Boycotts hold an honored place in history.
The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott—a 13-month campaign that started in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a segregated bus—fueled the nation’s civil rights movement. In the 1960s, a five-year boycott of California grapes organized by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers led to better pay and improved working conditions and union contracts for thousands of agricultural laborers. A global boycott of South Africa, with international sanctions on trade, embargos, and travel bans, spanned decades in the 20th centuryand played an indispensable role in ending the nation’s apartheid system of harsh racial segregation.
The word “boycott” has its origins in an Englishman named Captain Charles Boycott, who lived in Ireland in the late 1800s and worked collecting rents for a landlord. One year during a particularly poor harvest, local tenants asked him to lower their rents, and he refused. In response, the tenants organized and ostracized him. Almost no one would speak to him, work for him, or even acknowledge him, and he eventually left. The tactic caught on and soon tenant farmers were using boycotts successfully to improve their circumstances.
Modern-day boycotts use essentially the same strategy of shunning, although these days a campaign calling for consumers to stop buying products or frequent a business can spread online across social media at unprecedented speed. A public relations misstep by a company or an unfortunate turn of phrase by a top official can prompt an avalanche of calls for a boycott within minutes.
Assessing the impact of a boycott is tricky. It may take a toll on a company’s sales or stock price, but experts say the most effective result is the difficult-to-measure impact on a company’s reputation. Companies like Coors Brewing Co., the target of a boycott for its anti-union policies, and Exxon, boycotted after one of its tankers ran aground in 1989 and caused a huge oil spill, were long colored by public condemnation.
Stacker has compiled a list of the 15 most significant and effective boycotts of 2019, looking at their origins, how they spread, and what impact they made.
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Chick-fil-A announced in November 2019 that it would stop donating money to two religious organizations that opposed same-sex marriage and give to groups working in areas of education, homelessness, and hunger. The fast-food giant had been the target of a boycott since 2012 by LGBT-rights advocates. Some saw its change of heart as capitulation, and others saw it as a business strategy. During the boycott, the company grew to become the nation’s third-largest fast-food company, and it was repeatedly named the favorite fast-food restaurant by a leading index of 23,000 consumers.
Deciding to set its own greenhouse gas emission standards, California in November announced a boycott of automakers Toyota, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler, who all opposed the plan. The automakers had opted to stand with the administration of President Donald Trump, which has proposed to weaken federal auto emission standards. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state will no longer buy vehicles from the three companies. Filmmaker Michael Moore on Twitter has asked his followers, who number over 6 million, to join the boycott.
Officials in New York City and Los Angeles in November 2019 proposed a boycott of businesses linked to the devastating fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforests. They are calling for divestment from agricultural industries that promote deforestation and climate change. Beef is one of Brazil’s biggest exports, and environmentalists say demand for meat has moved cattle ranchers to clear the Amazon for grazing, increasing the risk of fire and cutting down trees essential to cleaning greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The proposals have not become official city policies.
Hard-core fans called for a boycott of the Pokémon Sword and Pokemon Shield games, complaining the new versions did not allow the transfer of many of the original characters. The game’s developer apologized but said there were technical restrictions and that Pokémon was moving in a new direction. In November, Nintendo said the games sold over 6 million units worldwide on the weekend they were launched and sold more than 2 million units in the first two days in the United States—Pokémon’s highest-grossing game launch.
Calls for a fresh boycott of Uber arose recently after the ride-sharing company’s chief executive referred to Saudi Arabia’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as “a serious mistake” in a television interview. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi later apologized on Twitter. In France, meanwhile, calls have arisen to boycott Uber by users who say the company deleted riders’ comments about sexual assault by drivers on its Instagram account. Uber in 2017 was the subject of a nationwide U.S. boycott stemming from its decision to stop surge pricing at Kennedy International Airport while local cabs were striking in protest of President Trump’s immigration ban. Critics said the company was profiting from the protest, and Uber later said hundreds of thousands of consumers stopped using its platform within days.
