Do Boycotts Actually Work?

There’s probably a company that you make a point to support because you believe in what they do. And there’s probably a company you avoid for the opposite reason. Now that it’s easier than ever to get information about nearly anything, it’s also easier to develop opinions about brands you might not have known enough to have before.

Granted, the idea of consumers deciding to abstain from purchasing a company’s product or service as a means of protest is nothing new. In fact, its roots reportedly reach back to the late 1700s.

However, the heightened political divide seems to have sharpened our collective desire to stand up for what we believe in, and boycotts are among the more accessible means of peaceful protest.

Illustration of many people protesting something. Boycotts pbs rewire
In a 2017 study, a quarter of Americans said they had boycotted a brand based on their political leanings.

Today, most of us want what we spend our money on to align with our beliefs. According to research by Boston-based media company Cone Communications, 76 percent of consumers said they would be willing to boycott a product if the company behind it advocated for values that contradicted their own.

That’s an impressive statistic, especially in light of recent headline-grabbing efforts like the boycott against Nike. When the company included controversial athlete Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign earlier this year, some saw this as an endorsement of his Black Lives Matter activism and boycotted the company. Nevertheless, Nike’s sales increased by 31 percent in the aftermath of this decision.

So this begs the question: Do boycotts actually work?

The case for boycotts

“With a few exceptions, most threats to boycott do not impact the cash register,” said Whitney Dailey, vice president of Cone Communications. “They are, however, a powerful means to pressure companies to take action.”

She called out one example specifically. Soon after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, activists called for a widespread boycott of the National Rifle Association and its affiliates. In response, companies like Best Western, Enterprise Holdings and Delta Air Lines severed ties with the NRA.

As consumers have discovered the impact of their purchasing power, they’ve chosen to exercise their right to support businesses that reflect their own values, and vice versa, even more in recent years.

In a 2017 study, a quarter of Americans said they had boycotted a brand based on their political leanings. This newfound awareness has run parallel to the rise of technology and the ability to “go viral” with your intentions to stand against an entity whose actions or values fall short in your eyes. It’s easier than ever for a movement to gain steam—even if for only a short while—so boycotting as a grassroots tactic has much more of an opportunity to explode into the mainstream.

Even when boycotts don’t make a dent in sales, the risk to a company’s reputation can present an even more perilous threat to their long-term future, said Brayden King of Northwestern University’s Institue for Policy Research.

If enough negative press is generated from a boycott, it can lead to a drop in stock prices, ultimately resulting in a corporate about-face intended to minimize the damage. Success also depends on the level of persistence, such as a recent two-year battle to secure full, independent access for the Worker Rights Consortium with Nike.

Back to the drawing board

Just because you have sustained support for your boycott, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that action will translate into the outcome you’re hoping for. But a failed boycott doesn’t have to be the final disappointing note in your quest to enact real change.

If your boycott doesn’t inspire action on the part of your target organization, you do have other options available to you that could prove more effective.

A company’s biggest fear when facing a boycott is the toll it will take on its reputation and, because of that, its long-term profitability. If a company fails to offer a sufficient response to boycott activism, you can return to the place where your movement likely started: social media.

“In today’s day and age, creating noise and, more importantly, raising awareness around an issue can sometimes be nearly as important to consumers as the act of boycotting,” Dailey said. “Sometimes the threat of a boycott or the noise made around the issue can be enough for a company to address issues.”

Drawn-out discussions about a company’s misdeeds can make a greater impression than abstaining from actual purchases. In addition to trending hashtags, this can take the shape of online petitions or even contributions—either of money or volunteer time—to nonprofits that have the resources to continue fighting the good fight. In any case, you have plenty of reason and opportunity to stick unwaveringly to your beliefs if you think the cause is worth the effort.

A headshot of a man. PBS Rewire. Robert Yaniz Jr.

Robert Yaniz Jr. is a full-time freelance writer specializing in business, marketing and entertainment. Over the last 15 years, he has covered everything from the regional business scene to the latest movies and TV shows. You can usually find him—laptop on hand—sipping a latte or chasing after his young daughter. For more on his work, check out robertyanizjr.com or email him directly at [email protected] You can also find him on Twitter @robertyanizjr.