Boycotts under the Microscope

Last updated: 2011 



Academic studies of boycott behaviour 

All boycotts are essentially moral acts: expressions of disapproval and attempts to disassociate from the object of complaint. Boycotts are not the exclusive preserve of the consumer. Political parties sometimes boycott elections and academics may boycott universities.

Boycott Barclays

Indeed, the ostracism campaign against Irish land agent Captain Boycott, from which this form of protest got its name, also involved workers refusing to harvest his corn and the postman refusing to deliver his mail.


Expressive or instrumental?

Monroe Friedman (no relation to Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist Milton Friedman) is an American academic who has specialised in this area. One key contribution he made was to break boycotts down into different types.[1]

One type, called ‘Instrumental’, is designed to force a firm into retreat by economic pressure. It is this type we come across most frequently at Ethical Consumer. When we collaborated on academic work in 2005 we found 37 examples of successful instrumental boycotts in the previous 15 years.[2]

They tend to require resources, co-ordination and determination in equal measure.The second type – the ‘expressive boycott’ - is more commonly concerned with ‘discourse’ or simply trying to have a political discussion about right and wrong in an interesting way. A consumer boycott of the 25 biggest US defence contractors in the 1990s is perhaps a classic example of this type.

The editor of the US publication ‘National Boycott News’ has explained that expressive boycotts:

“Allow for an issue to be raised which otherwise might not be raised, and raises it in a manner that is less awkward than most. Imagine trying to raise the issue of migrant farmworkers and labour laws without a boycott?”

It can also bring home to people the links between the products on their shelves and injustices far afield, it can express clear disapproval and disassociation from a company, and can re-direct some funds to alternative producers. 


Effective or successful?

N. Craig Smith in his seminal work ‘Morality and the Market’ suggested that boycotts could be effective (in reducing sales) but not successful (in changing policy or behaviour).[3]

The Nestlé boycott is one example of this type.The flipside of this is that boycotts can also be successful (change policy) without being effective (reducing sales). Ethical Consumer reports every year on successful ‘threats to boycott’ where a campaign group has forced a concession from a company in exchange for a promise not to launch a pre-prepared campaign. A good example is the PETA campaign against Unilever.

Of course the classic consumer boycott is successful because it is effective. The unspoken boycott Monroe Friedman in his 1999 book was already documenting how there was a clear “shift in strategic emphasis from the marketplace (cutting consumer sales) to the media (securing news coverage to air criticism of a targeted firm).” Greenpeace’s hugely successful UK campaign on tuna, documented extensively by Ethical Consumer, began with a ‘league table’ of sustainable tuna and followed up with widespread Channel 4 coverage in ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’.

Not once was the consumer asked to boycott, but the subtext was clear. Who would want to buy their tuna, having heard the story of exploitation, from the (pre-reformed) John West and Tesco - the companies originally at the bottom of the list? Greenpeace, who in the 1980s and 1990s was renowned for its boycott calls, achieves possibly more with its new generation of rankings and ‘negative publicity’ stunts without the word boycott ever leaving its lips. Because of this, the reason that most concerted corporate campaigns no longer appear in our Boycott News section but in other sections on the web, is rather more to do with semantics than a fundamental change in campaign strategy.



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1 Consumer boycotts: effecting change through the marketplace and the media. Friedman, M. 1999. New York: Routledge 
2 The Ethical Consumer. Harrison, R., T. Newholm, and D. Shaw (Eds).Sage 2005.London 
3 Morality and the Market. N Craig Smith Routledge1990 
4 EC11 December 1990