The Battle of the Boycott
When Coach Sue Sylvester says "Boycott Amway," you’d better listen -- or you could end up with the "Glee" villain’s signature referee whistle jammed in your ear. So gay activist and former Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger knew he had a great endorsement when actress Jane Lynch, the out-lesbian who plays Coach Sue, signed a card supporting the Amway boycott he launched last summer. The home-sales giant found itself in Karger’s crosshairs after ThinkProgress.org revealed in August that Doug DeVos, the president and CEO of Amway’s parent company, Alticor, gave $500,000 to the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.
"I think it’s important that we single out these big, big donors who’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars, like the DeVos family, to take away rights from people," Karger told EDGE in a recent interview. Claiming that gay activists "didn’t start" this struggle’s boycotts, he traced their origin to the American Family Association’s boycott against the Walt Disney Co. AFA rallied its troops in 1996 after Disney began offering domestic-partner benefits to gay employees. (Though Disney never wavered on the benefits, AFA ended the boycott in 2005.)
In fact, LGBT activists did start them, with two legendary boycotts of the mid-1970s -- back when gay rights groups were just beginning to flex the collective muscle of post-Stonewall LGBT Americans. The actions were against Coors Brewing Co. and the farmers’ collective promoting Florida orange juice.
The Beginning: Anita Bryant & O.J.
If activists were angry with Coors for allegedly conducting polygraphs to weed out gay employees and for Adolph Coors’ funding of right-wing organizations, they were furious with Florida orange growers for continuing to use singer Anita Bryant as their spokeswoman. Bryant’s successful campaign to repeal a newly enacted local law to include gay employment protections in Miami-Dade County marked the beginning of the Religious Right as the bête noire of gay rights in this country, and the rise of Christian evangelicals as a strong political force nationally.
We won that round. The Florida Citrus Commission fired the squeaky-clean singer in 1980, and her musical career went into a tailspin from which it never recovered.
"She was too hot to handle," recalled Bob Witeck, a veteran marketing and communications consultant who specializes in advising businesses on the LGBT market. The orange growers felt they were "hostage" to Bryant’s political activism and didn’t "need the grief," he added.
Witeck argues that the Florida juice boycott was helped by Bryant’s unapologetically insulting campaign, which claimed that gay men were predators who recruited children and drew a visceral reaction. But its success was also spurred by the fact that a boycott aimed at a specific brand was unheard of. "It was unprecedented," Witeck said.
In the 40-plus years since Bryant warbled her last "Come to the Florida sunshine tree," the LGBT community’s surging political clout have prompted pro- as well as anti-gay boycotts. Those brought by LGBT groups include ones against Cracker Barrel, ExxonMobil and the Salvation Army, while Proctor & Gamble, Kraft Foods and Ford are counted on the anti-gay side.
Last year alone, right-wing organizations launched campaigns against JC Penney, the Girl Scouts, Starbucks, Toys ’R’ Us, Marvel and DC Comics, Kraft Foods (again!), General Mills and Google (good luck with that one). LGBT and AIDS activists, who until recently dominated the boycott field, assembled just a handful last year: the Russian airline Aeroflot, Hershey’s, Chick-fil-A and Karger’s move against Amway.
The Power of the Pink Dollar
Karger, a retired GOP political consultant from Los Angeles, is a big proponent of putting your money where your mouth is -- or, in this case, closing your wallet and opening your mouth. "I have discovered the success of boycotts," he said.
The man speaks from experience. In recent years, Karger has put together five. He said that two -- against Bolthouse Farms and Garff, a car dealership chain -- eventually settled in our favor.
Witeck noted that Karger is one of the few activists who have come up with specific actions that companies can take to end a boycott. For example, he’s willing to call off the hounds if a company contributes an equal amount to whatever it spent against LGBT interests and agrees to no longer do what got it into trouble.
Many LGBT advocates are not enthusiastic about boycotts. Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, told EDGE that HRC generally doesn’t endorse them. "It’s difficult to achieve success on a large scale," he said.
