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Discount Diva: Do consumer boycotts work?

People were appalled last week when video emerged of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight. In support of the passenger, who suffered a concussion, and in outrage against the company, consumers vowed to boycott United.

Some people say a boycott won’t make an impact, since United and three other airlines make up 85 percent of the total market and consumers probably won’t be able to avoid using the company if they ever want to go anywhere. Others say that very monopoly-like chokehold on consumers is exactly why a boycott is so important.

The effect of a boycott can range from embarrassingly ineffective to awe-inspiring. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got white supremacists boycotting “Star Wars: Rogue One” because it has people of all colors joining together to fight the bad guy, Darth Vader – who is apparently white. On the other end, you have something amazing and life-changing like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was exquisitely planned and coordinated, passionately carried out and ultimately helped end a heinous injustice.

But for every Gandhi Salt March, there are 1,000 Mortal Kombat boycotts. (Parents boycotted the beloved game over cartoonish violence).

People stage boycotts because they care; because they want to stand up to companies they believe are doing something wrong and it’s the only way they can do it.

Some of us feel that withholding money from unethical companies is our moral duty. And consumer wallets do have tremendous power over companies’ behavior.

But our resolve tends to fade after a while. Once our outrage cools, we can often rationalize buying a product if it’s the cheapest one on the shelf – even if we feel a pang of remorse when we do it.

See if you remember any of these boycotts, which had varying levels of success.

  • Trump wines. Trump critics vowed to boycott Wegmans until it got rid of the Trump-branded wines in its Virginia store. Trump fans immediately swooped in and bought it all up to show their support for the president. Just two months later, the initial flurry of demand has died down, and sales levels have returned to normal. Critics have boycotted several other Trump related items, such as New Balance shoes and People magazine.
  • Starbucks. In a video that went viral, a man said cafe workers weren’t allowed to say “Merry Christmas.” That proved to be false and the boycott fizzled. Starbucks was recently targeted again, this time for offering to hire refugees. That boycott backfired, with customers vowing to increase their Starbucks intake. The company recently posted record sales.
  • Black Friday. People opposed to the commercialization of Christmas have dubbed the shopping season kick-off “Buy nothing day.” Retailers have been feeling the pinch on Black Friday, but only because stores now open on Thanksgiving.
  • Chick-fil-A. Customers vowed to boycott the fast-food chain after its president said the company was against same-sex marriage. Consumers opposed to gay marriage filled restaurants and parking lots to show opposition to the boycott.
  • The Beatles. Consumers burned their records after John Lennon joked in 1966 the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” They ended up being one of the most critically and commercially successful bands in history.
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