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Have consumer boycotts gone too far?

Activists can wield power by targeting corporate sponsors of groups they don't like. But one group warns that such boycotts harm commerce and discourage companies and workers from getting involved in politics. 

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / June 7, 2012

Protesters called for a boycott of Lowe’s home-improvement stores at an Allen Park, Mich., mall in December, after the chain pulled its ads from a reality TV show about Muslims in the US.

Todd McInturf/Detroit News/AP/File

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The business boycott is a favorite weapon of activists. They've targeted companies across the political spectrum. When conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh disparaged a female law student in March, liberal groups highlighted the advertisers on his syndicated radio show. Many pulled their ads.

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Conservatives have targeted Home Depot for supporting gay pride parades and Bank of America, Whole Foods, and more than 60 other companies for reportedly donating to Planned Parenthood.

But at least one group charges that these campaigns have gone too far. Known as secondary boycotts because they don't target an organization directly but aim instead at its business partners, they take a toll not only on commerce but also on society's social fabric, according to the Center for Competitive Politics, a public interest law firm in Alexandria, Va.

Secondary boycotts "make it harder for people to make a living and lead to a coarsening of civil life," says David Keating, president of the center, which opposes efforts to limit campaign contributions. "It discourages people from getting involved in politics at all."

No one disputes that consumers have a right to boycott an organization's vendors or clients and small businesses still get involved in public initiatives. But sometimes they pay a hefty price for doing so.

Case in point: As Californians prepared to vote in 2008 on the Proposition 8 initiative to ban gay marriage, opponents of the state constitutional amendment boycotted El Coyote Café, a family-owned business in Hollywood since 1931.

Why the boycott? One employee who supported Prop. 8 made a $100 contribution, which was disclosed online along with her name and place of employment. Prop. 8 opponents used the information to stage a boycott. Picketers waved placards near the entrance, blew whistles, and denounced the restaurant for serving "hate tacos."

To protect privacy and encourage small donors to give, the Center for Competitive Politics is pushing for an increase in public disclosure thresholds for federal campaigns, from $200 currently to at least $1,000.

Secondary boycotts have long been used by the left as a vehicle for change. Consumers have pressured Israel to end its West Bank occupation by boycotting Israeli companies that support the government through taxes. Activists have targeted Arizona businesses for funding their state's tough immigration law.

More recently, secondary boycotts have caught on with conservatives as well. The Mississippi-based American Family Association has used secondary boycotts against the likes of Ford and McDonald's to hamper what it regards as a gay agenda that the companies have allegedly helped sponsor through advertisements and memberships.

"It's not us that's rending the cultural fabric," says Bryan Fischer, the association's director of issue analysis. "These corporations are rending the cultural fabric by promoting values that are hostile to traditional American values. We just want them to stay neutral – go back to making cars and hamburgers and stay out of the culture wars."

Secondary boycotts arise because they work – at least partially. After the French government declined to send troops to Iraq in 2003, American consumers in turn said no to Bordeaux and other French wines. Their boycott sent US sales of French wines down 18 percent.

French companies certainly felt the squeeze, says Larry Chavis, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the boycott. But it's not clear that their temporary hurt ever translated into policy changes for the ultimate target: the French government.

Either way, Mr. Chavis sees no harm done to society as consumers flex their muscles to make a point. General prosperity doesn't suffer when they buy, say, California or Spanish wine instead of French. Only the French feel pinched.

"Giving consumers more information isn't necessarily a bad thing," Chavis says. "Problems with the social fabric in the United States are not going to go away even if these secondary boycotts were to go away."

This isn't the first time Americans have debated the merits and legitimacy of secondary boycotts. In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibited unions from using secondary boycotts to reduce the flow of business from suppliers or clients to a company facing a labor dispute.

Secondary boycotts among con-sumers could become more common, Mr. Keating warns, since the Internet makes various types of contributions easy for activists to look up.

So far, the Center for Competitive Politics hasn't found a congressional sponsor for its proposal to raise disclosure requirements.

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