To Boycott or Not to Boycott


With the recent passage of some pretty crappy laws in North Carolina and Mississippi, I’ve seen calls to boycott the states.

But is boycotting the right thing to do? Boycotts have mixed results in bringing about change. The reality is they don’t often substantially impact the target’s bottom line, but instead focus media attention and harm the target’s image, according to Northwestern University’s Brayden King. How much financial impact could individuals have boycotting a state? Even if you add in the various governments that have banned travel, how many of their state and municipal employees are really traveling to MS and NC on “non-essential” business anyway?

King notes that the study has one ironic conclusion: “Companies with poor reputations to begin with are less vulnerable to boycotts, because they have less to lose.”

Extend that to states, and I think North Carolina has more to lose than Mississippi, so a boycott may be more effective there. Indeed, we’ve seen NC getting more media attention, despite the belief of many (including myself) that MS passed a worse law.

Things start to heat up when companies and celebrities get involved. I’m not talking about releasing some empty statement about how they are “disappointed” with the law. I’m talking about PayPal canceling plans to open a new facility (which would have brought 400+ jobs) and Bruce Springsteen canceling a show in North Carolina. These are attention-grabbing headlines.

The Case Against

Leaving questions about effectiveness aside, what are the arguments against a boycott (from the perspective of those who disagree with the laws)?

First and foremost, innocent people will likely be hurt. Chances are a number of people who opposed #HB2–and probably some LGBT people–would have been employed in PayPal’s new facility, and certainly many would have gone to (or worked at) Springsteen’s concert. Boycotts can hurt the wrong people, including people who are already being hurt by the laws being protested.

That may not even be the worst of it though:

Think about it this way. People and businesses that value diversity and equality leave or avoid North Carolina (or MS, or wherever the next anti-LGBT law is passed). This means fewer opportunities for LGBT residents to find safe jobs, and fewer supportive individuals in the state. Long term, this can have the opposite of the desired effective; more anti-LGBT people may get elected to office and more bad laws may get enacted or good laws prevented. Bad guys win, good guys lose. While many LGBT adults can move to other states, it’s often not cheap or easy and minors are at the mercy of their parents, who may harbor negative feelings toward LGBT people themselves. It creates a dangerous atmosphere.

A website called North Carolina Needs You has popped up, urging against a boycott of the state.

North Carolina Needs You is here to encourage artists of all kinds, from musicians and comedians to dance troupes and festival organizers, to keep their dates in North Carolina—and even to schedule new ones—in order to generate the social and financial capital necessary to win in November and beyond.

Here’s how to help: Don’t cancel your show because of the bigoted policies of a few wrongheaded lawmakers and our governor. Instead, play the shows. Use the stage as a platform to make a statement. And donate any—or, better yet, all—profits to a coalition of nonprofits, lobbying groups, and grassroots organizations doing on-the-ground work to take North Carolina back.

Interesting idea. This would likely lead the bigots to boycott the shows, leaving everyone else to enjoy them in safety.

The Case For

The basic theory is that bad acts should be punished, or at least not rewarded. If the people of the state–through their elected officials–don’t want to treat people equally, then we LGBT folks and other progressives want to send a message that they won’t make any profit off our backs. Businesses like Paypal are sending the message as well, but from a more practical perspective, they may also worry about their ability to recruit a talented and diverse workforce in a location with such highly-publicized diversity problems.

And while innocent people will be harmed, it may be acceptable to a point. Many people don’t care about something until it starts to impact them. They may not support these laws per se, but also don’t really lift a finger to fight them because they’re not personally the targets. But if they start to feel the effects of the fallout from the laws via boycotts, then that may get them to stand up and say “Hey now, wait just a minute!” They’ll start talking about it with their friends, they may even contact their elected officials and encourage a repeal. People are simply more motivated when something impacts them directly, and boycotts are really the only way to share the pain in these circumstances.

Regarding the plea from NC Needs You, playing benefits shows are likely to get less national publicity than canceling shows, and as discussed boycotts are often more about PR than money. And in terms of money, a fair amount would still flow into the tax coffers and the accounts of local businesses, which may or may not be supportive.

