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Boycotts: A VERY Complex Issue

Posted on October 3, 2013 at 2:35 AM

By Dennis Stone


I have been working on an article about the subject of gay boycotts. As I indicated in the “Coming Soon” section, the basic premise was that “boycotts are dumb.” There are multiple reasons for thinking that, and I had a well detailed case to make, with multiple examples and impeccable logic (!). However, in researching the issue I began to have some second thoughts. Not about the ways in which I think boycotts are dumb – those points remain valid - but rather about a growing realization that there is another side to the story, a side to which I had perhaps not given enough credit.


So I’ve abandoned my original advocacy piece on the subject. I want to think things through more thoroughly. However, I nonetheless want to address the issue now on a less definitive basis.


So what are the ways in which boycotts are dumb?


1. They don’t accomplish their primary stated goal – to economically harm the offender. The best example is the Chick-fil-A boycott. In 2011 their sales totaled $4.0 billion, but according to Huffington Post they “soared” to $4.6 billion in 2012. That followed the uproar started in June 2012 by the comments of company president Dan Cathy against gay marriage. The company valuation increased as well, making Cathy a more wealthy man.


2. It’s wildly overstated for an individual to think that his purchases are putting money into the hands of anti-gay groups. I see comments of this type on blogs all the time. “Every dollar you spend at Chick-fil-A is just more money to be donated to anti-marriage groups,” we are told. Chick-fil-A donated a total of $3.9 million to groups that could be considered anti-gay in 2011. That was 0.09% of sales. So if you spent $10 there, less than a penny of that went to those groups. If you went there 20 times during the course of a year that would be about 18 cents.


Then you have to consider that many of the groups receiving donations did far more things than overtly anti-gay actions, many of which were broadly charitable. Related to that is the fact that Chick-fil-A donated millions to genuinely good causes, such as children’s hospitals, foster homes, scholarships, etc. The point is that the exhortation to boycott so as to not provide more money to anti-gay efforts is simplistic.




3. When we boycott a company because of the statements of the president or CEO we are acting as if the company and the president are the same thing. Take the recent case of Barilla pasta. We are boycotting the pasta as if it’s physically made, packaged, marketed and delivered by company chairman Guido Barilla. But the company is not Mr. Barilla. It is also the 15,000 or so employees who work for the company, in Italy and other locations, including the U.S. As in any company, some of those employees will be anti-gay, some will be allies, and some will be gay themselves.


4. Boycotts never impact a company’s sales in any significant way. But for the sake of argument let’s say that the Barilla boycott did work phenomenally well and sales plummeted. Who would be harmed? Well, perhaps Guido Barilla would get a bit less money. His bank account might be $900 million rather than $901 million. (I pulled those numbers out of the air since I couldn’t find his net worth.) I suspect he could get by. But employees would be laid off, wage increases would be reduced, etc. When you turn Barilla pasta into a human being and attack him, you are attacking the employees as much or more than Guido Barilla.


5. One of the things that bothers me about the incessant call for boycotts – Ed Kennedy on the Backlot always seems to be boycotting something – is that an individual engaging in a boycott accomplishes virtually nothing, incurs no cost to himself, and yet is deluded into thinking he’s actually “doing something,” that he’s now an “activist.” But it’s not real. Being an out gay person on the job is an action that swamps a lifetime of boycotting products.


6. Boycotting products for reasons other than overt and genuine hatred on the part of the company leads to a backlash in many quarters. I’ve been reading a huge number of blogs from all persuasions. Cloistered gays who read only gay blogs (and an uncomfortable number of my fellow gays fall into that category) don’t realize how prevalent this phenomenon is. It’s by no means just homophobes, but includes many people who express total support for gay rights, and also some gays. Guido Barilla supports gay marriage and respects gays as individuals. He has antiquated ideas about adoption and the place of women in families, but to use the word “hate” for what he said devalues the word. We can oppose his old-world viewpoints – strenuously – without converting him into the devil incarnate. The whole subject of backlash against what many see as overreaction requires a lengthy article all its own to do it justice.


The problems with boycotts listed above are all essentially facts, not opinions, and taken together they make a pretty good case for saying boycotts are “dumb.” But as I said, the situation became more complex the more I examined it. Why?


The one value that boycotts do have is to raise consciousness and focus society’s attention on injustice or inequality. I previously thought that concept was overblown – and to some extent it is – but the Barilla controversy has me seeing more value in that facet of a boycott. One would think that gay marriage and inequality can be easily raised as issues without a boycott, but we are definitely thinking and talking more about those things because of Guido Barilla. In this scenario a boycott doesn’t really have value in and of itself – the reservations listed above still hold – but the boycott becomes a tool, a mechanism of activism and education.



