Facebook and Twitter are on fire. I haven’t seen people so angry about anything since the 2012 decision on Obamacare. One item of interest: People announcing boycotts of Hobby Lobby and confidently predicting that it will soon be out of business.
If you are among those hoping for the rapid demise of the company, I have bad news: The boycott is almost certainly going to fail. Almost all boycotts fail, but especially those staged as proxy battles in the culture wars.
Most boycotts fail because most people just don’t have the intensity to keep them up. In 2003, folks were promising to boycott French products such as Dannon yogurt over the country’s stance on Iraq, but Dannon is still on the shelves and seems to be selling well. A few years later, liberals were going to boycott Whole Foods because … well, I don’t remember what the CEO had done, but I’m sure it was something. Whole Foods is also suffering — from increased competition in its core business. The boycott seems to have had little to no effect.
It’s just hard to maintain that sort of intensity when you’re busy and vacation is coming up, and Mom needs help with her computer, and yes, honey, I’ll stop on the way home and pick up more yogurt. For all but the most bitterly partisan of partisans, motivation eventually gives way to more pressing concerns such as convenience.
Culture warriors face two additional problems:
• They tend to want to boycott places they never shopped at in the first place.
• The company’s actual core demographic takes umbrage about the boycott and stages a much more effective counterboycott.
Angry person on the Internet: Wal-Mart’s treatment of its workers is shameful. I am not going to give that company any of my business!
Me: How much did you spend at Wal-Mart before you realized its treatment of workers was shameful?
The modal answer to this query is sudden disappearance from the conversation. I’m not sure anyone has confessed to spending as much as $1,000 a year at the stores. Of those who claim to shop there, most seem to do so almost entirely on vacation in rural areas.
If this describes you, you are not Wal-Mart’s core demographic, and its executives don’t care whether you boycott the business; the loss in sales is less than they experience from miscalculating what sort of sunscreen to buy. They care very much about what their core demographic thinks, but those people are, by and large, not interested in these boycotts; they’re interested in paying 12 cents a can less for tomatoes.
And as folks discovered with Chick-fil-A, a boycott can actually backfire. After people started talking boycott over Dan Cathy’s views on gay rights, the stores were absolutely flooded with counterprotesters. The counterprotesters actually lived in the predominantly rural and Southern locations where Dan Cathy does most of his business, and they really liked Chick-fil-A, so it wasn’t much of a hardship to eat more of it. It is, of course, much harder to give up if you liked it enough to eat there regularly. (I don’t, for the record — too much dill in the fry batter. So I guess I’ve been boycotting them for years.)
It’s not that none of the passionate boycotters lives in prime Chick-fil-A territory. But in those areas, they’re greatly outnumbered by social conservatives. So most of the people promising to boycott were really promising not to eat there on the occasional road trip. That was no match for the hordes of locals who turned out to give the company some extra love.
Back to Hobby Lobby. Their demographic is women! I have heard cry. And women will be outraged!
Indeed, many women are. But which women?
At least in my circles, everyone in the crafting demographic meets at least one of the following criteria, and often all of them: conservative, Christian, married, older, stay-at-home mom. I’m not saying this is universal; I’m sure there are young, single, progressive crafters out there! But the overlap between the people in my Facebook feed proclaiming a boycott and the people in my Facebook feed whom I know to be frequenters of crafting stores is basically zero. The people with the passion are not the people who will be crafting, in other words.
So I’m pretty skeptical that a significant number of Hobby Lobby’s customers — who weren’t turned off by, say, the no-business-on-the-Sabbath rule — are suddenly going to switch their allegiance to Michaels. Some will. But as any retailer will tell you, some angry customer is always shifting his or her business over something; you can’t win them all. The question is: Do you lose more than you win?
As with the Chick-fil-A case, in addition to the people proclaiming boycott, I’ve seen folks announcing their intention to buy stuff at Hobby Lobby. And the main difference between the two groups is that the latter are the kind of people who actually, well, buy stuff from Hobby Lobby.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t boycott, if you’re deeply outraged; I won’t shop at some retailers for various reasons, because I won’t give those people my money. I understand, however, that this is a quixotic personal crusade with little effect on real-world outcomes. It’s perfectly sane to tilt at windmills — as long as you don’t expect to unseat the windmills and win the tournament.
Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle writes on economics, business and public policy. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down.”