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Hundreds of people gathered in Tallahassee, Florida to protest the state’s “stand your ground” laws Monday. During the rally, many of the speakers discussed the potential for a boycott of companies based in Florida to put pressure on legislators to repeal the law.

Successful Black Boycotts

Over the course of history, consumer boycotts have been waged in an attempt to force the hand of companies and governments. Black Americans have been at the helm of a few successful efforts.

In 1955, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white person led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a massive boycott by black citizens of the Montgomery public bus system. The effort was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and was wildly successful. For months, people walked, cycled and carpooled in the city. Black taxi drivers even lowered their fares in support of the boycott. In all, the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted a little over a year and, ultimately, led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

Boycotting was also employed in the 198os and early 90s to combat apartheid in South Africa. For years, many nations and organizations refused to have any financial dealings with South Africa while the country’s apartheid policies were in place.

More recently, in 2001, Toyota was forced to cancel an ad campaign that featured a black person with a tooth inlaid with the Toyota insignia. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition charged the company with reinforcing negative stereotypes and threatened a boycott. Toyota not only cancelled the ads but responded further by extending its relationships with minority-owned businesses.

What Makes A Boycott Work?

But not all boycotts are successful. Brayden King is a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University. In 2008, King published research on why some boycotts succeed and others fail. He says the most critical factors are corporate vulnerability and reputations. From the Kellogg School of Management:

King examined boycotts against elite, publicly traded corporations reported in five geographically distributed national American newspapers between 1990 and 2005. He then set out to discover why 53 of the 144 firms in the sample conceded to the boycotters’ demands.

His findings confirm his hypothesis with respect to the importance of the media, but with a surprising twist. As predicted, boycotts are indeed more likely to exert influence when they receive a great deal of media attention. Interestingly though, his results indicate that even with media coverage, previous sales declines have statistically insignificant bearing on whether a boycott will ultimately bear fruit for activists. Instead, the real power of a boycott lies in its ability to inflict damage to corporate reputation. King observes that corporations that struggle with their public image are more likely to take boycott demands seriously, whereas corporations with strong reputations feel more impervious to such demands and are more likely to “stick to their guns” regardless of sales levels.

According to King, it’s reasonable to assume that corporate decision makers view boycotts as a more serious threat to their reputation than to their sales revenue The findings shows, he says, that boycotts may not need to affect sales at all in order to be effective. Rather, “boycotters’ influence stems from their ability to make negative claims about the corporation that generate negative public perceptions of the corporation. Hence, corporations that are already struggling to maintain their previously positive reputations will be more likely to concede to boycotts and quell any further damage the boycott may do to their reputation.”

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