Guido Barilla


John Aravosis on AmericaBlog makes that case. And he also makes MY case that boycotts are dumb. He said, “If you think this campaign is about spaghetti (or that Chick-fil-A was about chicken), then you don’t know a lot about politics or effective political advocacy.” He goes on to refer to Barilla as a “perfect foil” for “sending a larger message to corporations, and all people, around the world.” So he’s saying he doesn’t care whether a boycott actually “works,” whether it impacts the company’s bottom line. By extension he doesn’t care if it allows people to erroneously think of themselves as activists, or if there is a backlash. The boycott doesn’t exist as a boycott – it’s a tool to enable discussion and social buzz and publicity.


And the upshot is that the tool seems to work. Even Chick-fil-A, which “won” the boycott situation by seeing its sales dramatically increase, made a point to talk about how it respects all its customers and employees, and will treat everyone equally – not what the Bryan Fischers of the world want to hear. And it is no longer donating to some of the organizations to whom it had previously donated.


Barilla has gone out of its way to apologize multiple times (though the first couple were more than a little inadequate), and Guido Barilla has expressed his “utmost respect” for gays. His outlook is apparently changing as a result of the controversy: "It is clear that I have a lot to learn about the lively debate concerning the evolution of the family. In the coming weeks, I pledge to meet representatives of the groups that best represent the evolution of the family, including those who have been offended by my words."


That sort of thing is the biggest impact. People are re-thinking their viewpoints (or at least how they express themselves). And it certainly impacts far more people than just Guido Barilla. Says John Aravosis: “If we make a lesson out of Barilla, the ripple effect on other companies, in terms of biting their anti-gay tongue, but more importantly, their understanding that the gay, and gay-friendly, market is now huge and powerful, and the haters, not so much.”


Aravosis in essence acknowledges that boycotts can be “dumb,” and that it’s important to not just leap into every boycott idea that comes along, or rise up in righteous anger at every perceived slight. As he put it, “That’s not to say that every advocacy campaign, or boycott, is well thought out or wise. They’re often not.”


I have more thinking to do about this subject, which is more complex than I even lay out here. At the moment I’m maintaining my basic contention that boycotts are indeed dumb, as BOYCOTTS. But I’m also agreeing with Aravosis that the right boycott, chosen at the right time and for the right reasons, can be remarkably powerful. I initially thought the Barilla boycott might well be a poor choice on which to focus so much attention. But one of the things I’ve learned in life is that I’m not always right. (I wish “activists” as a group would learn that about themselves.) And in this case I think my initial reactions to the Barilla boycott were incorrect.

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9 Comments

Reply The_Fixer
2:18 AM on October 9, 2013 
Well, I think there's no hard and fast rules on boycotts, except one: Pick your battles wisely.

As far as Barilla is concerned, I think it was the negative publicity that allowed an opportunity to be taken - an opportunity to educate. In the case of the Russian Olympics, it is the same - a lot of people were not aware of what is happening in Russia (essentially a pogrom). The images of people pouring vodka (not really, can't pour vodka down a storm drain) into the streets created a lot of attention. It drew attention to other images - those of gay Russian teens being abused, with the Russian government turning a blind eye.

In the end though, I have one hard and fast rule: If a company is truly homophobic (as in the case of Chick-fil-A) or doing things counter to my values, I just can't bear to spend my money with them. Regardless of whether it makes any economic impact, I just don't want to do it. If others want to follow my lead, that's their choice. I don't patronize the Salvation Army for that and similar reasons. I know they do some good work, but to me, I just don't want to participate in their "system".

And I have that right, and will take it. If others don't see the value in that, well, that is not going to change my mind. I just can't imagine even giving a penny to those who I know are working against my best interests. It seems like a common-sense thing to me more than anything else.
Reply Dennis Stone
3:46 PM on October 8, 2013 
John - We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I don't own a single share in my company, and yet it's still "my" company. It's not just the company of the stockholders or the Chairman of the Board or the CEO. An attack on my company is to some degree an attack on me. If my company suffers economic distress there is a real potential loss to me, even including the loss of my job. It's a wholly different story if the company is running an exploitative sweat shop. But from what I know Barilla treats its employees well. The chairman is just an old world guy who personally isn't comfortable with gays adopting kids, and who doesn't want a gay couple to be the face of his advertising. As I stated before, the specific situation in Italy makes a boycott useful. But apart from that, we're really reaching to personalize a company and try to harm the whole company because one man has personal views we don't like.

It's also a real stretch to say that buying Barilla pasta is putting money into the hands of "haters" and people doing "evil acts" if you don't know to which groups Barilla might be donating. There's no way I'd ever assume that's what you were referring to in your earlier comment when your only reference was to Barilla himself. (And as much as I have issues with the Catholic church, I think it's a real twist of the language to call the church as a whole "haters." There are haters within it, but that's a really unfortunate one-dimensional view.

