Chick-fil-A has soared to meteoric heights in spite (or, partially, because) of various boycotts and protests from far left activists.
There have been many, many, many boycotts over the last few years — boycotts against Pepsi, and Amazon, and Netflix, and Oreos, and the NRA, and Nordstrom, and Wegman’s, and Target, and Walmart, and ACE Hardware, and Hobby Lobby, and Papa John’s, and the NFL, etc., etc., etc. — but few of these campaigns have resulted in any substantive change of any kind. Feminists even boycotted sex earlier this year, yet people are still having sex. Conservatives like to think they made a dent in the NFL’s popularity with their boycott over the Anthem protests, but professional football is as popular, profitable, and dominant as it’s ever been. Liberals have targeted both Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson with advertiser boycotts at various points, but both shows still get sky-high ratings and rake in millions in advertising revenue.
So why are these boycotts usually so fruitless and ultimately embarrassing for the boycotters? There are several reasons, I think.
First, there are just too many of them. You can’t have three boycotts in a week and expect any of them to carry weight. Companies are so used to being boycotted at this point that they can set their office clocks by it.
Second, the boycotters aren’t customers of the companies they’re boycotting. I have a hard time believing that the people boycotting Home Depot have ever even used a screwdriver, let alone gone strolling through a hardware store with a shopping cart. Nike’s customer base is largely comprised of young people and ethnic minorities. The 56-year-old white suburban NRA member threatening them with boycotts probably isn’t in the market for a pair of $45 basketball shorts with a giant check mark on them. I don’t have any statistics to prove this, but I’d wager that the majority of the Starbucks boycotters are Dunkin Donuts customers. The point is, a boycott only works if a large section of loyal customers withhold their patronage. If you have already been withholding your patronage for the past four decades, your continued absence will not be felt or noticed.
Third, the boycotts are ambiguous in their goals. Oftentimes, boycotts strike up in reaction to a particular incident, decision, or statement made by someone affiliated with the offending company. Or the boycott is responding to the perceived political slant of an owner, founder, or manager in the company or formerly associated with it. In either case, the boycott doesn’t seem aimed at changing anything or overturning any particular company policy. It’s just a way for people to shake their fists over something that can’t be changed or won’t be changed.
Fourth, if your boycott is perceived as being political — and they always are, because everything is perceived as being political these days — then you have only increased your target’s credibility in the eyes of your political opponents. For every person you convince to hate Nike, you probably convince five others to admire it for its progressive values. For every liberal activist who cries about Chick-fil-A, ten conservatives love it even more for making liberal activists cry.
Fifth, most people aren’t actually willing to alter their consumption habits. You can be mad at Walmart all you want, but if you need a new blender and they’re the closest, cheapest, and quickest option, you’ll probably put your boycott on hold and just go buy the blender. You can tweet angry hashtags at Amazon, but nobody else is going to deliver literally any product in existence directly to your door by tomorrow afternoon with no shipping charges. Be angry at Starbucks, but Dunkin Donuts coffee still tastes like bath water and you need to get your coffee somewhere. Complain about Chick-fil-A, but there simply isn’t any better option if you want a chicken sandwich for lunch. This may not be the most principled way to operate, but it is how 99% of the people reading this article do actually operate, whether they will admit it or not. When it comes down to it, almost everyone will choose what they like and what’s convenient and affordable over fidelity to a hashtag campaign on Twitter. When push comes to shove, almost no one is spending more on the blender just to make a point. Maybe it would be better if more people did, but they don’t. And that’s all there is to it.
Boycotts haven’t always been this stupid. The Montgomery bus boycott worked in 1955, but that’s because it checked all of the boxes that modern boycotts fail to check. The people boycotting buses were the actual passengers. The boycott had a specific goal — to overturn a policy of racial segregation. And the people staging the boycott were willing to sacrifice convenience and comfort in order to make a point. That’s why it worked. Which is exactly why our boycotts don’t. Maybe it’s time we all admit that we decide where to shop based on pracitical, not political, considerations. Then we can finally drop this boycotting nonsense and find some other way to virtue signal.