Boycotts are nothing new. Businesses, countries and individuals have been ostracised as a means of protest for a long time. It was the 19th century shunning of land agent Captain Charles Boycott by his neighbours in Ireland which gave us the word. But in today’s highly connected world, boycotts can be organised much more quickly – and be much wider ranging in their targets.
Should we be worried about this? Or is it a sign of an emerging democratic process to bring about a better society? And what about the effects on businesses? Do boycotts fundamentally threaten their hold on consumer markets?
The essence of a boycott is to put collective action ahead of individual preference. You might think: “I prefer to buy my clothes from H&M, but I will forgo my personal benefit in support of a collective action against that company. I will shop somewhere else.”
This is the thought process (and follow up action) consumers go through for a boycott to become effective. But it is not always this straightforward.
For example, those advocating a boycott may have a certain ideological disposition. But if they do not actually consume the product to be boycotted, there will be no immediate loss to the seller.
How many individuals proposing a boycott of the Daily Mail newspaper actually ever pay to read it, and in turn expose themselves to the adverts companies place within its pages? We might suspect that Daily Mail boycotts are led by those on the left wing of politics. So the most likely answer is that the right wing Mail will not lose many readers, or its advertisers lose many potential customers.
Boycotts are more likely to succeed where they appeal to widely shared public concerns. For example, a boycott of SeaWorld by animal rights activists was credited with a 7% fall in admissions to the attraction.
Recent opinion against the Daily Mail has been mobilised, most notably through the group Stop Funding Hate. This group seeks to reduce companies’ advertising spending in British newspapers which it alleges promote social division. Without advertising revenue, the theory goes, boycotted newspapers will be weakened as outlets for communicating messages which sow the seeds of divisions within society.
But that highlights another problem for modern day boycotts in a social media dominated world. Many people actually have attitudes which others consider to be divisive.
In the echo chamber of the media we choose to consume, we tune into those news sources which confirm our existing beliefs and prejudices. We shut out those channels which challenge them. UK national newspapers have always appealed to groups based on their attitudes and values. Ask a British person to name their preferred newspaper, and you will already have a good idea of their attitudes and values. Millions of people choose to read the Daily Mail.
And despite the deep pockets of the Mail, it is unlikely that commercial interests will be completely subservient to political evangelising. Yes, the paper has political views, but it is also business savvy. Poor business weakens its political platform.
So the Mail’s chosen political position might appeal to a significant segment of consumers, and not to others. Along the way, it will inevitably lose some advertisers, with Lego and Body Shop publicly severing ties. Virgin Trains announced it would no longer stock the paper, and then reversed the decision a few days later.
Some of these battles may have been based on good analysis of cost effectiveness, and nothing to do with political views. But an advertiser could gain added kudos on the way out if it cites the greater social good as the reason for pulling adverts.
Preaching to the choir?
In an intensely measured and monitored media world, this would seem to be a no-cost win for advertisers. But publicly pulling advertising can also harm advertisers. The retailer Paperchase thought it was doing the right thing by apologising for its dealings with the Mail, again citing differences in values between the company and the newspaper. Yet this was not a clear win for its brand equity. Some prominent commentators responded by proposing a boycott of Paperchase for caving in to pressure from an alleged small group of individuals, and thereby threatening free speech.
The American John Wanamaker, an early pioneer of marketing is believed to have once commented: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Today, in theory, consumer tracking technology has hugely increased companies’ abilities to assess the effectiveness of their media activity. But changing the attitudes of people who never buy from you and probably never will won’t make much difference to the bottom line. Appealing to core customers will.
While complex theoretical approaches may help to examine the direct and indirect consequences of boycotts, there will still be uncertainty. And a boycott may simply strengthen the resolve of those you are trying to shun.