Monday, August 19, 2013

Boycotting Boycotts

Consider the following boycott scenarios.

  • I boycott my local Catholic church for covering up priest pedophiles. I didn’t previously go to church nor did I contribute to their collections. It doesn’t hurt me, but neither does it hurt the church.
  • I boycott Chick-Fil-A for their CEO’s stance on gays and for their contributions to like-minded organizations. I really like Chick-Fil-A and spent money at their restaurants on a weekly basis. It hurts the company in losing one of their regular customers, but it also hurts me in that I am losing a favorite lunch spot.

The first boycott is not effective while the second is effective because an effective boycott must hurt both the boycotter and the boycottee. From the point of view of the boycotter, the choice to punish a brand for a distasteful policy is a desirable statement that outweighs the undesirable personal consequence. However, when a potential boycott is the hardest to make, and necessarily the most effective, the potential boycotter may opt out of boycotting. In these cases, I’ve thought about another option.

When Ender’s Game comes out in theaters, I will buy a ticket. I’m a big enough fan of the source material that I obviously hope it’s good, but even if it’s bad I’ll be curious to see just how bad it is. Since the author, Orson Scott Card, is a vocal Mormon with ideas and contributions of which I don’t agree, I have some desire to boycott it, just the principle. I recognize that in this case I could pirate Ender’s Game so that Card doesn’t get to put my good money to bad use. At the same time, I feel he deserves to be paid for work that I recognize has value. This leads me to my boycott alternative: I will enjoy a night at the movies and then contributing the ticket price to an organization that works toward goals opposite that of Card’s charities. Instead of this boycott hurting me recreationally, it will only hurt me financially because I will basically be paying twice the ticket price in “protest” of Card’s views.

Card’s primary boycott-worthy view in my opinion is being against gay marriage, so I will likely give to a LGBT charity. In the end, I think this will be more effective than a traditional boycott on a personal level since very little of the cost of my ticket will go to Card’s bank account and again only a fraction of that will go to his causes while the entirety of my extra nine bucks will go against his cause. On a public level, it isn’t quite as effective because I won’t be participating in the inevitable organized boycott of the movie which can only be measured as a factor in the movie’s failure (which I feel is unfair because it punishes everyone else involved in the movie in addition to Card.) In the end, every boycott is a personal boycott and this option is the best for me and might work for you whether you apply it to Ender’s Game, Chick-Fil-A or whatever.

Additional boycott tip: If you do decide to boycott something, it probably won’t be noticeable unless it is part of a large-scale and successfully organized boycott. To make your personal boycott efforts noticable, write to the business or brand you are boycotting and tell them why you are doing it. If you were previously a regular customer, be sure to say so. I’ve done this before with advertisers of particularly harmful radio hosts and heard back from some of the companies. Whether they do anything about it or not, they’ll at least know, and that matters.


  1. Great concept! Boycotts often hurt "the little guy", like the local Chick-fil-a manager, more than they hurt the CEO or the true source of the boycott-worthy actions. The headquarters only receives a fraction of the sales at any one branch.

    Donating to a counter-view group is more cost effective, as the large share of that money goes directly to advancing the position.

    Now if there was only an easy way to tally that up... we need an app for that! ;-)

    1. It would be nice if people could log their counter-donations somewhere.

  2. To be honest, I really don't engage in boycotts because, as you said, they really don't significantly harm the group you're boycotting enough to make them change their policies. Boycotting Chick-Fil-A is really meaningless because there are many, many, many more customers willing to go eat their chicken than people who refuse to do so out of moral or ethical concerns. They don't know you're gone and they don't miss you. That's not a worthwhile boycott, especially when you have no way of telling them *WHY* you're boycotting them. There's no fundamental difference between a boycott where you can't tell them, and everyone else, why you're doing it and someone who just found a different place to go to lunch.

    1. Every time I have bad customer service at McDonald's I think about never going back. Then I look at the "billions and billions served" sign and I doubt they'd miss me.

  3. I agree that boycotting is a good thing and a bad thing. As you pointed out with Enders Game, I will watch it even if some of the money is going to a cause I don’t agree with because I like the story and I want to see how it is portrayed. Essentially also a project like that is not done by one single person but multiple people who do not deserve to be treated in the same way as one outlier.

    With companies who have open discrimination policies on the other hand, I think a boycott is good especially if you are making your voice known.