When is it Worth Boycotting?

Earlier this month, comedian Samantha Bee joined the long list of entertainers, whose controversial remarks have sparked calls for a boycott of them, and their sponsors.

On her show ‘Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,’ the host criticised Ivanka Trump for posting a photo of her and her son, at the same time that news broke that the US government lost track of 1500 migrant children. To many, a line was then crossed when Bee called Ivanka a ‘feckless c—!’. Shortly after, Bee apologised for her remarks, but the damage had already been done.

Calls for the show to be cancelled immediately followed the airing of the episode. In response, several companies made the decision to no longer air advertisements on the show. However, Samantha Bee isn’t the first TV presenter to face this backlash, in the past year we have seen calls for boycotts against:

  • Bill O’Reily – After the public was made aware of a $32 million sexual harassment settlement made by O’Reily, more than 80 companies pulled advertisements from The ‘O’Reily Factor,’ due to severe public backlash. The Fox News commentator was forced to resign shortly after.
  • Laura Ingraham: After David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting, was rejected by four of the colleges he applied to, Ingraham took to twitter to mock the student. Her show was not cancelled by the network, but she did lose 23 sponsors.
  • Steven Colbert: Made a joke about Donald Trump blowing Vladimir Putin. Some were outraged, but nothing really happened.
  • Bill Maher: On an episode of ‘Real Time with Bill Maher,’ the host ‘jokingly’ used a racial slur during a live broadcast. Maher later apologised for the comments, and was not fired.

This brought upon an important dilemma for advertisers, should they just stay away from politically charged shows altogether? The chances are that a political commentator is far more likely to say something that sparks outrage from viewers (who then take it out on their sponsor’s), than someone on a show that is  completely apolitical.  But in a world where Donald Trump is president, can advertisers afford to not advertise to the growing market that is political coverage.

So why do advertisers care all of a sudden?

Because viewers are caring. In today’s society, consumers are increasingly aware that their consumption behaviour can have negative consequences, despite the personal benefit they receive. Because of this, many people now feel obligated to consume ethically.

Brands are also beginning to think long-term. When consumers unite to boycott a  sponsor, it’s not losing sales that the company is worried about. Now, more than ever, organisations are concerned about the long-term ramifications of a public boycott. Specifically, the negative consequences that comes with having a poor reputation.  These can include:

  • Being unable to recruit high-quality employees.
  • Being less likely to receive government contracts in the future.
  • Taking a toll on the personal lives of employees.

 What makes a boycott successful?

It is important to note that out of all the boycotts previously mentioned, only one of them actually worked. This is mostly because the horrendous actions of Bill O’Reily were significantly worse than the actions of the other commentators.

But the fact is, that in general, boycotts don’t work. Sometimes it’s because a brand is simply too big to fail, and sometimes it’s because the initial outrage doesn’t translate into sustained action. In a statement to The Ringer, Wharton School professor Maurice Schweitzer argues:

“The reason why they don’t work is that it takes a really persistent, motivated effort to inconvenience yourself and forgo the benefits of whatever the company’s offering to make a point.”

In 2017 there were calls to #DeleteUber. In 2018 people wanted to #DeleteFacebook. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m still checking  Facebook to avoid conversation in the Uber I’m in. But that’s not to say all boycotts are pointless. Just because someone hasn’t been fired, or a company hasn’t been shut down, doesn’t mean that the movement wasn’t a success.  Just look at the impact of the boycott on NRA affiliated companies, following the Parkland school shooting.  But not every movement can be as successful as this. For every #BoycottNRA there’s a #BoycottBeyonce.

The bottom line, is that it is incredibly difficult to organise, and commit to a boycott. But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.  A boycott is still one of the most useful tools a consumer has for creating change, and making sure that the companies we support, align with our beliefs.  But it is my humble opinion, that we direct this time and energy towards the Bill O’Reily’s of the world, not towards Beyoncé.

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