CONSUMER BOYCOTT BASICS
To buy or not to buy? This behavioral question, while lacking the momentous, life-or-death quality of the Shakespearean original, is nonetheless apparently becoming a vexing one for many American consumers. On the one hand, consumers are exposed to hundreds of advertisements every day, and the result, some believe, is a new focus on shopping as a recreational activity that, in the extreme, has led to the emergence of shopping junkies (O’Guinn and Faber, 1989) and a new subject for bumper-sticker humor (e.g., “Shop ’til you drop,” “I shop therefore I am,” “Gone shopping,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”). On the other hand, these same consumers are besieged by requests from organizations representing almost every imaginable point on the political spectrum asking that they refrain from buying certain products or services in order to help the organizations further their goals. Although precise numbers are not known, Todd Putnam, founding editor of National Boycott Newsletter, has claimed that boycotts have increased markedly in number from the 1960s and 1970s, with more than 100 national efforts under way in the early 1990s as well as scores of local activities (Putnam, 1993).
This book seeks to advance understanding of consumer boycotts. We begin in this chapter by defining and classifying consumer boycotts and by establishing the historical roots for the boycott term. The analytical framework employed is multidisciplinary, drawing upon theoretical work in the behavioral and social sciences (e.g., Friedman, 1991, 1996b; Hirschman, 1970; Vroom, 1964) and empirical studies conducted by the author and others (e.g., Friedman, 1985, 1995b, 1996b; Garrett, 1987; Pruitt and Friedman, 1986; Vogel, 1970). These studies reveal that consumer boycotts have involved a wide range of protest groups, target organizations, and social concerns in all regions of the United States. And, as already indicated, they also appear to be increasing in frequency.
The concerns addressed herein should be of interest to many scholars, practitioners, and laypersons. Two audiences that may be especially attentive are students of social change as well as consumer affairs specialists, and particularly those specialists who deal with consumer protection. Since 1980 there has been a dramatic drop in government support for consumer protection programs, and, in light of existing political and economic realities, it seems unlikely that government support will increase markedly in the near future (Brobeck, 1997). As a result, consumers may have to look to themselves for help in advancing their own interests. Since the boycott is a technique that has long been used in support of consumer protection efforts, learning more about it, from both academic and practitioner perspectives, would seem especially important.
Of likely interest to students of social change is the use of the boycott instrument to serve not only consumer economic objectives, such as lower prices, but also the political objectives of various special interest groups outside the consumer movement. Included here are groups representing animal welfare and environmental protection, as well as the rights of women, gays, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, and various labor organizations. At one time or another since 1970 all of these groups have called for boycotts of consumer products and services in an effort to help realize their organizational objectives. The book will consider these political boycotts as well as consumer economic boycotts.
Before proceeding with our analysis it is necessary to say a few words of rationale about the choice of the boycott as the consumer strategy to subject to intensive scholarly examination in this book. While other candidates (e.g., class action suits, letterwriting campaigns, and lobbying) are also worthy of research attention (Herrmann et al., 1988), the boycott appears to have two qualities that give it a special status. First, it has been perceived as more effective than other techniques by business leaders, the group whose organizations are usually the target of boycotts. A nationwide survey of senior business managers found that it was on the top of their list of “most effective techniques for the consumer movement to use” (Sentry Insurance Co., 1977). Indeed, 51 percent of the sample assigned this description to the boycott, while the next most popular choice on a list of 12 items garnered only 24 percent of the votes.
A second reason for the focus on boycotts concerns their important social justice role in American history. Since the Revolutionary War it can be argued that the boycott has been used more than any other organizational technique to promote and protect the rights of the powerless and disenfranchised segments of society. Indeed, Scott (1985), in a penetrating historical analysis of the efforts of peasants to resist oppression, referred to the boycott as a “weapon of the weak.”