John says...
The pasts is "his" in that it's his company. Unless the 15,000 employees are also all stockholders, of course. Whenever anyone makes that "remember the little people" argument, I always remember two things. One is the sweat shop episode of "Designing Women" and the other is the response from progressive Colorado-based companies to the boycott of the state following Amendment 2's passage. Both spoke to the problematic nature of relying on a "think of the little guy" argument in dismissing boycotts.

When I spoke of putting money in the pockets of haters I was speaking of the general arguments to which I referred and not specifically to Barilla. I have no idea what his company's track record on charitable giving is 9although I imagine there's a hefty chunk to the Catholic Church which raises a host of other issues). I'm not sure how you didn't understand that.
Reply John
3:52 PM on October 6, 2013 
The pasts is "his" in that it's his company. Unless the 15,000 employees are also all stockholders, of course. Whenever anyone makes that "remember the little people" argument, I always remember two things. One is the sweat shop episode of "Designing Women" and the other is the response from progressive Colorado-based companies to the boycott of the state following Amendment 2's passage. Both spoke to the problematic nature of relying on a "think of the little guy" argument in dismissing boycotts.

When I spoke of putting money in the pockets of haters I was speaking of the general arguments to which I referred and not specifically to Barilla. I have no idea what his company's track record on charitable giving is 9although I imagine there's a hefty chunk to the Catholic Church which raises a host of other issues). I'm not sure how you didn't understand that.
Reply Dennis Stone
5:27 PM on October 5, 2013 
Hue-Man: Yes, I read that Antonucci article. The situation in Italy is one of the main reasons I think the Barilla boycott is valid. I don't think I'd think it was if Barilla were an American company. But having the issue seriously looked at in Italy is a great thing. I thought about going into that in my article, but I desperately needed to get a new article up Wednesday night and I ran out of time (note the time I posted the piece). BTW, your link in your message in this thread works fine. Andy and I looked into the links issue some time ago, and couldn't figure out why sometimes they work and sometimes they don't.

I think the talk of boycotting the Olympics was a bad idea. It was always going to be opposed by a wide range of people, including gay athletes, and there was no chance the U.S. would seriously consider it. Rather, i think we should have made a big stink about the idea of moving the Olympics, as George Takei suggested. It would also have little chance, but it would have been more philosophically valid, would not have generated the same opposition, and would have threatened Russia more.

I'm just far less inclined than you to personalize businesses. I just think it's a bad idea. And in this case I don't think there's any chance that sales will fall anywhere close to 5%.

I also think the Target boycott is badly misplaced. Their corporate headquarters is here in Minneapolis, so I observed that whole situation from the front row. Candidate Tom Emmer is likely the most objectionable Minnesota politician this side of Michele Bachman. But gay people all seem to think that Target donated to Emmer. That just isn't true. They donated seed money for the start of MNForward, a business oriented lobbying group with the goal of advancing the interests of business on an economic level. MNForward then donated to Emmer because of his economic views, especially his tax policies. You could argue that Target should have expected them to donate to Emmer, and then put two and two together regarding Emmer's anti-gay thinking. Of course, you'd then have to say that they have an obligation to be a single issue thinker. Another factor is that Target also donates to liberals, including three of my favorite Minnesota politicians (my own congressman Keith Ellison, the only Muslim in Congress; my former congresswoman at my prior address, Betty McCollom; and Senator Amy Klobuchar). Further, Target has historically been extremely gay positive in its employment policies and work environment. They were ahead of most other companies in this regard, and get perfect ratings from HRC. I know I'm in the minority on this one, at least among the vocal element of the community, but I think the logic on this one is especially specious.

Hue-Man says...
Dennis,
a. John Aravosis's follow-up post about the anti-gay environment in Italy (like the Sochi Olympics/Russian gay propaganda law issue) is another justification for "product protests" (to me a boycott is not using a public transit system in order to secure your civil rights!).
Reply Hue-Man
8:39 PM on October 4, 2013 
Dennis,
a. John Aravosis's follow-up post about the anti-gay environment in Italy (like the Sochi Olympics/Russian gay propaganda law issue) is another justification for "product protests" (to me a boycott is not using a public transit system in order to secure your civil rights!).
"4. We had a chance to help the LGBT community in Italy. What an interesting twist on globalization to potentially use the fact that a homophobic Italian company is so vested in foreign markets that it now much [sic] curtail its home-grown bigotry in order to survive globally.

