Boycotts don’t work the way you think.

Historic marker on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Jimmy Emerson

By Jeresa Anderson

The Montgomery Bus Boycott started Dec. 5, 1955, after the arrest of Rosa Parks due to her refusal to move from her seat on a bus. The boycott is seen as the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the U.S. Since then, boycotts have become a popular tactic for protesters fighting for social change.

With their growing popularity, critics of protesters and activists are beginning to question the effectiveness of boycotts. Well, they are effective, just not in the way most people think.

Why don’t boycotts seem to work?

When using the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a basis for what a boycott means, there are a couple of factors that are left out when it comes to its effectiveness–one being that it lasted 381 days.

Though there may not be a way to measure how long boycotts last on average, they can be judged by how long they capture the media’s attention. Consumers can publicly announce they’re boycotting a corporation. This announcement may get reported in the news, but the media typically doesn’t continue to follow it.

Brayden King, a professor of management at Northwestern University, has found this to be true through research and studies.

“Even consumers that say that they support a boycott are not necessarily changing their behavior as a result of that,” said King.

During his research, King found that during boycotts, people often boycott or “buy-cott,” meaning there are people who protest by not buying from companies and there are others who protest those boycotting by purposefully buying from the company. Though this may be the case, King says their spending habits don’t change.

“Their political beliefs or what they thought they were doing didn’t line up with their actual consumer behavior,” said King.

Participation isn’t the only thing that counts. Many boycotts today also lack a specific goal.

Looking back at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it happened as a direct result of Parks being arrested. At the time, Blacks were still mandated to sit in the back of the bus due to segregation laws. It was able to last as long as it did because it was an organized effort with the goal of the city eventually meeting the demands of the protesters. Initially, these demands were to add Black bus drivers and first-come, first-serve seating, but they began pushing for changing segregation laws in the system. Black riders were also able to hold each other accountable during the boycott.

Most boycotts now usually start on social media. One would think social media would lead to more people participating in boycotting corporations, but there is no tangible way to hold people accountable via social media.

In the long run, most companies that are being boycotted usually do not see huge losses. They’ve found ways to work around boycotts through marketing strategies.

For example, when Nike decided to make Colin Kaepernick one of the faces to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the brand’s slogan, many Trump supporters and people opposed to kneeling during the national anthem decided to boycott Nike.

People began to burn their Nike gear and vowed to never shop with the company again. The day the commercial was released, Nike’s shares dropped 3%.  Instead of stepping back from the campaign, Nike decided to just wait the boycotts out and was able to recover from the loss.

The same approach has worked for other brands. Chick-fil-A has been boycotted several times within the last decade because of donations made to causes that don’t support LGBT rights. Members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community vowed to never eat there again. The company’s sales were up 15.5% from 2017 to 2018.

Nike was successful because it essentially chose what many see as the right side. According to studies done by YouGov, Kaepernick was actually viewed more favorably by Nike customers than by the general public. They were also more likely to be receptive toward the brand taking a stance on social issues.

Chick-fil-A appears to have successfully weathered its storm by deciding to simply not talk about it anymore. The company also announced a new approach to donations, implying that it would no longer donate to the causes that were at the root of the controversy.

So, how are boycotts effective?

They simply bring awareness to issues.

Oftentimes, boycotters overestimate the power in their individual dollar. Boycotts do work, just not in the way we’ve seen historically. The bus system in Montgomery was greatly impacted because a large portion of its revenue was gone, but that was a local bus system.

When boycotting a global or even a national corporation, public awareness of an issue is what makes it effective. Having a negative reputation for too long can hurt companies, but many are able to bounce back from a loss.

October 20, 2020

About Author