The Futility of Boycotts

Planning to boycott Microsoft? Get in line.

The flamboyant pastor of the Eastside’s enormous Antioch Bible Church, Ken Hutcherson, has announced a nationwide boycott of multiple corporations. Microsoft, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, and Nike are among the companies that signed a letter this month supporting a statewide gay-civil-rights bill, legislation that conservative Christians virulently oppose. Hutcherson says he is launching a boycott campaign targeting the letter’s signers.

I’m glad that progressives aren’t the only people who waste their time with this crap.

Boycotts can be successful. But it’s very, very rare. For every success story—grapes, Nestlé, South Africa—there are many thousands of failures.

There are dozens of existing boycott calls against Microsoft alone. More than half object to Microsoft’s monopolistic practices. But there are also at least three campaigns targeting the company’s cooperation with Chinese government censorship. One group shuns Microsoft because it has given $6.2 million to George Bush from 1999–2004. Another doesn’t like that Microsoft is a sponsor of Bill O’Reilly’s show. Two object to Microsoft “investing in Israel” and “supporting the evil forces of Israel aggression,” respectively. A European group is boycotting Microsoft because the U.S. invaded Iraq; other Europeans resent a contractor with Scientology ties. The Norwegian Language movement wants Microsoft to offer software in the Nynorsk dialect. A group in India accuses Microsoft of being behind software antipiracy raids. And so on.

Microsoft still seems pretty prosperous.

Microsoft is not alone, of course. Coke, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Dow Chemical, Coors, Wal-Mart, Texaco, Shell, Starbucks, ExxonMobil, Monsanto, DuPont, Mitsubishi, and countless other companies have been targeted by well-organized boycott campaigns in recent years, to absolutely no effect.

The last time the Christian right tried something like this was when the Southern Baptists launched a massive, years-long effort to boycott Disney over its alleged pro-homosexual agenda. A few months ago, the Baptists quietly dropped their campaign, having deprived a generation of religious kids of The Lion King while achieving none of their goals.

If the Southern Baptists, with 16 million members and tens of millions of fellow evangelicals, cannot make an antigay boycott against one target stick, what makes Hutcherson think he can successfully go after several? It’s a joke.

It’s hard enough to boycott Microsoft. The evil empire is virtually impossible to avoid in the computing world, but for conservatives it won’t help that Apple’s Steve Jobs is a notorious liberal and Al Gore is on Apple’s board. Don’t even think about supporting those godless anticapitalists who peddle open-source software. What’s left? An abacus? (Sorry. Conservatives are also boycotting Chinese-made products.)

It’ll also be amusing to see how Hutcherson plans to boycott Boeing. Every single Antioch member could stop buying Boeing jets and I doubt the company will much care.

Nike? Sorry, the antisweatshop movement already owns that franchise.

Political activists of all stripes are often eager to find a handle with which to influence the perceived sociopathic actions of big corporations. The problem is that when you target a company as large as Microsoft or Boeing—both of which have earnings greater than most of the world’s countries—even if their retail products can be boycotted easily, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a circumstance in which enough people join the boycott to cause a perceptible drop in earnings. Even then, unless participants tell the company what they’re doing (which most don’t), sales fluctuations can and usually are attributed to a thousand other factors first.

That global Coke boycott? A regional distributor putting six-packs on sale for a holiday weekend has a hundred times the impact.

Boycotts are almost always a waste of time. So, alas, are minority shareholder resolutions. Corporations are not democratic institutions, and by definition, they do not have a social conscience. They exist solely to make money for their owners or shareholders, and they spend far more polishing their image than any boycott campaign does tarnishing it.

It’s fine and well to shun a product or company because of dislike for the company’s policies. People should use moral yardsticks when deciding whom to give money to. But don’t expect to influence the company’s behavior.

This is why the growing economic and political power of big global corporations is so dangerous. With government, there’s not much accountability, but at least there’s a little. By contrast, the number of times big companies have been held accountable by ordinary consumers for social policies can be counted on two hands. And even then, after the campaign closes up shop, the behavior often resumes. Ask the United Farm Workers.

This is why, noxious as it is, for left, right, or center the only institution powerful enough to consistently influence corporate behavior is government. That’s one of the reasons corporations work so hard to influence governments.

What can ordinary consumers do? Buy local. Get involved in the political process. Create alternative institutions. By all means, use your hard-earned money to patronize big companies only when you want to support them. It’ll make you feel better.

But usually, they won’t feel a thing.