Some highly publicized examples from the postwar era are the United Farm Worker boycotts of grapes and lettuce led by Cesar Chavez from the late 1960s through the 1990s and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s. Historically significant earlier efforts include the anti-Nazi boycott of German goods called by the American Jewish community in the 1930s and early 1940s and the turn-of-thecentury initiatives of the Knights of Labor and other fledgling members of the trade union movement of that time. Moreover, the period of the American Revolution witnessed boycotts of British goods in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia following the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765.
The boycotts occurring during the American Revolutionary period are especially important historically; indeed, they have been cited by protesters to justify the often-heard claim that boycotts are “as American as apple pie.” Moreover, the boycotts initiated during this early period were very effective. Britain’s Parliament supposedly enacted the Stamp Act to enable the British government to recover the costs of “defending, protecting and securing the British Colonies and plantations in America.” The new law required the colonists to purchase stamps varying in price from a few pence to a few pounds for a whole host of legal documents including mortgages and deeds, as well as law and liquor licenses. The American colonists were outraged, and various groups, such as the Daughters of Liberty and the Sons of Liberty, protested by initiating boycotts.
The day before the Act was to go into effect, two hundred New York merchants signed an agreement to import nothing more from Great Britain until the Stamp Act should be repealed. The Philadelphia merchants and retailers subscribed similar agreements the next week, and the Boston merchants in December, to be followed by those of Salem, Marblehead, Plymouth and Newbury. (Morgan and Morgan, 1962, p. 331)
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act a year later after being pressed to do so by British merchants whose businesses had been hurt by the boycott.
Eight years later, in 1774, the American colonists once again turned to the boycott as a weapon against the British. As Stencel (1991) has noted in an overview of boycotts and their influence, the First Continental Congress, upon finding that colonial grievances were not being redressed by the king’s government, passed a formal resolution stopping the importation of British goods. This resolution, which was in violation of British law, also established local committees to help with the execution of the boycott. Did the boycott work? History does not provide an answer; before the effectiveness of this boycott initiative could be assessed, the Revolutionary War was under way.
A Definition of Consumer Boycotts
Before attempting to analyze consumer boycotts it is necessary to define the term. A working definition used by the author in an earlier study spoke of a consumer boycott as “an attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the marketplace” (Friedman, 1986, p. 97).1
The reader should note three characteristics of this definition. The first is the focus on individual consumers rather than organizational entities such as professional associations, business firms, or government agencies, even though organizations of these various types have often been urged to participate in boycotts.
A second characteristic of the definition concerns the goals of boycotts. For the purposes of this book consumer boycotts are viewed as attempts to use marketplace means to secure what may or may not be marketplace ends. There is good reason for not limiting boycott ends or goals to those of the marketplace. For, as we have already seen, in addition to such common marketplace concerns of consumer boycotts as lower prices and higher quality goods, a multitude of considerations external to the marketplace, such as environmental quality and labor union recognition, have assumed significant roles in boycott actions.
A third characteristic of the definition is its emphasis on urging consumers to withdraw selectively from participation in the marketplace. As we shall see presently, this urging or lobbying effort may be direct and immediate, as when retail stores are picketed by boycott groups, or it may be indirect and gradual, as when boycotters focus on creating dramatic demonstrations to attract the attention of the news media in the hopes that the resulting news coverage will alert consumers to the problem being addressed by the boycotters.2
Origins of the Boycott Term
Although the boycott tactic goes back almost to the dawn of history, the term itself is of relatively recent origin. The story behind the term, which derives from the name of a British estate manager, begins more than a 100 years ago in Ireland.3
The details have been carefully recorded by a key participant, the American journalist James Redpath, in an article appearing in the Magazine of Western History.
