When businesses and corporations engage in behavior people find reprehensible, sometimes it’s not enough to not be a customer. Sometimes people want to try to apply economic pressure to these companies to get them to change their ways. They loudly encourage others to follow the lead. Deny that business enough money and they’ll have to alter their behavior. Visions of the noble Montgomery Bus Boycotts dance in their heads.
In reality though, boycotts, particularly national ones, are hard to pull off. The success of a boycott is proportional to that business’s dependency on those who are aggrieved. In the case of the bus boycotts, Montgomery’s public transit system was extremely dependent on the very customers they were segregating. The quick development of alternative transit systems like cheap taxis also put the screws to the bus system. The successful boycotts of the South during the civil rights era spoke to the dependency of Southern businesses on the very black customers they treated so poorly.
But those lessons are rather lost now. As the recent Chick-fil-A adventures show us, boycotts don’t have the same force when spread across a nation with an increasingly diverse community and an even more diverse marketplace.
Here’s a look at 5 boycotts that haven’t accomplished so much.
Anybody spending a chunk of his or her life in the South knows about Chick-fil-A. They were in every single shopping mall food court. Their sandwiches were simple, but delicious. And they were always closed on Sundays. Even as competitors have expanded their hours to the point that there are now 24-hour drive-thrus, Chick-fil-A has remained resolutely closed on Sundays. The company’s Christian roots are obvious to those who have lived among them.
But as the company expanded, it started reaching customers who were not so familiar with Chick-fil-A’s history. The current conflict first surfaced in 2011 when Chick-fil-A’s donations to Christian organizations were uncovered. Some of the money—albeit a small amount—specifically went to groups that engage in anti-gay activism, like the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund. A boycott was recommended within the gay community, though it didn’t get much publicity beyond those playing close attention to the gay marriage battle (even gay dad Neil Patrick Harris had no idea until he tweeted about one opening in Los Angeles).
In July, the controversy blew up when comments by company president Dan Cathy supporting “traditional marriage” hit the mainstream press. Suddenly it became a big deal, and gay marriage culture war carpet-bombing ensued. Boston’s mayor and a Chicago alderman strongly suggested they would use their influence to attempt to block the opening of restaurants in their communities. Supporters of Chick-fil-A flooded the chain on August 1, setting new sales records. Gay marriage supporters promised a “kiss in” August 3 in response.
Message management on this attempted boycott has not gone well. The nature of the response (especially by progressive politicians) has turned the issue on its side into a free speech issue, rather than an issue of political activism that affects the rights of others. Once a boycott appears to be based on objections to a company official’s opinions rather than its actions, don’t expect much support in the U.S.
Next: Archie Comics (Chick-fil-A in Reverse)