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Factors That Determine a Boycott’s Success


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The following is excerpted from a Harvard Business Review article, "When Do Company Boycotts Work?"


  1. Customers must care passionately. For customers to participate in a boycott they must passionately care about an issue. The main driver is moral outrage. Examples are violation of human rights, firmly held religious beliefs (e.g. the boycott over Danish products in Muslim countries after a controversial cartoon in a Danish newspaper), discrimination, betrayal, and so forth.
  2. The cost of participation must be low. Smart activists make it easy for customers to participate in a boycott. They target a single company so that customers have plenty of alternatives or a single product. This is one reason why retailers and oil companies make good boycott targets. It is easy for customers to shop somewhere else. Entertainment companies (e.g. Disney) are much harder to boycott successfully, especially if their products are unique.
  3. The issues must be easy to understand. Activists often fail to effectively communicate their objectives in a simple manner. PETA’s McCruelty campaign, for example, has had limited impact in part because the underlying issues are complex and not intuitive. Boycotting fur, however, is easy to understand.
  4. The mass media is still essential. While social media platforms have made it easier for activists to gain support, activists need coverage in the mass media for a boycott to be successful. Such coverage can then steer viewers to the relevant social media sights. Media coverage requires strong audience interest and a connection to an issue that the audience passionately cares about. Publicity stunts, such as occupying a building or involving celebrities, generate audience interest, but they must connect to a bigger topic. Greenpeace succeed in its campaign in large part by framing the issue about disposal of the Brent Spar as a recycling issue, a passionate topic among the German public.
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