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Backcountry.com, a giant vendor of outdoor goods, has been hit with a consumer boycott over its legal campaign to stop other businesses from using “backcountry” as a registered trademark with cease-and-desist letters and lawsuits. The company’s chief executive published an online apology, saying it had made a mistake and was reexamining its approach. But many of the more than 22,000 people on Facebook’s Boycott BackcountryDOTcom page want the company to go further by dropping all of its remaining legal actions and making amends to businesses and groups harmed by its strategy.
Libraries across America have announced boycotts of Macmillan Publishers over its policy, effective as of November 2019, of placing a two-month embargo on library e-book sales. The policy limits libraries to buying one perpetual access e-book during the first eight weeks of publication. The company said it was a move to protect book sales, but libraries argue it limits access for readers who depend upon libraries for information.
More than 1,000 musicians in 2019 signed an open letter to boycott Amazon-sponsored festivals and events in response to the online giant’s business with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The “No Music for ICE!” letter calls on Amazon to terminate all existing contracts with the military, law enforcement, and government agencies that commit human-rights abuses; stop providing cloud computing used by the government in deportations; and end projects such as its facial-recognition technology that promotes racial profiling and discrimination. The letter was triggered by the announcement of Amazon’s first music festival set for December in Las Vegas.
The University of California, Los Angeles has been the target of a three-year boycott launched by labor unions and this year, honoring the boycott, the Democratic National Committee moved a December 2019 debate that was scheduled to be held at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees called for the speakers boycott on behalf of patient-care workers locked in a labor dispute with the university. The union says the school is outsourcing jobs to lower-paid non-union workers.
Some Fitbit users have made recent calls for a boycott of the devices after it was announced on Nov. 1, 2019, that the maker of the wearable activity trackers would be purchased by Google. Google said it would not sell users’ data, but on social media Fitbit users have expressed doubts. Calls have been made for federal regulators to examine the proposed tech purchase very closely.
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Workers’ rights advocates have been waging a boycott of Wendy’s over its refusal to join the Fair Food Program, an initiative that benefits farm laborers, largely in Florida. The program calls on giant buyers to pay slightly more for tomatoes and in exchange, growers pay agricultural workers at least minimum wage and adhere to certain working condition standards. This year the Wendy’s lease at the University of Michigan campus was not renewed, and local Ann Arbor officials voiced the city’s support for the three-year boycott, as have actresses Amy Schumer and Alyssa Milano.
In June 2019, consumers made calls to boycott Wayfair, the online furniture and home goods company, angered over its sale of mattresses and bunk beds to an organization that runs a detention camp in Texas for unaccompanied migrant children.The boycott was prompted by hundreds of Wayfair employees who walked off their jobs at the company’s headquarters in Boston. The company in response made a donation to the American Red Cross but calls for the boycott continue on social media.
A giant national teachers’ union threatened to boycott Walmart over its gun sales following the mass shooting in August 2019 in an El Paso, Texas Walmart that killed 22 people. Walmart a few weeks later said it would stop selling some kinds of ammunition and asked customers not to carry guns inside its stores. The company’s announcement spurred calls on social media to #BoycottWalmart by both gun opponents and enthusiasts.
A boycott of Equinox and SoulCycle started in the summer of 2019 after Stephen Ross, who owns a majority stake in Related Companies, the parent of Equinox Fitness, hosted a fundraiser for President Donald Trump. Supporters of LGBT rights said they were particularly incensed because Equinox had marketed heavily to an LGBT clientele. The fitness companies issued a statement saying they had nothing to do with the fundraiser, but independent business data showed purchases and attendance at SoulCycle dropped.
In June 2019, President Donald Trump put out a call for a boycott of AT&T so it would make “big changes” at CNN, part of Turner Broadcasting System, a division of AT&T’s WarnerMedia. In a tweet, the president wrote that CNN was “All negative & so much Fake News.” AT&T’s stock price rose some 20% in the months that followed.
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