The Anatomy of a Boycott

A look at who boycotts whom in the United States finds that those on the margins are the most likely to participate.
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A look at who boycotts whom in the United States finds that those on the margins are the most likely to participate.

During the height of last summer's firefight over health care reform, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal sensibly pointing out what he felt were policy flaws in the current incarnation of the bill.

The reaction from his more liberal customers was swift and well publicized — they began a boycott of Whole Foods. But perhaps more ironic than the store's most loyal customers turning on the company was how quickly a counter boycott (or "buycott") was organized. Tea Partiers and formerly indifferent shoppers flooded stores in several Midwestern states, spending freely on groceries at the organic super-centers sometimes dubbed "Whole Paycheck."

The episode showcased how combustible the health care debate had become — and how little the kerfuffle managed to dent Whole Foods' stock prices. On first glance, many boycotts appear to act this way: They start off passionately and then either simmer or face a backlash.

Recent research dissects the anatomy of a boycott and paints a demographic portrait of which Americans have participated in this type of activism. The study suggests traditionally "marginalized" citizen groups — namely, middle-class minorities — are the most likely to be boycotters. While minority status is an obvious example of a marginalized group, also included as data points were age, gender, income and education.

Interestingly, the study found that those who are more knowledgeable about the corporation being boycotted (termed "cognitive complexity") were less inclined to support action against it, i.e. familiarity breeds continence.

Headed by Naomi A. Gardberg at the City University of New York, the study uses data from the Reputation Quotient Annual 2001 study (which the researcher took part in developing) that contained 27,722 evaluations of 59 firms in 20 industries. Her research, to be published in the academic journal Business & Society, is the first to examine boycotting behavior using a nationally representative sample of the United States population.

Since there are many types of corporate boycotts, the study divided the practice into various categories including those of labor, product and environment, and focused specifically on the most prominent boycotts of firms between 1981 and 2001.

Nearly 38 percent of respondents had participated in a boycott during the previous year. The most boycotted companies (limited to highly visible firms) included Bridgestone/Firestone (27 percent), AT&T (21 percent) and Philip Morris (19 percent). By ethnicity, 45 percent of African-Americans, 43 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent Native Americans had boycotted, compared to 37 percent of Caucasians and 33 percent of Asians.

Researchers explained this demographic breakdown by what they call the marginalization theory: Those who have little power or control of resources are more likely to turn to boycotting because they have fewer alternatives to influence policy than the wealthy or elite. What or where they buy, in contrast, is one thing they can control.

Still, marginalization theory doesn't explain some of the study's other findings. Overall, males were more likely to boycott than females (a historically marginalized group) and, in certain categories like the environment, educated respondents were more likely to participate in boycotts than the less educated.

The most popular types of boycotts during the previous 20 years were those that involved labor issues (outrages over sweatshops, union strikes). Financial and policy issues (patent, antitrust) garnered the least amount of attention among those who reported boycotting a firm.

With more than a decade of academic inquiry into boycotts, Gardberg reckoned that these types of political protests are "fairly effective, especially in consumer goods categories, but are less so for companies that don't directly deal with the public."

In her research, she cites a 2008 study finding that 28 percent of boycotted corporations eventually concede to consumer demands - a number that, depending on your perspective, could be as seen as an encouraging or disappointing sign of effectiveness.