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)
2. Meet Kevin Keller
The boycott backfire demonstrated by Chick-fil-A cuts both ways. In 2010 Archie comics introduced Kevin Keller, a clean-cut openly gay teen, to its Riverdale crew. It got the Archie comics more attention that it had received in years, answering such important questions as "Do they still make Archie comics?"
A comic book showing Kevin's future, serving in the military and getting married to a guy, drew the ire of One Million Moms, an offshoot of the American Family Association that seems devoted to calling for boycotts and complaining to advertisers about anything gay friendly or sexual in the media. They threatened Toys 'R Us for carrying the offending comic book.
The result: The issue sold out. Much like the Chick-fil-A hubbub, the publicity from the objections caused a significant response in the opposite direction. He now has his own monthly comic book.
Next: The Boycottiest Place on Earth
From 1997 to 2005 the Southern Baptist Convention had ordered a boycott of the massive Walt Disney Co. empire for not being "family friendly" enough (as in, being too supportive of gay issues) and for releasing controversial films like Priest and Pulp Fiction from its subsidiaries.
During that time, Disney saw higher earnings and increased attendance at its theme parks. The company is still as gay as ever, the parks still have their gay days (these are independently organized and not officially sponsored by Disney), and ABC, owned by Disney, has gay characters all over the place. There's even a lesbian teen on Pretty Little Liars, a teen drama thriller on ABC Family. And if you think Disney's stranglehold on American children has lessened at all, two words for you: Phineas. Ferb.
The Southern Baptist Convention boasts about 16 million members. That sounds big, but it's actually a little bit less than the number of visitors at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando in 2010. And that's just one of their many parks.
Next: Dominos that Won't Fall Down
4. Domino's Pizza
In a protest similar to the current Chick-fil-A activism, the National Organization for Women called for a boycott of Domino's Pizza in 1989 due to the company founder's anti-abortion activism.
Tom Monaghan, a devout Catholic, founded the pizza chain in 1960. As Snopes.com explains, despite what boycotters might believe, the company itself has not donated to anti-abortion groups. But Monaghan has, and so therefore any money that winds up in his pocket as profit could end up funding groups like Operation Rescue.
The pizza company appears to be growing (partly by essentially changing and relaunching its pizza, which even Domino's admitted tasted awful). It has more than twice as many restaurants as competitor Papa John's. Monaghan is no longer connected, having sold the company in 1998 (to Bain Capital!) for $1 billion, not exactly a sign of boycott success.
Next: Rebel Yelling
5. South Carolina
In 1999, the NAACP called for a boycott of South Carolina to try to force the state to take the Confederate flag off the top of the state capitol building in Columbia.
In 2000, the civil rights group got its wish, but then the flag was moved to a monument on the state grounds for fallen Confederate soldiers and is pretty much just as visible as it was before. So the NAACP has refused to end its boycott.
The NAACP claims support is strong for the boycott, pointing to conferences looking elsewhere and the Harlem Globetrotters and NCAA tournaments avoiding the state. But in 2010 black South Carolina state Sen. Robert Ford, responsible for the compromise that moved the flag from the state house, said that the boycott was essentially over and no longer held public support.