The Boycott Formula
How conservatives can restrain left-wing corporate culture.
Today at 1 p.m. Pacific Time, I will be hosting a live conversation on Twitter/X Spaces to discuss the following essay and the broader theme of “how the Right can defeat woke capital,” featuring Libs of TikTok, Peachy Keenan, Matt Knee, and a surprise guest. Set a reminder and tune in here.
Conservatives have recently scored surprise victories against left-wing corporate culture, with successful pressure campaigns against a trio of blue-chip companies—Disney, Target, and Bud Light—that have revealed the potential of a culture-war tactic once considered the Left’s stock-in-trade: the consumer boycott.
The campaigns are notable because they drew blood, figuratively speaking. Disney, which promised to embed radical gender theory in its children’s programming, watched its stock price plummet and signaled a retreat from the culture war. Target, which featured “breast binders” as part of its seasonal “Pride Collection,” saw a decline in sales and promised to “pause, adapt, and learn.” Bud Light featured a transgender “influencer” in an advertising campaign, sending its reputation and sales into freefall.
What lessons can be drawn from these examples? And how can conservatives use boycotts to fight left-wing cultural capture?
To answer these questions, let’s consult the academic literature on consumer boycotts. First, it’s important to understand the genesis—or, in narrative terms, the “inciting incident”—of a potential boycott. Research suggests that in successful boycotts, activists often highlight a firm’s “egregious act,” a transgression of some deeply held value among consumers, and channel the resulting “negative arousal” into a boycott. To expand participation, activists must create a sense that partaking in the boycott provides an opportunity to “make a difference,” change company behavior, and join in a widely shared cause. The research also suggests that boycotts must begin with a sense of optimism, as the “perceived efficacy“ of a campaign significantly determines its likelihood of success.
Next, the mechanics. Northwestern University professor Brayden King collected data from 133 boycott campaigns conducted between 1990 and 2005 and used statistical analysis to identify which tactics are most correlated with success. King argues that boycott campaigns succeed through “market disruption,” targeting a firm’s stock price, and “mediated disruption,” targeting a firm’s public reputation. These two strategies are mutually reinforcing, as economic damage can lead to greater media coverage, and greater media coverage of a company’s difficulties can lead to economic damage.
King’s paper proposes that boycott leaders consider two factors: target selection and activist tactics. The data from King’s study suggest that the ideal target is a large company with a high-status reputation and, to a lesser extent, one without access to “slack resources”—what another scholar defines as “actual or potential resources which allow an organization to adapt successfully to internal pressures for adjustment or to external pressures for change in policy.” Disney, Target, and Bud Light all fit this bill. Each is a large company with a carefully cultivated public reputation, and each was somewhat vulnerable economically: Disney has had ongoing financial problems, Target operates on razor-thin margins, and Bud Light is easily substituted with other products. Associating those firms with gender theory, breast binders, and transgender activism, respectively, stood in stark contrast with each firm’s status quo ante, creating the opportunity for a reversal and a successful boycott.
On the activist side, research suggests that the most important determinant of a successful boycott is driving sustained media coverage, with celebrity endorsements and public demonstrations providing effective multipliers for this form of “mediated disruption.” The data also indicate an additional benefit to having a large, professionally staffed activist organization lead the boycott. These “social movement organizations,” which have proliferated on the left, help garner media coverage, recruit high-profile allies, pressure corporate executives, and orchestrate on-the-ground protests to create additional leverage. Conservatives have not yet established effective pressure groups, but even decentralized social-media activists can force a firm into a negative financial and media cycle, such as happened to Bud Light, which suffered a $400 million decline in revenues following its transgender controversy.
The good news is that conservatives have a promising method for restraining left-wing corporate culture. The recent boycott campaigns against Disney, Target, and Bud Light demonstrate that aligning social-media activists with mass-market outlets, most importantly Fox News and The Daily Wire, can shape public perceptions and convert a firm’s “egregious act” into significant financial and reputational damage. Moving forward, conservatives need to develop professional activist organizations to formalize, direct, and sustain “protracted siege“ campaigns against recalcitrant corporations. This combination—social media agitation, mass media amplification, and formalized pressure groups—has the potential to be enormously effective.
Conservatives face challenges. First, they must organize. Nonprofits such as the New Tolerance Campaign, American Principles Project, and Consumers’ Research are starting to build the infrastructure for corporate-pressure campaigns, but more needs to be done. Conservatives also must discover whether corporate commitments to critical race theory, gender ideology, and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are superficial or deeply held. The basic formula for determining a boycott’s success is whether “economic pressure” and “image pressure” are stronger than a firm’s “policy commitment.”
In the years ahead, conservatives will be able to measure these forces more accurately. If American companies are using left-wing ideology for cynical and fleeting purposes, conservatives could continue to secure victories in the corporate sphere. If, on the other hand, corporations are authentically committed to left-wing cultural ideology, and these commitments are cemented in corporate life through countervailing pressure, bureaucratic necessity, and civil-rights law, conservatives will need to fight even harder to tip the scales.
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