Consumer Boycotts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Consumer boycotts are used by various political and social-awareness groups and individual consumers in an effort to effect change or simply to punish a company for a perceived injustice. The length and severity of the boycott can affect the health of the boycotted firms or industries and therefore the jobs of the people employed by them.

Boycotts of consumer products are generally triggered by a corporate policy or action and are designed to effect change, accomplish punishment, or both. Boycotts can severely affect a company’s profit margin and result in the loss of jobs. The word “boycott” entered the English language in 1880, after Irish landlord Captain Charles Boycott demanded unreasonable rent from his tenants and evicted them from his land when they were unable to pay. In retaliation, his workers fled, neighbors shunned him, businesspeople ostracized him, his harvest was ruined, and he was forced to leave Ireland. Boycotts, consumer

Reasons for Boycotts

When consumer product companies adopt harmful policies or engage in unfair business practices, consumers often band together and refuse to buy the companies’ products until they change their offensive practices. Avon, Anheuser-Busch, American Airlines, Bristol-Myers, Bumble Bee Seafoods, Burger King, Campbell’s Soup, Chrysler, Clorox, Domino’s Pizza, Exxon, General Motors, General Electric, KFC, Johnson’s Wax, Nestlé, Nike, Marathon Oil, Marlboro, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Philip Morris Company, Procter & Gamble, Purina, and Target are just a few of the major companies that have at one time been boycotted.

As part of the social justice movement, American consumers have been encouraged by various political, protest, and social-awareness groups representing such movements as environmental protection and animal rights to resist buying various products. Such boycotts are meant to help the groups achieve either political or social goals and to right perceived wrongs. However, the refusal of consumers to purchase products as a means of protest to bring about social change is not a recent phenomenon. In an effort to bring attention to the plight of Jews under the German Nazi regime, in 1933 the United States boycotted German goods. As an act of passive resistance in India, Mahatma Gandhi instigated a boycott of British products–which he called “baubles of Britain”–that helped bring about Indian independence. During the 1980’s, corporations banded together and refused to purchase South African products to oppose that country’s apartheid regime.

Historically, consumer boycotts have been viewed as authentically American. Indeed, boycotts have played a significant role in American history. For instance, before the American Revolution, colonists opposed the Stamp Act of 1765Stamp Act of 1765, which required them to purchase tax stamps from Britain. They boycotted British-made goods for a year, leading to the repeal of the Stamp Act and, ultimately, the establishment of the United States of America. Similarly, in 1830, northern Americans protested slavery by refusing to purchase slave-produced products such as tobacco and sugar.

Other examples of boycotts that received a great deal of publicity are the boycott of the anti-Semitic Henry Ford’s manufactured automobiles and the grape and lettuce boycott led by César Chávez and his United Farm Workers union between the 1960’s and the 1990’s. The French opposition to the Iraq War also led to boycotts in the United States against French wines.

Twenty-first Century Boycotts

Advances in technology have made boycotts easier to set into motion by means of Internet Web sites, blogs, USENET newsgroups, and e-mail mailing lists. Indeed, within a matter of hours, consumer watchdog groups can arrange for thousands of consumers to boycott a product with a simple e-mail message. In addition, consumer boycotts often focus on advertisers of television shows. For instance, gays and lesbians boycotted the advertisers of the Dr. Laura talk show in response to Laura Schlessinger’s statements about their community. Other twenty-first century boycotts have involved Wal-Mart for unfair labor practices and Philip Morris for continuing to manufacture cigarettes.

In the political arena, concerned consumers may band together and boycott the companies that make contributions to a candidate who fails to support their issues. For instance, after George W. Bush failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, consumers were urged to boycott products made by Bush’s corporate funders. However, boycotts have begun diminishing in favor to some degree because of the recognition that these actions may miss their mark, failing to harm a company’s bottom line but causing its employees and their families to suffer. Writing large numbers of letters to corporate executives stating that their company’s products will continue to be purchased, but only if changes are brought about, seems to be an effective alternative.

Further Reading
  • Ettenson, Richard, N. Craig Smith, and Jill Klein. “Rethinking Consumer Boycotts.” Marketing 47, no. 4 (2006): 6-7. Brings to light the idea that boycotts might not be effective because of the loss of workers’ jobs.
  • Friedman, Monroe. Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media. New York: Routledge, 1999. Social history of the boycott and an exploration of its dynamics. Academic book suitable for students seeking to understand boycotts, social activists engaged in boycotts, corporate executives affected by boycotts, and researchers.
  • Glickman, Lawrence B. “Boycott Mania: As Business Ethics Fall, Consumer Activism Rises.” The Boston Globe, July 31, 2005. American historian argues that a new wave of consumer boycotts is facilitated by a diverse group of protesters, including labor and civil rights activists, through the use of the Internet.
  • _______. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. Comprehensive exploration of American consumer history traces consumerism more than three centuries, from the colonial era to the 1990’s, and demonstrates how such forces as politics, immigration, race, gender, and class affect consumers. Includes a section on consumer boycotts.
  • Innes, Robert. “A Theory of Consumer Boycotts Under Symmetric Information and Imperfect Competition.” Economic Journal 116, no. 4 (2006): 355-381. Scholarly article describing how oftentimes targeted companies accede to boycott demands quickly.

César Chávez

Civil Rights movement

Farm protests

Labor history

Labor strikes

Supreme Court and labor law

United Farm Workers of America

Categories: History