As the recent Starbucks red cup dustup shows, boycotts and rumors of boycotts will always be with us. It seems like there never really was any active Starbucks boycott over the cups, and one wonders if the whole thing was simply a public relations ploy.
However, there are many actual current boycotts. A quick search on the Internet will turn up scores of national and international companies which are the target of boycotts:
- Adidas is being boycotted by environmental groups because they use kangaroo skin in some of their football cleats.
- Caterpillar is being boycotted because they sold bulldozers to Israel.
- Herbal Essences is being boycotted because of their animal testing policies.
- Wal-Mart is being boycotted for being Wal-Mart.
And it’s not just companies. Canada, as non-threatening a country as you could ever hope to find, is being boycotted. Other countries being boycotted include Israel, Botswana, China, Japan, Venezuela, and Mauritius.
Personally, I don’t agree with a lot of things that many countries or companies do. I don’t like China’s one-child policy, or even their two-child policy. My personal belief is that any country that tells you how many children you can have—no matter what number they choose—is a tyranny. I have never liked Apple’s business policies very much, even before its CEO came out against religious freedom. And don’t even get me started on Mauritius.
However, I’m not in favor of boycotting any of these countries or companies.
This is not because boycotts are always ineffective. Sometimes a boycott, or even the threat of a boycott, is spectacularly successful. This is especially true if the boycott is carried out by a politically powerful group that has the media squarely behind them. For example, in early 2014 the threat of a boycott of Arizona impelled Governor Jan Brewer to veto a religious freedom bill. The boycott threat was so credible and frightening that even some legislators who had voted for the bill encouraged the governor to veto it.
Even worse was the sorry spectacle in Indiana earlier this year when the legislature passed and the governor signed a state religious freedom law similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. When Apple, the NCAA, and Mr. Sulu threatened a boycott, Indiana legislators tripped all over each other running back into the capitol building to overturn the law.
More examples of effective boycotts could be cited, but all would have the same characteristics: political power and media backing.
The following truth hardly needs to be stated: Catholics—and really anyone who believes in traditional values—are not politically powerful, and don’t have media backing. In the current political and social climate, any boycott called by Catholics is not a credible threat.
In fact, the opposite could well be true. Rather than harming a company, a boycott may help a company. The very threat of a boycott may give much more publicity (and more profits) to a company than they could ever have gotten without the boycott. As we have seen with the Starbucks incident, there doesn’t even have to be an actual boycott for a company to cash in on the supposed threat.
How counter-productive even the threat of a boycott can be was recently illustrated by an incident in Front Royal, Virginia.
In September, 2014, it was widely reported that the Naughty Girls Donut Shop located in Front Royal was being boycotted by conservative Catholics because of its name. Not only was this story reported by local media in Virginia and surrounding areas, but the boycott became a national and international story, being picked up as far away as Australia. The owner of the shop became so famous she was even asked to travel to Hollywood to participate in the MTV movie awards.
The boycott story was gold to the media. The girl running the donut shop was a 17-year-old high school entrepreneur just trying to realize her dreams. Arrayed against her were crazy Catholic conservatives trying to enforce their morality on everyone else. When they heard the story, people traveled from all over the United States to buy her donuts in order to support her in her struggle against the narrow-minded bigots. This tiny, local donut shop now has over 20,000 likes on Facebook (by comparison, the Front Royal Dunkin Donuts has 7 likes; Seton Home Study School—also located in Front Royal—has about 16,000 likes). The publicity has allowed her to open more retail outlets in the area. The threatened boycott is the best thing that ever happened to this business.
The heroic teenager battling the bigots was a great story. The only minor problem is that there never was a boycott of this business—and certainly not because of the name. My first thought when I heard that Catholics were boycotting this business was to buy donuts there myself to show that Catholics weren’t boycotting it. But, after doing some research, I found out the real story.
At the time the boycott story broke, a newspaper in Front Royal was run by a man who was perceived to be antagonistic toward Catholics and the Catholic Church. Some offended Catholics sent a letter under the name “Local Catholics of Front Royal” to all the businesses that advertised in this paper saying that, if the businesses continued to advertise, they would be the subject of a boycott.
One of the advertiser businesses which received this letter was Naughty Girls Donut Shop. The teenage owner likes vintage 1940s style pinup posters (Betty Grable in a swimsuit type stuff), and so she themed her business around them. Because she is running a donut shop with some mild sexual overtones, the girl occasionally has people tell her that they think she is doing something wrong and that she should consider renaming her business.
When the girl received this general boycott threat to advertisers in the paper, she apparently got the idea that the boycott had been targeted at her particular business because of the name. She issued a press release which said, in part, “The name of the shop has proven to be controversial, however, and a strong Conservative Alliance group in the town is threatening to lead a boycott.” Some local media outlets correctly reported that the issue was about advertising, rather than the name of the business. However, when the story was picked up by other media, they didn’t know or didn’t care about the facts, and repeatedly said that she was being threatened with a boycott because of the business name.
(I personally asked a couple of times on the Naughty Girls Facebook page if they had any evidence that anyone ever threatened to boycott them because of their name. I checked back on their page several times, but never saw a posted response to my questions.)
Two salient facts can be learned from the Naughty Girl situation. First, boycotts turn people or businesses into martyrs. Second, religious groups who sponsor any kind of boycott will be viewed negatively. Most media outlets which ran the story about the Catholics boycotting the teenager because of the name of her shop didn’t bother checking the facts. They simply assumed it must be true based upon their existing negative view of Catholics. Anytime a Catholic group issues a call for a boycott, the media will reflexively support the other side and will portray the Catholic group as evil and/or crazy.
I have to admit, though, that even if a boycott could be effective, I am still very uncomfortable with the boycott strategy. Our normal relationship to every person and every group should be one of peaceful cordiality and mutual respect. Put simply, we should be the friend of everyone. This includes people with whom we disagree. In fact, civil society is dependent on getting along with people who have different views from our own. But, to boycott a person, or a business, or a country is to say that the entity being boycotted is so far beyond the pale that we can have nothing to do with them. Boycotting is the social equivalent of excommunication or shunning.
To be clear, I’m not saying that people ought to buy products from companies with which they fundamentally disagree. If you don’t like Canada’s environmental policies, then feel free to vacation elsewhere. And if you don’t like Apple’s opposition to religious freedom, then buy an Android phone. That’s just normal consumer choice, and there’s nothing wrong with factoring in a company’s policies and reputation when deciding what to purchase. But such choices are probably better kept private rather than being organized into a boycott.
As Catholics, I believe that we should treat every person as someone who eventually could be won over through gentle persuasion, good example, and God’s grace. Since any boycott Catholics could mount is almost certain to fail, persuasion, example, and grace seem like a far superior strategy.