Recent surveys of responses to both pro- and anti-gay boycotts would seem to support that position. Last August, a Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 13 percent of likely U.S. voters planned to boycott Chick-fil-A, while 77 percent said they would not avoid the processed chicken chain. On the other hand, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates released a survey conducted by Harris Interactive in October that found just 11 percent of U.S. adults would boycott a company that advocated or donated for marriage equality.
A Double-Edged Sword
Is there a chance that boycotts may actually play into anti-gay activists’ hands?
"Feeding the fire of publicity that our opponents want to get from these things doesn’t end up helping very much," said Cole-Schwartz, adding that HRC is concerned about collateral damage. Taking aim at a corporation can "have unintended consequences," such as putting workers’ jobs at risk and placing LGBT workers in a difficult position, he said. Are "LGBT [employees] -- I don’t know if ’blamed’ is the right word -- but looked at differently if the organization takes a hit based on a boycott?"
Scapegoating was certainly a major concern for gay advocates in Jamaica, who in 2009 blasted U.S.-based activists for launching a boycott of its tourism industry and products. The organizers cited the island nation’s endemic homophobia, but the group J-FLAG warned that previous boycotts had increased assaults on gays.
Could HRC’s nuanced view derive at least in part from its own experience as the target of a donation boycott? Outraged activists picketed black-tie events in 2008, when the group broke the word of then-president Joe Solmonese and backed a version of the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that did not include protections based on gender identity. (When asked, Cole-Schwartz said, "I don’t see a parallel there.")
HRC doesn’t avoid supporting organized campaigns across the board, however.
"Our position isn’t that boycotts are always bad, but rather that they need to be given careful consideration given the possible consequences," Cole-Schwartz said. "We do try to empower consumers with tools like our Buyer’s Guide so that they can make their own decisions about companies to patronize."
The Web, social media, information like the Buyer’s Guide and online petitions have greatly expanded the potential and reach of boycotts -- as they have with other forms of activism.
The Right Lacks Might (Excepting Chick-fil-A)
The ease with which boycotts can be organized now has created an effectiveness gap between pro- and anti-gay groups, Witeck said. Boycotts by the latter -- such as those the American Family Association launches at least annually -- have no demonstrable effect on a company’s bottom line. They’re so frequent and "exaggerated for effect" that they’re just noise, he said. "They’ve cried wolf too many times to have much impact."
If efforts don’t force companies’ hands, why do conservatives trot them out with such regularity? Witeck sees it mainly as a bid to get publicity, raise money and expand membership. Boycotts are really "brand-building opportunities for them to stay relevant," he said.
But LGBT advocates’ boycotts -- or, more commonly, boycott threats -- get companies’ attention and provoke policy changes because they’re generally more rational and "authentic," Witeck said. As long as a gay customer or group’s objection is legitimate and evidence-based, and passes the "laugh test," as he calls it, a company is likely to engage and respond.
That is where last year’s Chick-fil-A boycott failed, according to Witeck. What started as awareness-building about the owner’s financial support of groups opposing marriage equality turned into a public relations disaster for our side when the campaign devolved into a debate about CEO Dan Cathy’s First Amendment rights and local politicians’ efforts to bar Chick-fil-A franchises from opening in Boston and Chicago, as well as on several university campuses.
Nobody thought the argument was reasonable, according to Witeck. "The question was not whether they could serve or run a business, but whether we as individuals would patronize such a place," he said, adding that gay advocates’ "messaging was very bad."
The result backfired: Conservative talk-show host Mike Huckabee organized a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" that drew hundreds of thousands of additional customers and fed days of pro-Chick coverage, especially on Huckabee’s channel, Fox News.
In another sense, the Chick-fil-A boycott may have been successful, Witeck said. The chain may have enjoyed an immediate benefit, but it took a longer-term hit because the campaign left the impression "that Chick-fil-A is an unfriendly or hostile place," he said. "I think that’s a problem for them."
That’s why, in Witeck’s view, we’re coming to a "post-boycott" era. "I don’t even hear the word ’boycott’ so much anymore," he said. LGBT organizations are calling for campaigns less and less often because, "the tide is turning," Witeck said. "We know where the tide is -- and I think everybody else knows where it is, too."