Why Internet Boycotts Usually Fail

Why Internet Boycotts Usually FailMy Google+ stream was flooded with calls to boycott Apple this weekend. But I’ve seen countless calls to shut down companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, JC Penny, JP Morgan, Bank of America, and numerous other multinational corporations that are hardly phased by these loud calls for boycott.

That isn’t to say that all boycott calls are unsuccessful. GoDaddy, which may or may not have been influenced by backlash from the Internet over SOPA, withdrew its support for the controversial bill and reversed its official stance on the matter shortly after calls to boycott the company spread like wildfire throughout the Web.

While it’s easy to be passionate about boycotting one company or the next, there are a number of reasons boycotts don’t always work. For the most part, it’s simply a numbers game. If a multinational corporation suffers the temporary loss of business from a few thousand people, that could be a negligible loss compared to the hundreds of thousands or millions of customers currently doing business with it.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the reasons boycott calls fail to yield the desired results.

Corporations Often Have Shared Interests and Interdependencies

It would be difficult to boycott Walmart because so many communities depend on the store to make goods available to the community. In some towns, Walmart is literally the only store that carries certain necessities, making it a virtual monopoly on goods in the region.

In addition, some business partnerships may exist that threaten businesses you might actually support. You may be dead set against supporting Apple (and its products), but there are thousands of developers out there who depend on income made from software they’ve developed for the platform. Those developers could adapt and switch platforms, but even then they stand a very real chance of losing their livelihood should a full-fledged boycott make a serious dent in the amount of business coming to the platform.

During the ways when Microsoft and Apple were strong competitors, there were calls to boycott Microsoft because it picked on Apple (the underdog at the time). The funny thing is that Microsoft actually stepped in to help save Apple when it was at its weakest. In exchange, Apple opened the platform to Microsoft to bring its Office suite to the Mac.

The Loud Minority Often Isn’t Large Enough to Impact the Bottom Line

As mentioned before, it’s difficult to gauge the success of a boycott, especially when the numbers of actual participants are only a small fraction of the total customer base. In just about any business, the amount of customers you retain varies depending on a number of factors including the time of year, market strength, competition, and the economy.

In many cases, you’ll have a lot of folks join the boycott bandwagon only to change their minds when they need whatever it is the company has to offer. Even more folks will proclaim their support, but won’t actually participate in the boycott themselves.

Now you have whatever’s left. However many folks that actually act on the boycott and pull their financial support for that institution. If that number adds up to a significant amount of the company’s bottom line, your boycott might stand a chance of making an impact.

Most of the time, it isn’t the short-term financial impact but the bad publicity that threatens to effect it more down the line that makes the difference.

Bad Publicity is Still Publicity

Especially when politics are concerned, you’ll have a group of people for whatever it is the company is doing and a group that is equally passionate in opposition. While one group may see their calls for a boycott as a strong message of opposition, it could be a double-edged sword that drives more business to the company than away from it.

It might have more impact to spend your time informing the world of the bad behavior of the corporation rather than calling for an outright boycott. In a world driven by social media and word of mouth advertising, reputation is everything. What people feel about a brand is almost as important as the brand’s products themselves. Wrapping this alert in a boycott almost sets a requirement for folks to spread the word about wrongdoing, which in itself creates a barrier.

During the SOPA boycott calls, the Internet was fired up at GoDaddy. GoDaddy happened to be the biggest and easiest target, but it was only one of dozens (if not hundreds) of corporations that supported the legislation. Because of this, so much time was spent bickering between boycott calls that the companies which didn’t reverse their position got little more than an honorable mention. In this case, what little mention that was made of these brands did little more than improve brand recognition.

Passions Change and Interest in Fighting Wanes Quickly

The Internet is like a nest of angry hornets. Whatever unfortunate soul happens to stumble by and attract the attention of the swarm will get stung, but only until another threat approaches. SOPA, Kony, ACTA, CISPA, FISA, PIPA, etc. have all gained some level of resistance online, and boycotts were called in almost every one of these cases. Unfortunately, only a select few gained the traction they needed to make a difference.

SOPA failed, but similar legislation was proposed almost immediately after which had only a fraction of the attention SOPA did. Why? Because people got tired of fighting. They rallied behind a cause and moved on to other things. Political action, like anything else in life, is only important when it holds the interest of the people involved.

Passions change, and it’s for that reason that so many boycott calls fall by the wayside. Sure, folks may be boycotting Apple today, but when the next product is announced during a highly covered keynote, Apple’s sales will only obliterate any impact that boycott might have had. Remember, this company makes billions of dollars in no time, and your spending $1000 elsewhere does very little to the bottom line. It takes a lot of people to make an impact, and those numbers require passion and action, not just words.

Many Boycotts Based on Rumors, Not Facts

I’ve seen quite a few angry war cries based on rumors, not facts. This makes the people screaming for a boycott look silly, and does little more than promote the brand they’re rallying against.

In 2002, there was an Internet call heard far and wide for a boycott against Target because its stores didn’t support our troops. This call was based on a misunderstanding between a member of a veteran’s group and the retail chain. As it turned out, donations are only handled by the corporate offices, so the local store turning down a donation was simply a matter of protocol.

Other rumors, included emailed photos of presidents failing to use the right hand to pledge allegiance have caused some level of distrust. In the industry, this is referred to as FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). It’s perhaps one of the biggest underhanded marketing tactics corporations are using against one-another today.

It’s also one of the reasons so many people can see a powerful multinational corporation as an innocent victim, while calling for a ban/boycott of its competition.

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Jasoco

    Exactly why I ignore all boycotts and just use the products I want to use. Not going to change my buying/using habits just to send a message to a company that won’t even get that message anyway. I like how when the BP oil spill happened, no one stopped to think that not giving BP money would somehow make the spill clean up faster.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Henschel/100001880994979 Paul Henschel

      Certainly not the products you want, but the products that are left when ruthless companies are done abusing your tax-money. There are murderers out there, genocide, theft and exploitantion of resources, corrupt politicians and, as it turns out, even judges, but your courts are busy because AAPL, who has shamelessly aquired patents as ridiculous as the “zero length swipe,” relentlessy needs to stop all technological progress. Some people might feel uncomfortable when their choices are being trimmed and they tend to complain. They do that on the streets outside if they have to and they do it on Twitter aswell. Thank goodness they are over chopping off peoples heads as they have done in the past. I can’t help it, they do have reasons sometimes, be it useful in the greater scheme or not.