That last point was laid out far more beautifully than I by Lorenza Antonucci in Slate. Antonucci explains how homophobia and hate speech are regular occurrences in official public Italian life ? she calls it a ?system of legitimized public homophobia.?" http://americablog.com/2013/09/barilla-campaign-helping-fight-hom
ophobia-italy.html
b. In closely-held businesses or in family businesses, the views of the CEO/owner are often those of the corporation and its subsidiaries. I don't know what percentage ownership Mr. Barilla has but I expect if he says black is white, then it's white.
c. His remarks were made in Italian to what he assumed was an Italian domestic audience. His comments are not that dissimilar from North American CEOs and opinion leaders in the 1970s and 1980s before closets started emptying and society started to understand that "gay family" was not an oxymoron. Regardless of his bravado, if sales dropped 5% as a result of gay families shopping elsewhere, Mr. Barilla had have some 'splainin' to do at the next board meeting.
d. I agree with your overall approach. On a personal basis, however, I am not forced to do business with any particular supplier. Is it just a coincidence that I haven't walked into the local Target store since they set up shop in Canada?
Reply Dennis Stone
12:40 AM on October 4, 2013 
John - Sigh, you're doing all the things I see happening around this issue on our side that are really bothering me. Guido Barilla did not ask you not to buy his pasta. That is simply an untrue statement. Here is what he said: "If gays like our pasta and our advertisings, they will eat our pasta; if they don?t like that, they will eat someone else?s pasta." You're twisting that to fit your "agenda." Our side does that sort of thing all the time. It drives me nuts because I care deeply about truth and fairness and fidelity to what is actually happening. Our side becomes just like the Fox News people in how we twist things to fit our agenda. What Barilla said is a simple fact that applies to any situation. I myself say that some people won't like my site or what it represents, and that's fine, they have a lot of other sites that they can read. I'm not asking those people to not read the site. In fact, I WANT them to read the site even if they disagree. But if they don't like it they are free to read other sites instead.

Similarly, to characterize what Barilla has said as "hate" is a grotesque, literally Orwellian warping of the language. I invite people to google the issue and read all of what he has said, and then please TRY to interpret it with an open mind, as difficult as that is. Our side is increasingly falling into the pit of interpreting reality through a colored lens. As I say, it deeply troubles me. At one time I hoped my site could be an antidote to the distortions on our side, but I know I'll never have enough readers, and I totally despair of our side being any more open to an even-handed, open-minded perception of things than the other side is. It's really depressing. I want truth and accuracy and honesty and fairness, no matter where that leads me.

You also refer to "his pasta." It is not his pasta. It is the pasta from the company of which he is chairman, a company of 15,000 or more employees. You are personalizing the company in a way that is not productive to understanding what's happening. And you can eat "his pasta" or not, but it is simply true that not eating it will do absolutely nothing. Everything will be exactly the same no matter which choice you make. I understand the psychological benefit to you, and that it can make a person feel like they're "doing something," but the world will be exactly the same no matter which choice you make.

John says...
Guido Barilla asked me not to buy his pasta and as far as I know never rescinded that request in any of his several fauxpologies. I'm just doing what Guido asked me to.

I don't buy the "it's only a couple of cents" or the "they make other good donations too" arguments. Any cents is too many to put in the hands of haters and ongoing evil acts are not excused by doing good works anywhere outside of Calvinism. It's usually just as easy to shop someplace with an entirely gay-positive record as it is one that's negative or mixed.
Reply John
6:41 PM on October 3, 2013 
Guido Barilla asked me not to buy his pasta and as far as I know never rescinded that request in any of his several fauxpologies. I'm just doing what Guido asked me to.

I don't buy the "it's only a couple of cents" or the "they make other good donations too" arguments. Any cents is too many to put in the hands of haters and ongoing evil acts are not excused by doing good works anywhere outside of Calvinism. It's usually just as easy to shop someplace with an entirely gay-positive record as it is one that's negative or mixed.
Reply TempestRaven
3:25 PM on October 3, 2013 
Nice article...i never saw sense in boycotts either...except for the fact that they give 'attention' to the person/product that's being boycotted...i haven't heard of any company that suffered an immense loss because they made 'anti-gay' comments....at least some of the people from such companies make an apology and hopefully won't say such words in public again.....however, boycotts can be powerful, as you said 'at the right time and for the right reasons'
Reply Jellybean
1:06 PM on October 3, 2013 
I think two things about the Barilla boycott. First, The owner pretty much said that he didn't care if gay people didn't buy his pasta. Which means that boycotting simply is getting the word out that the owner doesn't need our business. Second, in #3 above, consider a boycott of a company like the sanction against a country. To get the people in the country to complain to the ruling body that they are being penalized for what the ruling body is doing. In other words, lack of sales is hurting my earnings - change your position.