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Boycotts and Buycotts – How Successful are They?

Theopolisme/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Protesters call for a boycott on Chick-Fil-A in 2012.

From Texas Standard:

The Dallas Mavericks are boycotting stays at hotels owned by President-elect Donald Trump. And #grabyourwallet is trending on social media sites – a shoutout for Trump opponents to boycott companies that do business with Trump enterprises, or with companies whose CEOs gave money to Trump’s election campaign. Some of the companies include Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Neiman Marcus and T.J. Maxx.

On the flip side, Trump supporters are calling to boycott Netflix, the NFL and the Oreo-makers Nabisco Foods, among others.

Consumer boycotts are at least as old as the nation itself. (You may recall a story from grade school about tea in Boston.) In the past century, people have boycotted bus ridesgrapes, and the Olympics. Boycotting is a tool that the public has used to mainstream concerns and make social change.

But after an emotionally-charged campaign and a presidential election leaving half the country feeling empowered – and the other half disappointed and afraid – what function do these dueling boycotts serve? Do they make a difference?

Timothy Werner, assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, says boycotts can be successful, depending on what activists are trying to achieve.

"What we know from the research is that it's unlikely that they're going to have very significant financial impacts on a firm if they're boycotting one," he says. “But usually their proximate or more immediate goal is to make it clear that some practice of the firm is problematic to them and to bring broader public attention to that."

Boycotts are predominantly symbolic, Werner says.

"What you're hearing is people being expressive in particular in the wake of an emotional election,” he says. “Ultimately when we look at revealed behavior – that is, the actual actions – people often don't follow up."

Werner says many times people say that they'll buy the socially responsible product in a survey, but then if you study a person’s habits, they don't.

In 2012, New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio called for a boycott on Chick-Fil-A. He said the company’s CEO and owners supported groups that promote homophobia. But the boycott led to a “buycott” – or an anti-boycott.

"Which is where supporters of that firm, or the causes that are leading to the boycott, then patronize the firm at a higher rate," Werner says.

That could potentially happen with the anti-Trump boycotts, Werner says. But there is one difference.

"The actual businesses that Trump is involved in – you have to have a fair amount of money to stay at one of his hotels," he says, "so it's a little bit different for the mass public to react in a similar way."

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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