After the multinational banking firm Wells Fargo released an ad that depicts a lesbian couple adopting a child, Christian evangelist Franklin Graham has called for Christians to boycott LGBT-friendly businesses.
Will it work? Probably not, says one business management professor.
In a post on Facebook, Rev. Graham, the CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, cited what he describes as the "tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats by big business, the media, and the gay & lesbian community," and said that his organization would be moving all of its accounts from Wells Fargo to another bank. Graham's post also criticized the jeweler Tiffany & Co. for advertising wedding rings for same-sex couples.
“This is one way we as Christians can speak out – we have the power of choice,” wrote Graham, who was not available for comment. “Let’s just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God’s laws and His standards. Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention.”
Most Americans accept homosexual relationships, with 57 percent of Americans in favor of allowing same-sex marriage and 39 percent opposing, according to a recent Pew survey. Just five years ago, a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage.
But Graham isn't necessarily speaking to the majority of Americans. White evangelicals remain staunchly opposed to marriage equality, according to Pew, with only 27 percent in favor and 70 percent against (43 percent "strongly" oppose it).
Could Graham mobilize white evangelicals to boycott LGBT-friendly companies? And if so, would it have any effect?
This wouldn't be the first time something like this has been tried. In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney after the company announced that it would be offering benefits to partners of gay employees. The boycott ended in 2005, and Disney consistently ranks highly on the Human Rights Campaign's list of best places for LGBT people to work.
According to Brayden King, associate professor of management & organizations at the Kellogg School of management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., while boycotts have grown in popularity and effectiveness since the 1990s as a way to generate public concern over an issue, “They’re effective, but not for the reasons people think they’re effective.”
“Essentially you’re voting with your wallet, saying, ‘We’re going to coerce you or pressure you to change,” Professor King says in an interview. “But the truth is that there is very little evidence that boycotts are effective at changing consumer behaviors. Because of that there’s very little evidence that boycotts actually have an impact on the sales revenue of a firm. So if the purpose of a boycott is to put pressure on a company by affecting its revenue they’re not very effective at that.”
King, who uses the term "slacktivism" to describe campaigns that restrict themselves entirely to social media, says that boycotts often fail because “consumers are very behaviorally inert.” An example would be that while a consumer may feel strongly that a candy bar company is doing something with which they disagree, “when it comes to standing in the checkout line at the supermarket with kids pleading for that candy bar, the consumer buys the candy bar because that’s their regular behavior," he says.
Where a boycott typically is effective, according to King, is “as a reputational threat” to a corporation.
“What a boycott really does, is generate media attention that can cause damage to a company’s image, creating negative media attention against a firm,” he says.
Case in point, according to King, was the highly effective Delano grape strike/boycott in 1965 led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) against growers of table grapes in California.
“That kind of reputational damage can impact a company’s ability to get high-quality employees or forming long-term relationships with local regulators or other government entities,” he explains.
But for a boycott to be effective, King says the media attention needs to cast the firm in a negative light. With the positive media climate toward LGBT action and tolerance, he suggests that Graham’s campaign lacks the public support to be effective.
“One reason this [Graham’s] boycott is less likely to be successful is that public opinion in the United States has changed dramatically around issues relating to same sex marriage. The LGBT movement has been enormously successful in getting people to change their views about this issue,” King says. “Because of that change in perspective, the average consumer and the average prospective employee for Wells Fargo, is not likely to be persuaded by the campaign. The kind of media attention this campaign gets will be less damaging to Wells Fargo than if they had been boycotted for being involved in discriminatory policies [against the LGBT community].”
Indeed, Wells Fargo is a major sponsor of the upcoming June 13, Boston Pride 2015 celebration.
“A Wells Fargo carriage will also be displayed on City Hall Plaza at the Festival that same day. Finally, we are proud to count Wells Fargo as an advertiser in the Official Boston Pride Guide,” Bruni writes. “Overall, we believe that Wells Fargo is doing the right thing by featuring gay and lesbian couples in their ads: it is through this visibility and through their partnering with Boston Pride that they can show how welcoming a company they are for LGBT clients and employees.”
Wells Fargo spokesperson Christina Kolbjornsen told the Charlotte Observer: “At Wells Fargo, serving every customer is core to our vision and values ... diversity and inclusion are foundational to who we are as a company. Our advertising content reflects our company’s values and represents the diversity of the communities we serve.”
For his part, Graham on Monday told the Family Research Council that he has settled on BB&T Bank, which he describes as "a good solid bank."
BB&T Bank is also listed as one of the sponsors of the 7th Annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade.