The Boycott Question

Last Sunday, an old schoolmate and I were discussing the fact that Starbucks recently felt compelled to disclose that, contrary to Internet rumors, its Jewish CEO had not made donations to Israel or to the IDF. My friend, who like me is Jewish, was bothered by the fact that the CEO had not made donations to Israel. I was bothered by the invasion of that individual’s liberty. No company, I suggested, should be judged based where its employees at any level make donations of their own free will.

My friend took exception: would I use Facebook, for example, if I knew it made donations to Al-Queda? I explained that of course I would not. Allow me to explain the principle.

If a company as a company operates under policies or makes donations that are objectionable and particularly if it does so for reasons that are objectionable, we should judge the company and its products/services in light of those policies/donations. Similarly, if an artist lives their lives in accordance with, or advocates publicly, principles that are objectionable and makes donations on that basis, we judge the artist and his/her creations on that basis.

The principle is this: you judge the work based on the nature of the creator. That is not to say we boycott that company or that individual as a matter of course, only that we cannot divorce the creator from its product.

But if the employee of a company, regardless of rank, makes donations to a cause to which we object, or holds beliefs that we find objectionable, we step into a more fraught question.

Given that companies engage in the collective creation of a product or service, the influence of a single individual is moderated by the collective effort of all. It is far more difficult to tie that individual to the nature of a creation. In this case, a boycott makes good people suffer along with the bad, and you lose the ability as a customer to ensure that the good influences guide the company, rather than the bad.

Boycotts, personal or collective, can be positive tools that help change bad behaviors in companies, artists, and occasionally foreign governments. They can also be weapons that destroy rather than change, that do massive collateral damage, or that can just be tools for demagogues to manipulate us all.

Principle and care, not passion and hate, must guide the use of any tool that can be used as a weapon. Boycotts are no exception.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

3 thoughts on “The Boycott Question”

  1. This is one of those issues where left and right bend around so far they uncomfortably touch.

    The right seems to say “Private citizens can do what they like in private, unless they do things I personally find immoral.”

    The left seems to say “Private citizens can do what they like in private, unless they do things out of step with what I feel the political and social zeitgeist should be.”

    The caveats, in other words, make a mockery of the principle supposedly being upheld.

    Isn’t a boycott simply a private individual deciding, for reasons that are utterly irrelevant (if we believe the principles espoused above rather than being seduced by the caveats) to spend their dollar *here* rather than *there*?

    Isn’t an advertising campaign by Toyota actually, when you get down to it, a call to “boycott” Chevy, Dodge, and Nissan? What about all the wonderful Chevy, Dodge, and Nissan workers who will be hurt if you don’t buy their wonderful cars? Why doesn’t anyone worry about the massive collateral damage of a successful advertising campaign?!

    When, in other words, have “facts” had anything whatsoever to do with buying decisions, except in the most peripheral way?

    Any purchasing decision, in fact, is a “boycott” of all other products in that category. “Don’t buy a Mercedes, they charge like a wounded bull for service” seems to me in every way equivalent to “Don’t buy coffee at Starbucks because the person who sets the corporate direction for that company Xes when I prefer to Y”.

  2. Shannon, you and I may have different definitions of “boycott.” Yours appears to be “choosing not to buy something for whatever reason.” Mine is “an organized campaign to compel companies and consumers to withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, company, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest specifically because of an objection to the actions, behavior, or words of a company or individual that are unrelated to the cost or qualities of the product in question.” My decision to buy a Nissan is not a boycott of Toyota: it comes down to “do I fit into this car, and does it fit into my budget.” My decision to go to China instead of Israel is not a boycott of Israel: it is, rather, the guilt compelling me to take my son to visit his grandparents.

  3. An organized campaign to encourage customers to withdraw from commercial relations with a corporation: sounds like every single advertising campaign I’ve ever seen!

    The word where we differ is, of course, “compel”. I used “encourage” in the same spot.

    But I’m not sure how you “compel” by choosing not to buy a coffee at Starbucks for some cockamamie reason or other. Oh sure, I might be *influenced* by your decision not to buy coffee in my own buying decisions —- but how is this different from any other form of influencing?

    If corporations or individuals never engaged in negative advertising (buy our cars because Fords get poor mileage; your political candidate cheated on his wife; etc.) then you’d have more of a point.

    So without “compulsion” — which I’m sure you can see is a very long bow you’re drawing, particularly in a free society that has free speech and very high bars for libel/slander — what is a well-promoted boycott but negative advertising?

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