|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.
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.