The hashtags #BoycottPepsi and #BoycottWalmart were trending on Twitter on Tuesday morning – and for very different reasons. In the case of the world’s largest retailer, the calls to boycott came after it was announced that stores in Quebec would require shoppers who don’t have proof of vaccination to be escorted to the pharmacy by an associate; while the soft drink maker found itself the target of a boycott campaign after the company was named in a report, listed for having donated to the Texas Republican Party.
Such calls for boycotts have certainly increased in recent years thanks to social media, but the effectiveness could certainly be called into question. It was just last week that #BoycottStarbucks was trending after the coffee house announced it would no longer require its some 228,000 employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and it didn’t really seem to impact Starbucks much, if at all.
“It is especially easy to get caught up in the minutia of social media,” explained Jason Mollica, professor in the school of communications at the American University. “So many people have a complaint, and they publicly vent their complaints on social media. We see it with politics, with sports and entertainment. We’ve seen calls to boycott a film because some fans didn’t like the casting or simply the way the film ended. These calls for boycotts become part of the noise.”
The History of Boycotts
The concept of a boycott has existed since long before the term was coined. Among the most successful might have been the American boycott of British goods prior to the American Revolution.
However, the actual term entered the English lexicon during the Irish “Land Wars” of the 19th century and was named after one Captain Charles Boycott, an agent of an absentee landlord. Boycott’s attempt in 1880 to evict tenants following a year of bad harvest was met with protests and then social ostracism. No individuals would do business for him or with him, and even postmen refused to deliver his mail. He had to hire workers from several counties away just to harvest his crops. And despite all this occurring long before the era of social media, the story went “viral” – and was picked up by distant newspapers including the New York Tribune, which began to describe organized isolation as a “boycott.”
In the century and a half that followed, there were notable boycotts including the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and of course the calls for disinvestment in South Africa during the apartheid regime.
#Boycotts Losing Their Teeth?
Social media has certainly made it easier for such organized boycotts, but at the same time, these could actually be counterproductive as the calls come with such regularity.
“When you see people asking other users on social media to boycott Starbucks, Pepsi or Walmart, there is the hope that this will start a major movement,” said Mollica. “But the only way to really quantify if it makes any difference is whether people actually stop spending their money on those brands. In general, what we see even when these hashtag go viral is that there is not really much behind them.”
One factor is that there is simply too much noise on social media. Boycott hashtags that get even tens of thousands of retweets are just quickly overtaken by the next big thing.
“These calls do end up being lost,” admitted Mollica. “But there are plenty of examples where boycotts have worked in the age of social media.”
One of the most notable social media-driven boycotts took place last April. The platforms weren’t used to spread the calls for the boycotts but rather were the targets of the public ostracism. In response to the lack of action regarding online abuse, British sports teams, athletes and leading sports bodies announced that they’d take part in a three-day boycott of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“When you have that many clubs and athletes, as well as many high profile brands taking part, it can make a difference,” added Mollica.
That also explains why these constant and unorganized efforts generally come and go so quickly.
“The latest #BoycottPepsi won’t move the needle too much,” said Mollica. “Without it being part of a larger movement, the hashtags aren’t just going to be that effective.”