Why Your Boycott Hashtag Doesn’t Actually Work

Hint: Your brain has something to do with it

We live in an age of boycotts. It seems as if every week a new company or product is the subject of a trending boycott hashtag: #DeleteUber, #BoycottNordstrom, #BoycottPepsi, #NoNetflix. And we don’t just speak out against a company’s actions—we vow to use our power as consumers to hit brands where it hurts the most, their bank account. I know someone who won’t buy Barilla pasta because the company is anti-gay. A friend refuses to buy Apple products because of their proprietary obsession. “If enough people do it,” he says, “they’ll have to change their practices.” This is the same mindset millions of people are taking in the #GrabYourWallet movement, which organizes boycotts of major retailers selling Trump family products. Many folks think the power they have as consumers is greater than their political voice, so they see these boycotts as the only way to enact change.

It’s true, boycotting makes us feel very powerful, as if we’re actually making a difference—but the question is whether or not we actually are.

In most cases, our boycotts do not have much of an impact. In fact, they never have: 75 percent of boycotts lead to no concession on a company’s part at all. But the reason is not for lack of speaking up—it’s that people can’t keep the promises they make. People like to say they will boycott certain companies to feel as if they’re exerting their power, except they actually don’t have the willpower to stop making those purchases. Last month, #GrabYourWallet had more than two million monthly unique views and more than 950 million shares on social media. But Nordstrom, number one on their boycott list, did extremely well in their first quarter, earning 37 percent more than the previous year’s. Amazon, No. 6 on the boycott list, exceeded its estimated first quarter earnings by $360 million. Even though people are claiming to boycott, they’re still buying, and the companies aren’t suffering.

Research has shown that our consumer habits are simply too powerful for boycotts to work. “It’s just hard to stop buying a product you’re used to buying,” says Northwestern Professor Brayden King on Freakonomics Radio. “Even consumers who are ideologically supportive of a boycott don’t tend to follow through and support the boycott because they won’t want to change their behavior.” People don’t realize how much they rely on certain products or brands in their everyday lives—like Starbucks coffee or Netflix—so when they have to take them away all of the sudden, especially for a lofty, distant-feeling cause, it’s extremely difficult. So difficult, they just don’t have the willpower to do it.

Humans fall victim to what is known in psychology as motivated reasoning: our tendency to decide what we want first, then come up with reasons to support what we’ve already decided we want. For example, I have friends who claim to be opposed to Uber, but when Lyft is more expensive, they are less likely to hold so strongly to their impassioned boycott. In other words, we decide that we want to use Uber because it’s cheaper, and then we defend our reasoning. (“Well, this one $8 ride won’t make a difference.”) Georgetown consumer behavior researcher Neeru Paharia has examined why our resolve doesn’t always match our rhetoric. She found that people will stick to their morals only when they do not actually like the product. The problem is that when we like a product, we will find a way to reconcile our distaste. “We decide what is moral based on how much we want something,” Paharia told NPR’s “Hidden Brain.”

The more distance we can put between ourselves and an action that we view as unethical, the easier it is for us to continue to support it, according to Paharia. She uses the example of sweatshops: We may be against sweatshops in practice, but if a company outsources their labor, even if they’re still employing sweatshops, we feel removed enough to defend buying the product. Apple, for example, has come under scrutiny for its treatment of their workers. And yet, Apple is the most valuable company on the stock market. The same issue of distance is relevant to Trump products. It’s easy enough to boycott Trump businesses and products—it’s much harder to boycott the many, many companies that have endorsed Trump or stock his products. The additional degree of separation makes it cognitively easier for us to defend to ourselves. After all, we’re not buying from Trump directly, we’re just buying from a store that also happens to sell his products.

Our country has a rich history of boycotting—from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the boycott of French products—à la “freedom fries”—in 2003 to the New Balance sneaker boycott this past November. Though we might feel as if this makes a difference, it’s just that: a feeling. Speaking up with your wallet can make a splash and generate some news, but it’s not enough to enact real change. True impact comes from protesters camping at Standing Rock for a year or from the legal case against the Montgomery bus company. Real change requires more than saying you won’t buy something. It requires showing up to your congressman’s office or town hall meetings, marching in protests, picking up the phone to call your representatives, signing petitions, writing letters and emails—making noise whenever and wherever possible.

via Alan Levine / Flickr

The World Health Organization is hoping to drive down the cost of insulin by encouraging more generic drug makers to enter the market.

The organization hopes that by increasing competition for insulin, drug manufacturers will be forced to lower their prices.

Currently, only three companies dominate the world insulin market, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi. Over the past three decades they've worked to drastically increase the price of the drug, leading to an insulin availability crisis in some places.

In the United States, the price of insulin has increased from $35 a vial to $275 over the past two decades.

Keep Reading Show less

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Since the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, whale populations have been steadily recovering. However, whales in the wild still face other dangers. In the summer of 2018, four Russian companies that supply aquariums with marine animals captured almost 100 beluga whales and killer whales (aka orcas). After a public outcry, those whales are swimming free as the last of the captive whales have been released, the first time this many captured whales have been released back into the wild.

In late 2018 and early 2019, a drone captured footage of 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales crammed into holding pens in the Srednyaya Bay. The so-called "whale jail" made headlines, and authorities began to investigate their potentially illegal capture.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The 2020 election is a year away, but Donald Trump has some serious ground to cover if he doesn't want it to be a historical blowout.

A Washington Post- ABC News poll released Tuesday shows that Trump loses by double digits to the top Democratic contenders.

Vice President Joe Biden (56%-39%); Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (54%-39%); Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (56%-39%); South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (52%-41%); and Sen. Kamala Harris of California (52%-41%) all have big leads over the president.

Keep Reading Show less