Do Boycotts Work? A Look at Cancel Culture in the US

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What’s behind the recent rise in boycotts in the US? Do boycotts work? Is there such a thing as too many boycotts?

Boycotts are on the rise in the US, but experts say they’re not leading to the change that Americans participating in them hope to see. Experts say the growing ubiquity of boycotts could reduce their effectiveness in the future, as constant controversy associated with them causes Americans to tune out.

Keep reading to learn about the most recent boycotts in the US and whether or not they’re working.

Boycotts in the US

Bud Light has been in the thick of it ever since conservative celebrities and commentators called for a boycott of the beverage after its April 1 social media promotion featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Did the boycott work? The beer’s brewer, Anheuser-Busch, has taken a preliminary sales hit from the boycott, but experts say the long-term impact on the company remains to be seen.

Boycotts on the Rise 

A 2022 Lending Tree survey of 2,100 US consumers reveals that a growing number of Americans refuse to spend money with companies whose values, behavior, or political stances don’t align with their own.

  • One in four Americans reported boycotting a company they’d previously purchased products from. Reasons they cited include that they disagreed with the company’s:
    • Political donations: 39% 
    • Treatment of employees: 34%
    • Position on social issues: 33%
    • Policy stance: 30%
  • Of these respondents:
    • 37% earned six-figures
    • 32% were Gen Zers
    • 32% were Democrats

Experts say boycotts are on the rise in the US for two main reasons: 

Are the Boycotts Working? 

So, do boycotts work? Fifty-eight percent of Lending Tree survey respondents believe boycotting can force changes. But experts say boycotts aren’t as effective as people think. Instead of hurting companies’ bottom lines, they often just make people feel good about themselves. 

A range of interrelated factors determines boycotts’ effectiveness: 

Factor 1: Bad press and big headlines: Boycotts are mostly likely to result in change when companies face significant negative media attention and reputational threats, which can cause their stock prices to plummet. 

Factor 2: Boycotters’ approach: Boycotts are more likely to succeed when protesters understand:

Factor 3: Buycotts: Buycotts are when protesters buy products or services en masse to support companies whose beliefs and actions are aligned with their own, often in response to a boycott. Buycotts can temporarily tip the sales scale in favor of companies being boycotted.

Factor 4: Political polarization: America’s growing political divide and “us versus them” mentality, evident in Americans’ brand preferences, fuels boycotts and buycotts. 

Factor 5: Product type: Boycotts (and buycotts) are more effective with inexpensive products that can be easily subbed out.

Vitrue Signaling

One recent problem is that more and more companies are resorting to virtue signaling to relate to their customers or to gain back customers after a boycott. In Woke, Inc. Vivek Ramaswamy discusses the problems with virtue signaling.

Ramaswamy’s main objection to wokeness is that consumers come to believe that companies are actually invested in resolving social injustice when in reality, they’re engaging in disingenuous virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is a public demonstration of good character. For example, when a person volunteers at a charity event, they might post pictures of their service online for other people to see and to think of them as a good person. When an individual engages in virtue signaling, it may be self-serving but it doesn’t do much harm to others. However, when a company participates in virtue signaling, it’s a marketing ploy to take advantage of socially conscious consumers and can do harm to a considerably larger number of people.

By presenting as woke, companies attempt to accrue enough blind loyalty from consumers that they can distract them from scandal or controversy. For example, after the 2010 BP oil spill, woke consumers were unhappy with how environmentally irresponsible many companies were. Dawn dish soap began an ad campaign in response to the outrage, sending thousands of bottles down to the Gulf of Mexico and running commercials of baby ducks being saved by their product. Dawn became synonymous with wildlife protection efforts; little ducks still don their bottles a decade later. Ironically, Dawn dish soap is petroleum-based, and their company is part of the reason that we are so dependent on oil. 

Ramaswamy asserts that once companies like Dawn create this noble reputation for themselves, consumers are not likely to investigate the company’s practices or policies further. The trust companies develop turns us into lazy citizens, simply accepting when companies say they are working in our best interest. 

Looking Ahead 

Experts say that between boycotts’ growing ubiquity and the complex range of factors impacting their effectiveness, it’s unlikely that the protests will produce better results in the future than they do now. Oversaturated with constant controversy, Americans may just tune out—eliminating boycotts’ effectiveness entirely

Do Boycotts Work? A Look at Cancel Culture in the US

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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