Boycott Battles: Do They Really Work?
A Double-Edged Sword
Is there a chance that boycotts may actually play into anti-gay activists’ hands?
"Feeding the fire of publicity that our opponents want to get from these things doesn’t end up helping very much," said Cole-Schwartz, adding that HRC is concerned about collateral damage. Taking aim at a corporation can "have unintended consequences," such as putting workers’ jobs at risk and placing LGBT workers in a difficult position, he said. Are "LGBT [employees] - I don’t know if ’blamed’ is the right word - but looked at differently if the organization takes a hit based on a boycott?"
Scapegoating was certainly a major concern for gay advocates in Jamaica, who in 2009 blasted U.S.-based activists for launching a boycott of its tourism industry and products. The organizers cited the island nation’s endemic homophobia, but the group J-FLAG warned that previous boycotts had increased assaults on gays.
Could HRC’s nuanced view derive at least in part from its own experience as the target of a donation boycott? Outraged activists picketed black-tie events in 2008, when the group broke the word of then-president Joe Solmonese and backed a version of the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that did not include protections based on gender identity. (When asked, Cole-Schwartz said, "I don’t see a parallel there.")
HRC doesn’t avoid supporting organized campaigns across the board, however.
"Our position isn’t that boycotts are always bad, but rather that they need to be given careful consideration given the possible consequences," Cole-Schwartz said. "We do try to empower consumers with tools like our Buyer’s Guide so that they can make their own decisions about companies to patronize."
The Web, social media, information like the Buyer’s Guide and online petitions have greatly expanded the potential and reach of boycotts - as they have with other forms of activism.
The Chick-fil-A Debacle
The ease with which boycotts can be organized now has created an effectiveness gap between pro- and anti-gay groups, Witeck said. Boycotts by the latter - such as those the American Family Association launches at least annually - have no demonstrable effect on a company’s bottom line. They’re so frequent and "exaggerated for effect" that they’re just noise, he said. "They’ve cried wolf too many times to have much impact."
If efforts don’t force companies’ hand, why do conservatives trot them out with such regularity? Witeck sees it mainly as a bid to get publicity, raise money and expand membership. Boycotts are really "brand-building opportunities for them to stay relevant," he said.
But LGBT advocates’ boycotts - or, more commonly, boycott threats - get companies’ attention and provoke policy changes because they’re generally more rational and "authentic," Witeck said. As long as a gay customer or group’s objection is legitimate and evidence-based, and passes the "laugh test," as he calls it, a company is likely to engage and respond.
That is where last year’s Chick-fil-A boycott failed, according to Witeck. What started as awareness-building about the owner’s financial support of groups opposing marriage equality turned into a public relations disaster for our side when the campaign devolved into a debate about CEO Dan Cathy’s First Amendment rights and local politicians’ efforts to bar Chick-fil-A franchises from opening in Boston and Chicago, as well as on several university campuses.
Nobody thought the argument was reasonable, according to Witeck. "The question was not whether they could serve or run a business, but whether we as individuals would patronize such a place," he said, adding that gay advocates’ "messaging was very bad." The result backfired: Conservative talk-show host Mike Huckabee organized a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" that drew hundreds of thousands of additional customers and fed days of pro-Chick coverage, especially on Huckabee’s channel, Fox News.
In another sense, the Chick-fil-A boycott may have been successful, Witeck said. The chain may have enjoyed an immediate benefit, but it took a longer-term hit because the campaign left the impression "that Chick-fil-A is an unfriendly or hostile place," he said. "I think that’s a problem for them."
That’s why, in Witeck’s view, we’re coming to a "post-boycott" era. "I don’t even hear the word ’boycott’ so much anymore," he said. LGBT organizations are calling for campaigns less and less often because, "the tide is turning," Witeck said. "We know where the tide is - and I think everybody else knows where it is, too."