Chick-fil-A boycott backfire not surprising
Consumer boycotts represent an American tradition dating to the Boston Tea Party.
Most of them failed in their original intent, experts and historians say. The call to financially punish Chick-fil-A for its president's comments favoring traditional marriage over gay marriage appears destined to follow.
“You're not going to change a guy's religious point of view with a boycott,” said Fred Taub, president of the Cleveland-based consumer advocacy group Boycott Watch. “The backlash more than proved that.”
The chain experienced what a spokesman called a “record-setting day” on Wednesday as supporters thronged to many of its 1,600 locations, causing traffic jams and hours-long waits. The Atlanta-based chain, valued at $4.5 billion in a recent report, did not release sales figures.
Former Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum promoted Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day in response to calls for a boycott after company President Dan Cathy said the chain is “very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.” Those calling to block the opening of new restaurants include the mayors of Boston and Chicago.
Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey called the boycott “far-fetched” because Cathy expressed his opinion, not a corporate policy. The fact that Cathy embraces conservative Christian values should have surprised no one, as Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays and religious values are at the core of company policies, Guskey noted.
“What you're seeing is people who want equality and free speech but want to shut down their opponents,” Taub said.
Same-sex couples across the country plan a “kiss-in” at Chick-fil-A restaurants on Friday.
Chick-fil-A benefited in the short term, but any long-term impact — good or bad — remains to be seen, said Lawrence Glickman, chairman of the history department at the University of South Carolina and author of “Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.”
“What's interesting is that so many Americans tie their buying habits to their moral values, religious beliefs and political views,” he said. “Everyone shops and feels some connection to the money they spend. It becomes a flashpoint, a way to make a statement.”
In 2009, upscale grocer Whole Foods went through a similar episode after its CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal critical of President Obama's health care plan and offered an alternative. Shoppers loyal to Obama vowed to never return and a Boycott Whole Foods page on Facebook attracted 30,000 members.
Meanwhile, conservatives and Tea Party supporters began what they called a “buycott” directing people to shop at Whole Foods.
Whole Foods posted $1.83 billion in sales for the 2009 fiscal fourth quarter after the boycott attempt, up from $1.79 billion the same quarter a year earlier.
Conservatives have led moves against Home Depot for supporting gay-rights parades and Bayer, Nike and Southwest Airlines for supporting Planned Parenthood.
Most such efforts fail, Glickman noted. Notably successful boycotts include the 1773 Boston Tea Party protest against tax and other advantages given to the East India Co. and the Montgomery bus boycott of the Civil Rights era.
Such action needs widespread support to be successful, said Ken Cuccinelli, chairman of Quest Fore, a marketing/communications firm in the South Side.
To show their disdain for racial apartheid policies in South Africa, many Americans in the 1980s boycotted companies that did business there because those policies “went against our general moral values and culture,” he said.
“Eventually, people got the South African government to change because it was losing business and the amount of foreign investment there was slumping,” Cuccinelli said.
Other boycotts failed because of shocking tactics, he said, citing the “don't buy fur” campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“PETA demonstrators sprayed (fur wearers) with red paint to represent animal blood,” Cuccinelli said. “Turning coats blood red turned people off because (PETA) wasn't just expressing their opinion but imposing their opinion on the person that bought the coat.”
The more popular a product, the less chance a boycott has at success, said Gene Grabowski, a crisis-management consultant.
Procter & Gamble makes and markets consumer products worldwide. Calls for boycotting the Cincinnati company over rumors its crescent moon logo symbolized devil worship fell flat.
On the other hand, boycotts about five years ago against Donna Karan New York over allegations it sold women's apparel made in Asian sweatshops succeeded, Grabowski said, because the company changed suppliers and practices.
“The ultimate measure of a successful boycott is that you get a change in behavior of the company being boycotted,” and that usually doesn't happen, Grabowski said. “It's unlikely you'll see a change in Dan Cathy's behavior at Chick-fil-A.”