Columnists > Voices

Money talks

And when it comes to consumer boycotts, companies will even listen-sometimes

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

Don't buy Crest. Don't buy Tide. That is the message of Focus on the Family and the American Family Association, which are calling for a boycott of those Proctor & Gamble products. That company contributed $10,000 to overturn a Cincinnati ordinance approved by voters that prevents homosexuals from receiving preferential treatment. The boycott is intended to pressure P&G and other American corporations to stop supporting the homosexual cause.

Do boycotts and other direct protests against companies work? The record is mixed, though boycotts from liberal groups seem more effective than when Christians try it.

The global boycott of South Africa helped bring an end to the apartheid regime. In the 1970s, the union of migrant farm workers called for a boycott of lettuce and grapes, which won widespread support and made Cesar Chavez a household name. A boycott called by the NAACP against the state of South Carolina for flying the Confederate battle flag over the statehouse resulted in the cancellation of some 100 conventions and other events and the lowering of the flag.

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Homosexuals have been especially effective with boycotts. In 1997, gays boycotted United Airlines for refusing to provide benefits for homosexual partners. In two years United capitulated, not only by changing its benefit policies but by starting a marketing campaign to become the "official airline" of the "gay community." In 1998, when Pat Robertson announced an alliance with the Bank of Scotland, British gays launched a boycott. The bank caved, canceling the deal and contributing money to sponsor a gay website.

The biggest gay boycott, though, is called for Oct. 8. The "Boycott for Equality" calls for homosexuals not to go to work and not to buy anything in any stores on that day. This is supposed to show the financial clout of the gay community, but it may also be a classic case of overreaching if the day passes without much notice, proving that homosexuals are not as numerous or as powerful as many companies assume they are.

Southern Baptists launched a boycott against Disney for its pro-gay policies and other departures from its pro-family heritage. Other Christian groups joined the cause. (Arabs are also boycotting Disney for being pro-Israel, as are various liberal groups for the company's use of foreign sweat-shop labor for its merchandise.) The boycott began in 1997, and it continues.

Has the Disney boycott been effective? The company's income has been slumping, and vilified CEO Michael Eisner just announced that he is stepping down. But the company's financial woes started before the boycott. It is hard to make a direct correlation.

In 1988, Christians protested the movie The Last Temptation of Christ for being blasphemous. The protests included a boycott not only of the studio that made it but a year-long boycott of any theater that showed the movie. The protests and boycotts did have their effect. The major theater chains refused to carry the movie, which only opened in a few markets. Some say, though, that the protests gave the movie more attention than it would otherwise have received.

More recently, the movie Saved!, a hatchet job on teenage Christians, bombed spectacularly at the box office. Columnist Terry Mattingly said that the makers of the movie actively tried to get Christians riled up about it for the free publicity and cultural buzz. "They wanted a boycott," said one observer. "They needed a boycott. I am sure they were stunned when they didn't get one." According to Mr. Mattingly, the film may have vanished without a trace because "the conservatives the film set out to bash . . . turned the other cheek and declined to provide millions of dollars in free publicity."

According to social scientist Monroe Friedman, "successful boycotts tended to be cognitively simple and emotionally appealing." He cites the boycott of tuna on the grounds that cute dolphins get tangled in the nets. There also needs to be a clear and easy alternative to the product being boycotted. A boycott against Burger King for the purchase of South American cattle that hurt the rain forest was successful because a consumer could easily go to McDonald's.

Boycotts work not so much because of economic pressure as from peer pressure. "The more visible violations and violators are," says a liberal activist website, "the more public pressure can be applied." Thus, animal-rights activists can not only boycott fur stores, they can shame people wearing furs.

But whether a boycott works to change a policy is sometimes beside the point. People who are frustrated or angry at least have the sense of "doing something."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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