A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Consumer Boycotts

How can consumers punish organisations they believe are dishonest and selfish?

There are many ways in which consumers can “flex their muscles.” A very old strategy is the boycott, which is, in essence, an attempt to achieve a particular objective by urging individual consumers to refrain from selected purchases in the marketplace.

The Americans in the 1760s and the Indians in the 1930s both used boycotts as a political weapon against their colonial masters, namely us. Today we have brand boycotts, commodity boycotts, single firm boycotts. Some are media based, others market-place focused.

There are some interesting distinctions to be made with respect to boycotts. First there is the time issue. They can be long, medium or short term affairs. Next there is place: that is how geographically distinct it is. Third, completeness: total or partial. Next there is the boycott sponsor: religious, political, environmental, racial groups. Fifth, there are the actions taken: you can request a boycott, or organize a boycott in the street, or in the media. There are regular "blacklist" boycotts, which specify what not to buy as well as positive "whitelist" boycotts, which specify what to buy.

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There are obstructionist boycotts which can place obstacles in the way of those trying to buy the boycotted product or service. There are expressive boycotts, more about venting frustration than anything else.

We have to consider different targets of boycotts. So we have travel boycotts about going to a particular area, headquarters boycotts, etc.

Boycotts have been studied by political scientists who have come to a specific conclusion regarding what factors affect their success. Monroe Friedman, in his comprehensive book on the topic (Consumer Boycotts: NY: Routledge, 1999), suggests 10 factors that help ensure that media-oriented, image-tarnishing boycotts work.

• Have a well known person or group announce the boycott.

• The announcement should clearly target particular products, services, or organizations.

• The boycott rationale should be simple, straightforward, and appear legitimate.

• The start of the boycott should be as dramatic as possible.

• Attempts should be made to make the media coverage of the boycott as widespread and top-of-mind as possible.

• The more image-conscious the target of the boycott, the more vulnerable they are.

• If the target thinks all the media hype will lead to marketplace, behavioural boycott

• The more negative, inflexible, complacent or non adaptive the target of the boycott is in their reaction

• The more realistic the boycotters demands appear to be

• The less capable the boycott target is at launching a successful counter action

Those who aim less at the media than the marketplace itself know they must be focused. The target of the boycott should be clear. The boycott should be well timed - i.e. there are not competing boycotts. Third, the public can easily and reasonably find a substitute for the boycotted services. The effect of any boycotted activities should be highly visible.

The history of boycotts is very interesting. There have been labour, minority group and religious group boycotts. But these days they seem mainly to be consumer and ecological boycotts. The latter are multiplying with the new carbon obsession. Famous examples in the past have concerned tropical timber, particular fish (tuna), or animal testing but now its about over-packaging and fuel wastage.

Remember the anti-apartheid boycott against Barclays Bank? Or boycotts against GAP and NIKE because of the alleged misuse of child labour? Did they work or did they backfire?

Boycotts are of course about ideology. This is reflected in the demographics of those who support and indeed lead many boycotts, especially consumers and ecological boycotts. They tend to be young, middles class, politically left, well educated. Interestingly the data suggest that women get more involved than men, perhaps because they do more of the shopping.

The art and science of boycotting seems to be advancing. It is no longer an activity for angry amateurs. The boycotters are now students of marketing. They are becoming sophisticated in their slogans. They orchestrate national even international days of protest. They involve (as cute as possible) children as activists. They advertise: they certainly have become media savvy. Many appear to condone (minor but illegal) disobedience in their cause.

Some even employ marketing experts to help them. Thus an agency may be in the unusual position of having two competing clients: the one trying to push a product or service; the other trying to destroy it.

To the skeptic, they are little more than politically motivated hypocrites. They are fundamentalist utilitarians who believe that anything they do justifies the end. So, they act just like those they accuse. Successful boycotts can have very serious and unplanned repercussions. Firms fail; people are paid off; customers just switch brand.

So are boycotts ultimately a conscience-oriented, effective weapon of the weak, or a crypto-political and cynical manipulation of the naïve?

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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