If the boycotts are successful at bringing about change, it can negate the last argument from the “con” side, about driving out progressives. And the harm done to the innocent will have been temporary.

There are also ways to boycott while still having a positive impact on the community. For example, I donated to a Charlotte LGBTQ youth center, using Paypal. If you are progressive and are fortunate enough to have the money to spare, I encourage you to seek out those who could use a helping hand right now, like local LGBT organizations and others that are helping those effected or fighting in the courts, like Lambda Legal or the ACLU (which has chapters in NC and MS).

The Verdict

And the winner is… I don’t know. I’m leaning toward the boycott camp, but both sides have a fair case. If the boycott fails it might make things even worse for the people living in the effected state. But if it succeeds, it will make things better, and the short-term cost may have been worth it.

So, To Boycott or Not to Boycott? That is still the question.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.


7 thoughts on “To Boycott or Not to Boycott

  1. Invisible Mikey April 10, 2016 / 1:25 pm

    I always have problems with wasting the time and money of hard-working taxpayers making laws to address problems that either are exceedingly rare (voter fraud/voter ID) or completely nonexistent (Trans predators laying in wait outside bathrooms). Do these cynical pols think people can’t figure out the real reasons for making discriminatory laws?

    My compromise on having artists go to NC and elsewhere is to invite new acts, for whom this is an opportunity, to go and make a name for themselves, while urging big, established acts to stay away (Don’t play Sun City.)

    • josh April 10, 2016 / 2:13 pm

      I think the pols do think that, with some reason. Particularly in NC they’ve had some success hoodwinking people into thinking the law was the only thing standing between them a scourge of male sexual predators prowling ladies rooms for victims. (As an aside, funny how after painting gay men as predators and pedophiles for years, the threat is now suddenly straight men.)

  2. CDA April 10, 2016 / 1:40 pm

    Just the threat of boycott prevented the passage of similar legislation in Georgia. This is causing a huge rift in the GOP between the fundamentalists and pro-business camps. So as a former Republican, I support the boycotting. The only thing that gets the attention of these folks is money.
    Example: In Mississippi, we have legalized gambling. Yet they want to claim religious issues with homosexuality. If they could figure out a way to tax being gay, I imagine they would find a way to be okay with it.

    • josh April 10, 2016 / 2:15 pm

      Good point. The forces and mechanics at play here are a bit different from boycotting a business. I don’t think there is much data on how boycotts of a state would play out.

  3. RandomJane April 10, 2016 / 3:07 pm

    I don’t think it will work in NC because Pat McCrory is up for re-election in November and he would hurt his reputation with his base if he repealed. The Governor of GA is not up for re-election this year so he felt safe in vetoing. Boycotts are only going to make it worse for the people of North Carolina who have all been affected by this bill. It took away the right of all people in NC to bring discrimination suits to State courts, not just LGBT people. It’s especially going to hurt the people in the cities (mostly democrats opposed to HB2, and where most of the LGBT people reside). The legislature is voted in mostly by the republican held rural areas and the boycotts are not causing them any real economic damage. The boycotts are only hurting the cities and mostly Charlotte, the city that passed the anti-discrimination that cause the NCGA to pass this hateful law in retribution. The NCGA are pointing and laughing at us and trying to place the blame on Jennifer Roberts, the mayor of Charlotte. Boycotts are playing into their hands by riling up their base and punishing the “sinful” liberal cities they they have been at war with for years.

    • josh April 10, 2016 / 8:57 pm

      Thanks for commenting. I admit those are some nuances I didn’t consider.

      • CDA April 11, 2016 / 1:02 pm

        Those are nuances that are very different between our states. I honestly think this is a question that cannot be answered in a unilateral way.

        The big businesses and celebrities are going to handle it in the way that gets them the most attention and best PR. Also, though, consider this…

        Big Corporation based in Washington State sends employee to MS on business. Employee is gay, and as such, employee is denied a room at the hotel, has to find another room at the last minute, is treated with hostility by a restaurant, and encounters harassment in a public restroom. Upon returning home, employee files suit against Big Corporation for discrimination in Washington State. I don’t think this is far-fetched, considering the society in which we live. So there may also be some serious CYA going on here, too.

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