According to Redpath,
I was dining with Father John O’Malley and he asked me why I was not eating. I said that I was bothered about a word. “What is it?” asked Father John. “Well,” I said “when a people ostracize a landgrabber we call it excommunication, but we ought to have an entirely different word to signify ostracism applied to a landlord or land agent like Boycott. Ostracism won’t do. The peasantry would not know the meaning of the word, and I can’t think of anything.” “No,” Father John said, “ostracism wouldn’t do.” He looked downward, tapped his forehead, and then out it came. “How would it do to call it ‘to boycott him?’” (1881, pp. 214– 215)
Redpath expressed delight at the idea; he agreed to use the word in his writings and asked O’Malley to do likewise so that “between us we will make it famous.” Months later, after reflecting upon the success of their efforts, Redpath paid a tribute to O’Malley and himself by noting, “He was the first man who uttered the word, and I was the first man who wrote it” (1881, pp. 214–215).
According to Laidler (1913), the circumstances that triggered this historic conversation are especially noteworthy. For many years Irish peasants had been very poorly treated by the British landlord class. The peasants’ land had been taken, their homes destroyed, and their wages reduced to starvation levels. These inhumane actions were not taken by the British landlords but by their agents. Among the most notorious was a retired British army captain, Charles Cunningham Boycott, who had been the estate manager for Lord Erne in County Mayo since 1873.
In the summer of 1880, after several years of extremely dire living conditions for the Irish peasants, Boycott sent his tenant farmers into the fields to harvest crops at only a fraction of the regular wage. When they refused, Boycott and his family attempted to bring in the crops themselves; however, they had to give up, completely exhausted, after a few hours of work. Boycott’s wife pleaded with the tenants to go back to work, which they did; however, on rent day they were summarily served with eviction papers by constables under orders from Boycott.
The outraged tenants called a mass meeting at which they persuaded Boycott’s employees (his servants, drivers, and animal herders) to desert him and his family. Three days after this declaration of social and economic ostracism the term “boycott” was coined by O’Malley.
That the term was understood and supported by the Irish peasantry became clear in the next few years. In the opinion of the London Times in 1885,
It means that a peaceful subject of the Queen is denied food and drink, and that he is run down in his business; that his cattle are unsalable at fairs; that the smith will not shoe his horse nor the carpenter mend his cart; that old friends pass him by on the other side of the street, making the sign of the cross; that his children are hooted at the village school; that he sits apart, like an outcast, in his usual place of worship, all for doing nothing but that the law says that he has a perfect right to do. (Laidler, 1913, p. 26)
Needless to say, the boycott weapon was quickly condemned by the British landlord class. According to Laidler (1913), not only was the boycott effective, but “it called the attention of the people of England and Ireland as perhaps did no other weapon to many grave injustices” (p. 26).
While the story of the origins of the boycott term is not without considerable drama, it should be noted that the definition given by O’Malley and Redpath is somewhat broader than the one commonly used today. In particular, more often than not, the term denotes an act of social isolation or an act of economic disengagement, but rarely both acts at the same time. Thus one boycotts a social group by not attending its meetings, or one boycotts a neighborhood store by not buying the goods on sale there. But rarely does one participate in both types of boycott with regard to the same retail entity, perhaps in part because modern-day America, with its large and often impersonal shopping centers, does not particularly encourage consumers to have strong social relationships with the producers, processors, or retailers of the goods they purchase. More typically, it seems, consumers relate not to owners and managers but to clerks and cashiers.
Moreover, not only are the social and economic rarely combined in today’s boycott actions, but those that are publicized are more likely to be economic than social. In the many literature searches of computerized and manual reference sources conducted in the preparation for this book, the large majority of citations were to economic boycotts, and the most common variety was the consumer boycott as defined earlier in this chapter.
A Taxonomy of Consumer Boycotts
We turn now to a consideration of boycott types and dimensions.
Place and Time Considerations
Boycotts differ with regard to their intended geographic scope. As we shall see, national boycotts appear to be the most common, followed by local boycotts; occurring far less frequently are international, state, and regional boycotts (Friedman, 1985). Interestingly, international boycotts appear to have shown the most growth in the last few years. As social and environmental issues become increasingly international in character, the volunteer groups that address them have looked more and more to globalizing their activities. This is especially true of the environmental and animal rights movements since their issues transcend national and regional boundaries.
