We Can’t Let Boycotts Be Dismissed as Cancel Culture, They’re Democracy at Its Finest
Cancel Culture may be a new term, but people choosing to cancel their businesses with a company in the form of a boycott has been an effective tool for activists since the 1800’s. Like with any term that is new to the public lexicon, it can mean different things to different people, and cancel culture certainly has a negative connotation to many. Misinformation tactics and even legitimate mistakes that people make can be used for cyberbullying which is a very serious matter that shouldn’t be tolerated. However, boycotts against people and companies when there is clear evidence of insidious behavior are a core element of cancel culture and now more than even this fundamental right to organize needs our support. It’s become clear that the far-right is scared of the impact that boycotts are having. They are now trying to capitalize on the negative association that many people have with the term cancel culture in order to quickly dismiss all boycotts—we can’t let this happen. As advertisers flee from hateful platforms like Breitbart and offensive shows on Fox News we’re seeing a growing number of rightwing pundits turn up the rhetoric against cancel culture and boycotts in order to protect their businesses. Even Donald Trump is going out of his way to bash cancel culture in an attempt to protect his friends, turn bad actors into victims and dissuade Americans from participating in boycotts. The fact of the matter is that boycotts are, by definition, how a proper Democracy is supposed to work.
In Greek the word “demos” means people, and “kratos” means power, so literally democracy translates to “power of the people.” When someone exercises their personal power to boycott a company that doesn’t align with their personal values, they are participating in democracy in a meaningful, and fundamental way. The concept of democracy isn’t limited to government, it can be translated to anywhere with a substantial power imbalance, and if you haven’t noticed, corporations hold a tremendous amount of power these days.
It’s essential that customers (we, the people) realize that we hold the power purse and boycotts are a great way to hold corporations accountable. In fact, it’s how they got started nearly 150 years ago during the Irish Land Wars. It turns out that companies really like making money, and when profits slow down they are very motivated to do something about it.
But boycotts can only be effective when there is a broad base of support. Vocal minorities are never effective because there is no impact at the cash register. Sorry #BoycottCostco, you lost because you were clearly on the wrong side of history with your anti-mask stance!
When Cancel Culture is used properly it’s Democracy at its finest, and essential for leveling the playing field between corporations and people. At their core, boycotts are an exercise in freedom of speech. But rather than just sticking to words, they are intended to directly affect a company’s bottom line.
Case in point: The Washington Redskins have been receiving calls and open letters from Native American leadership organizations requesting a name change for more than a decade. More recently civil rights organizations and grassroots support groups have circulated petitions for a name change with the hashtag #RedskinsNameChange, but the Redskins team owner, Daniel Snyder, has quickly dismissed all attempts, refusing to even entertain the idea. It was clear that the Redskins were not financially affected by these campaigns as they didn’t include their fans or financial supporters of their business.
You may have heard, they recently announced they would finally retire their name. What changed? With the racial justice reckoning, public support has swelled for the movement, but the real reason that Snyder agreed to change their name is because FedEx joined the boycott. The Washington Redskins’ largest team sponsor, and namesake of the team’s stadium, threatened to walk away from the remaining $40M in their contract, and remove all signage from the stadium just a few months before the start of the season. What prompted FedEx to finally take a stance? Their employees and customers demanded it. Once again, the almighty dollar wins. Pro Advocacy Tip: To find influence and power, follow the money.
It’s also why so many advertisers, including Media Cause, have pulled ad spend from Facebook because of the #StopHateforProfit campaign. You can read more about that here.
In the age of social media, Facebook or otherwise, nearly everyone has a certain amount of power to create change. Anyone with an account has a voice online. Not everyone has the ability to reach millions (or even thousands) of people with a single post, but there is always a possibility that a single person can start a movement.
To gain traction, there are a few tips to create an effective advocacy campaign. First, you have to hone the message itself. Complaints don’t go viral. The first step of advocacy is defining the problem. Let’s use #Goyaway for example: Goya Food CEO praised Donald Trump for his “leadership” despite the fact that Trump has enacted policies that many of Goya Foods customers don’t agree with, while also directly offending many of these customers with insults.
Next, you need to simplify the Theory of Change. If customers can stop buying Goya products, causing a loss in revenue, then they will make the choice of continuing to lose business or stop supporting Trump.
Lastly, it’s essential to ask for support and/or change–join the #Goyaway boycott if you also believe that praising Donald Trump for his “leadership” is dangerous.
Of course, it’s hard to succinctly fit all of this is a tweet, which is one reason why most angry tweets and hashtags don’t turn into movements. Complaints get muddled, there isn’t a clear action to take and it just looks like internet venting. But with a clear problem, a theory of change, and well-articulated ask, sharing a boycott on social media can play a meaningful role to get the word out to like-minded people.
You may be wondering, if boycotts are so effective then why don’t more of them evolve beyond a hashtag? Simply put, the technology for creating a boycott isn’t as easy as creating a petition. But, we’re actually trying to change that. We built an advocacy platform called Rally Starter with the belief that boycotts (and other effective advocacy actions such as click-to-call campaigns) should be as easy to create as online petitions. By making Rally Starter fast and simple to use (not to mention free for individuals and affordable for nonprofits), we hope that organized boycotts become more commonplace and people ramp up exercising their financial power over companies.
It’s clear that Cancel Culture won’t be, well, canceled anytime soon, so it’s time we rally together and lean in. By following the foundations of democracy, and giving power to the people, boycotts will continue to be an effective form of advocacy. If you want to talk more about boycotts, don’t hesitate to contact our team, we’re always up for a good brainstorming session.
About the Author
Eric Facas, Media Cause Founder & CEO
After 10+ years as a digital marketer for tech companies and startups Eric shifted course toward social impact in 2010, founding a purpose-led marketing agency Media Cause. As CEO Eric has led the agency’s growth into a market leader with hundreds of nonprofit and mission driven clients and offices in San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. Eric’s passion for developing scalable solutions to important global issues has continued with the creation of the advocacy platform, Rally Starter, and nonprofit incubator Social Good Labs.
Earlier in his career Eric spent five years at Google where he helped launch new programs, built teams, and ran Google’s SEM Agency Council. In 2008 Eric received an EMG/Founder’s award from Google’s Executive Management Group for his work on the creation and rollout of the multi-billion dollar AdWords API program. When not at work Eric can be found hiking, mountain biking, or at the beach in Marin Country, CA or Kauai, HI with his family.