Boycotts: Contest or Cave? (1992)
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Boycotts: Contest or Cave? (1992)

Experts believe that there are more than 300 organized boycotts of American corporations going on at any given time. There is even a magazine dedicated to monitoring boycotts and keeping activist con­sumers informed.

Paul Holmes


There's nothing new about boycotts. The Boston Tea Part of 1773 grew out of a boycott of British tea and taxes. One of the key weapons in Mohandas Gandhi's campaign against British colonialism in India in the `20s and '30s was a boycott of British linen and salt. The Reverend Martin Luther King's 1955 bus boycott was a successful weapon in the struggle for Black civil rights.

These historical boycotts were isolated inci­dents, however. Today, boycotts have become almost institutionalized. Experts believe that there are more than 300 organized boycotts of American corporations going on at any given time. There is even a magazine, National Boycott News, headquartered in Seattle and with a circulation of around 7,000, dedicated to monitoring boycotts and keeping activist con­sumers informed about which companies are politically correct and which are not.

"The '80s and '90s have been really tough on socially responsible consumers," says Todd Putnam, the magazine's publisher. "Every dollar is a vote for the way a company does business. It boils down to the principle of democracy."

But those consumers are fighting back. Recent years have seen boy­cotts of Nike for allegedly slighting the African­American community to which it sells; of Miller Beer by homosexuals because its parent, Philip Morris, contributed heavily to the reelection campaign of Senator Jesse Helms; of Folgers coffee, because it imports beans from El Salvador and thus reinforces the right-wing government there; of Arizona, because the state voted against celebrating Martin Luther King Day as a public holiday; of Exxon because of the Valdez oil spill; and of GE because of its involvement in nuclear weapons manufacture.

And it's not only the left that has organized boycotts. Time-Warner was recently subject to a protest led by white police officers because it sold the speed metal song Cop Killer, which told the story of a black man murdering police offi­cers, by the group Body Count; several other corporations have been targeted by the religious right for their philan­thropic donations to Planned Parenthood; Pepsi-Cola was attacked because of an ad featuring pop star Madonna which broke at the same time as a video some critics claimed was sacrilegious.

Many issues beyond a corporation's core business are now capable of generating unwant­ed heat. Perhaps the foremost among them has been abortion. Two years ago, a boycott by anti­abortion protesters caused Dayton-Hudson to end its support of Planned Parenthood, but when hundreds of irate cus­tomers cut up their credit cards in response the company reversed its decision.

This year, Pioneer Hi-Bred, which produces seed for farmers, pulled its funding for Planned Parenthood, although its money went to rural health clinics that did not perform abortions, rather than argue its case. Pioneer chairman Thomas Urban later admitted: "We were blackmailed, but you can't put the core business at risk." Urban agreed the decision had angered as many people as it had pleased, but added: "We are in a unique position because our sales force is made up of farmers. It became very clear to us that whatever our individ­ual positions were, we couldn't ask farmers to carry a particular belief system with them when they knocked on cus­tomers' doors."

Other corporations, including General Electric, AT&T, Chase Manhattan and Xerox have been faced with shareholder resolutions urging opposition to abortion promoted by Life Decisions International, an activist group.

Attitudes such as that espoused by Pioneer's Urban beg several questions: does support for Planned Parenthood's rural clinics imply support for abortion; is refusal to fund such clinics as much a state­ment of a particular "belief system" as funding them; and should companies aban­don "belief systems" and values if some stakeholders find them offensive? evi Strauss is one corporation that apparently believes in the impor­tance of standing for something. It recently discontinued its support of the Boy Scouts of America because the organi­zation discriminates against homosexuals, and Levi's corporate creed takes a position against discrimination of the grounds of sexual orientation.

"I think in the end it comes back to the company's credo," says Douglas Hearle, a senior counselor with the

Osgood Global Group. "This is one of the reasons I put a lot of emphasis on a company having a clear set of guidelines. An individual knows what his or her values are by a process of introspection. A corpo­ration has to be similarly introspective, and then articulate its values somehow, in a written credo, to give it a frame of refer­ence for difficult decisions. If an action can be defended in terms of the credo, I think a company can just go forward."

Hearle argues that there is rarely an economic downside to resisting a boycott, as long as the company's position is based on some sort of value system, and is clearly articulated. Philip Morris, for example, has long defended itself against the anti-tobac­co lobby by arguing that the decision to smoke cigarettes is a freedom of choice issue. While critics may disagree, the defense has a solid intel­lectual foundation and has been articulated well. "If a company has tradi­tionally supported Planned Parenthood in its educational role, I see no reason for them to change that position," says Hearle. "As long as it can be defended in terms of the company's credo. But I do think companies who do not currently have a position on issues like this will avoid get­ting into controversy, and you won't see a lot of companies giving first-time grants to controversial organizations."

Other experts agree that boycotts are rarely successful in financial terms. H .J. Heinz Company reportedly saw its profits from Star-Kist tuna rise from $115 million to $145 million during the two-year boy­cott that ended when

Star-Kist took the lead in promising to sell only dol­phin-safe tuna.

Those involved say the company agreed to change its policy not because of the financial impact of the boycott, but because it was the right thing to do. "StarKist decided to take a leadership role in protecting dolphin lives," said Pam Talbot, evp at Heinz PR agency Edelman. "Prior to the announcement we worked extensively with environmental groups to determine a policy."

National Boycott News's Putnam agrees that the financial impact of a boycott may be the least important thing about it: "The corporation is spending millions of dollars to create its public image," he says. "So if a boycott goes after that image, it can cause long-term damage. A bad public image is hard to shake. If you can label Nestle a baby-killer, as Infact did with the infant formula boycott, that's tough to fix."

The tactics of boycott organizers have grown more sophisticated, too. In 1990, for example, Neighbor to Neighbor recognized that its boycott of Procter & Gamble (over the Folgers coffee issue) was going to have lit­tle impact on a vast corporation, and so it chose instead to boycott stores that stocked Folgers, where it could have a more local, immediate and dramatic impact. Those stores in turn put pressure on P&G.

A similar approach was adopted by religious groups attacking pornography, recalls Jan van Meter, evp at Fleishman Hillard in New York. They could not boy­cott Playboy itself, since they were obviously not Playboy readers to begin with; so they boycotted stores such as those owned by Southland Corporation, and many stores opted to stop carrying adult magazines.

Van Meter suggests talking to people involved in the boycott, exploring avenues of compromise. In the Playboy example, for instance, the retailer could have offered to place a wrap around the offending material. He also suggests talking to key publics to find out their reaction to the issue.

"What it comes down to is whether you want to stand up for a principle or not," van Meter says. "Sometimes you do, because you believe the principle is an integral to your business. Sometimes you do, but it's not eco­nomically feasible. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you may come to recognize that the prin­ciple itself is wrong.

"Some companies don't want to stand for anything but their products and ser­vices. They argue they're not in the cause business, and that's a legitimate choice. It's also legitimate to stand for certain values whether people like them or not."

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