Time durations of boycotts also vary. Long-term boycotts extend beyond two years, while medium-term boycotts go on for periods ranging between one and two years. Finally, shortterm boycotts end within a year of the time they are announced. In practice these temporal distinctions are often difficult to maintain because boycotts’ beginnings and endings are not always clear. This is especially true for end points and particularly for those boycotts that fall short of their leaders’ expectations. In these instances announcing an end to a boycott may be tantamount to admitting the failure of one’s effort, and it is not hard to understand why such disclosures infrequently occur. For this reason, among others, many boycotts are of unknown duration.
Boycotts also vary on a second temporal dimension. While almost all are called as full-time activities, some, like the nationwide meat boycott of 1973, are called as a part-time effort (in this instance, Tuesday and Thursday of each week over the course of the boycott period).
Still a third time-related characteristic of boycotts is associated with actions that attempt to punish the target of a consumer boycott. In these instances the boycott group may decide to act like a judge in a criminal court proceeding and “sentence” the boycott target to a specific period of punishment, often a year, for its offensive behavior. This was the action taken in 1990 by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) when it decided to boycott Alfred Knopf, Inc. for a year for publishing a book (American Psycho) that the boycotting group considered to be highly offensive to women. Moreover, the American Family Association (AFA) once announced plans to initiate a one-year boycott of the corporation that sponsored the most offensive television programs (highest sex and violence content, as determined by the AFA).
Boycotts also differ in how much they ask of consumer participants. Some boycotts, called commodity boycotts, ask consumers to refrain from buying all brands and models in a product or service category (e.g., all brands of granulated sugar), while others limit their attention to one brand (a brand-name boycott) or one manufacturer or retailer (a single-firm boycott). Commodity boycotts are often difficult to execute successfully, especially if the target product is one for which many consumers have established strong allegiances, such as coffee or meat.
Other areas in which boycotts may be less than complete concern the price of the boycotted items and the degree of abstinence requested of consumers. To illustrate the latter circumstance, the initiators of a coffee boycott in the 1970s, fully realizing that many consumers would not be able to make do without this beverage, called for a 50 percent drop in daily purchases and consumption. To illustrate the partial price circumstance, consumer leaders in the early days of the postwar era reacted to rapid increases in meat prices after government price controls were lifted by calling for a boycott of all meat selling for more than 59 cents a pound. In each of these instances we have a case of a partial boycott, rather than a complete boycott.
Yet another example of a partial boycott is one restricted to certain days of the week, such as the 1973 meat boycott called for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Partial boycotts allow reluctant participants to buy and consume a boycotted product or service by following what often appear to be rather undemanding rules.
Boycotts have been launched by a wide variety of sponsoring organizations. Among the most common are consumer groups, labor unions, organizations representing ethnic and racial minorities, religious groups, women’s rights groups, and environmental groups. Still others include gay rights groups, antiwar groups, health groups, pro-life and pro-choice groups, animal welfare groups, anti-pornography groups, and groups combining two or more interests.
An examination of news accounts of boycott actions reveals that many of them follow a path of escalating militancy, a path that begins with an announcement that a boycott action is under consideration. Some boycotts do not go beyond this point, and we refer to them as action-considered boycotts. However, those that do go further usually take the same next step, namely, to announce that a boycott is being called and that participation in the action is requested. Many boycotts go no further; these are called action-requested boycotts. Those that go beyond this stage often issue an announcement indicating that the boycott is being organized and noting what preparations are under way. We refer to boycotts that stop at this juncture as action-organized boycotts. Finally, the boycotts that go beyond organization and preparation to take such concrete actions as initiating demonstrations and/or picket lines to publicize and stimulate the boycott activity are referred to as action-taken boycotts.
Many protest groups apparently do nothing more than engage in an action-considered or action-requested boycott (Friedman, 1985); since some of these efforts seem more concerned with publicity in the news media than with action in the marketplace, we refer to them as media-oriented boycotts. The focus on the news media often reflects the fact that the organizations calling for the boycotts lack the necessary resources or appropriate circumstances to implemen...