Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see: Point: Consumer Boycotts Are Little More than Symbolic Gestures
A wave of activism has descended across America.
The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of Americans from all over the country took part in the Women’s March. After the president signed a highly controversial and unconstitutional executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, major airports were flooded by protesters on a Saturday night. Meanwhile, constituents in places like Springdale, Arkansas, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have been showing up at congressional town halls to demand that their members of Congress oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s unqualified Cabinet nominees.
Trump may have been Time magazine’s 2016 Person of the Year, but 2017 is almost certainly going to belong to the Trump protester.
Much of this new activism is powered by the internet — the Indivisible Guide that inspired many of these protests was originally a Google Doc posted by a group of former congressional staffers, which has since gone viral on social media. But many of the tactics people are using to resist Trump are the bread and butter of citizen activism — marching, showing up at town halls, meeting with their member of Congress, and having conversations with friends, family and neighbors.
Another old-fashioned tactic that Americans have been embracing is the consumer boycott. Consumer boycotts are nothing new: Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers led a boycott of California grapes in their effort to bargain with grape growers for higher wages. After five years of economic pressure that culminated in millions of Americans refusing to buy grapes, the boycott brought the grape growers to the bargaining table and lead to a historic contract. And Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which culminated with the integration of the city’s bus system.
Now consumer boycotts are being used as a way to resist Trump. Uber, for example, continued to provide rides and even eliminated surge pricing when New York taxi drivers went on strike to demonstrate their opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban. This generated a successful #DeleteUber campaign that caused the company to apologize and release a statement in opposition to Trump’s ban.
Concerned about conflicts of interests surrounding the Trump family business, protesters are also demanding that retailers dump their ties to the Trumps through the #GrabYourWallet campaign. These efforts could, in part, explain why Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s fashion line after lackluster performance.
What these boycotts have in common is that they are a way for Americans to show that President Trump — with his race-baiting rhetoric, ties to an authoritarian leader in Russia and Islamophobic agenda — is outside of the American mainstream.
Major corporations — rightly or wrongly — play an enormous role in defining the socially acceptable. It was Coca-Cola, after all, that pressured the Atlanta elite to show up at a party celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize.
However, we can’t always count on companies to do the right thing on their own. Consumer boycotts are a way for ordinary Americans to pressure companies to use their norm-setting power against Trump’s extremist agenda. Companies’ brands and reputations today are worth several billions of dollars, but that value can evaporate overnight in an era where social media can instantly change consumers’ opinions.
It appears that companies are already feeling the pressure, and are ready to show that their values are not Trump’s values. The Super Bowl, after all, was filled with ads from companies such as Budweiser and Audi that hit on themes of inclusion and women’s empowerment.
The question, then, is how to use successfully consumer boycotts in the Trump era. The Harvard Business Review provides some advice: “customers must care passionately,” “the cost of participation must be low,” “the issue must be easy to understand,” and “mass media is still essential.”
In other words, those of us seeking to resist Trump must pick our battles carefully to have maximum impact — it’s going to be hard to boycott companies that are monopolies, and it’s going to have to be an issue that arouses a great deal of passion, as the Muslim ban did.
But when well-targeted and strategically executed, consumer boycotts absolutely should be part of our arsenal of Trump resistance. American institutions — including corporations and the media — have not done enough to push back against a president with an agenda that is completely unacceptable. We should use every tool at our disposal to make them do so. That includes our wallets.