Do Boycotts Work? (Ep. 234)

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Boycotts can generate a lot of media attention. But do they really work? (photo: Jean-François Gornet, cropped)

Boycotts can generate a lot of media attention. But do they really work? (photo: Jean-François Gornet, cropped)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Do Boycotts Work?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

At issue: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the South African divestment campaign, Chick-fil-A! Almost anyone can launch a boycott, and the media loves to cover them. But do boycotts actually produce the change they’re fighting for?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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[MUSIC: Jarad Astin, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” (from A Very CueZone Holiday)]

Just over 60 years ago, on December 1, 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

ROSA PARKS: The driver said that if I refused to leave the seat, he would have to call the police. And I told him, “Just call the police.”

Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws. This news soon reached a little-known Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: And we had a meeting at my church, the next night, and discussed ways of dealing with this and protesting such a grave injustice. At that time, we decided that we would have a bus boycott, beginning on Monday, December the 5th.

King became the lead organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first major organized action against racial segregation in the United States.

KING: At present, we are in the midst of a protest, the negro citizens of Montgomery, representing some 44 percent of the population. Ninety percent at least of the regular negro bus passengers are staying off the buses and we plan to continue until something is done.

King and his allies set up carpools and other ways for people to get around.

KING: A few days after we started, the bus officials wanted to end segregation almost immediately because they were losing so much money a day. But the city commission held out, contending that on the basis of the city ordinances and on the basis of state laws, they could not and they would not integrate the buses.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for 381 days.

KING: And finally the Supreme Court’s decision came, declaring bus segregation unconstitutional. And this brought about an end to segregation and we went back to the buses on an integrated basis.

Let’s put aside for a moment the impact — the political, social and human impact — of the integration victory. Let’s look at this from a different angle. What is the moral of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? It would seem to be that boycotts work. As the story is told in our history books, a brave woman named Rosa Parks took a stand by keeping her seat — and her arrest led to a boycott, which in turn led to history being made. Today on Freakonomics Radio, we ask a simple question: do boycotts work? Let me warn you right now: the answer is not as clear-cut as you might think.

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[MUSIC: The Hitchhikers, “Mr. Fortune” ]

It would certainly seem as if the Montgomery Bus Boycott accomplished its goal. Or did it?

DANIEL DIERMEIER: Being able to identify the actual causal impact of the Montgomery boycott is very difficult, probably impossible.

[MUSIC: All Good Funk Alliance, “Free Dumbs” (from Social Comment)]

That’s the political scientist Daniel Diermeier.

DIERMEIER: Diermeier. Yeah, like a deer, you know, the thing with the antlers. And then meier.

He’s a pretty important fellow.

DIERMEIER: I’m the dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Now, what does Diermeier mean when he says it’s impossible to …

DIERMEIER: “identify the actual causal impact of the Montgomery boycott.”

Well, as is usually the case, the world is a bit more complex than the headlines would have us believe. Let’s go back to Rosa Parks, on the bus in December of 1955. Parks wasn’t some random bus passenger. “Contrary to the folkloric accounts … Mrs. Parks was not too tired to move from her seat” — I’m reading now from the website of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which despite its antiquated name, is still and especially was then a civil-rights powerhouse. Some more from that website: “Rather, she had been a knowledgeable NAACP stalwart for many years.”

Rosa Parks, at the time of her arrest, worked as a seamstress but also as a secretary to the president of the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter. And she was hardly the first African-American arrested in Montgomery for not giving up their bus seat. This practice was in fact a strategy that activists had been cultivating. But when Rosa Parks was arrested, she was considered the right person to move this strategy forward. The NAACP provided legal defense to her and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was the NAACP that helped bring the legal case that ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court – although we should note that that case did not actually include Rosa Parks herself.

DIERMEIER: There are some people that argue, at the end of the day, it was really the legal strategy of the NAACP that really was the decisive component. And it’s difficult to disentangle that.

Difficult to disentangle because why? Wasn’t it the bus boycott that made things happen?

KING: You saw lots of African-Americans who stopped riding the bus.

DUBNER: That’s Brayden King – no relation to Martin Luther King, Jr.  He is a management professor at Northwestern.

KING: And there’s clear evidence that this was an economic cost to the city of Montgomery.

But remember — as we heard Martin Luther King, Jr. explain earlier  — the bus company was ready to cave in early. It was the politicians who held out. The holdout was followed by more and more press coverage, which was followed by the Supreme Court case, which was followed by desegregation of the Montgomery buses. So how much credit should be given to the boycott?

DIERMEIER: I think most scholars that have looked at this particular case would argue that the boycott became a symbolic event that triggered an entire social movement.

Indeed, both Daniel Diermeier and Brayden King — as well as most other scholars who’ve studied the Montgomery Bus Boycott — consider it a model of the successful boycott. Ditto the grape boycott of the 1960’s. This included a strike by farm workers and a consumer boycott of grapes that were picked by non-union workers.

KING: They’re exemplary because they both kind of represented a movement at its prime. I think though, even though those are sort of our historical examples of what a boycott looks like, they’re not actually that representative. So most boycotts don’t function like that.

The bus and grape boycotts were not representative because why? For starters, these were boycotts that fed into an established movement, with many existing layers of activism and support. And, maybe most important, these were boycotts with good historical timing. Change was happening, and the boycotts reflected the appetite for that change. So did the boycotts cause the change? As Daniel Diermeier says:

DIERMEIER: It’s difficult to disentangle that.

[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Hard Drive”]

DIERMEIER: There’s a whole bunch of different potential methodological problems that show up in any type of econometric analysis. One thing that makes this complicated, for example, is that advocacy groups choose their targets strategically. It’s not that boycotts are randomly assigned to companies as they would be in a randomized trial in another policy area — so that makes it difficult to really be able to identify what the specific economic consequence or policy consequence of a boycott is.

Fair enough, but let’s at least see what we can learn. As we’ve already noted, it can be really hard to measure the impact of something like a boycott. Sometimes it’s even hard to figure out the precise goal of the boycotters. Are they trying to damage the finances of a company or an institution? Or maybe their reputation? The filmmaker Quentin Tarantino recently found himself targeted after he called some policemen “murderers.”

MSNBC CLIP: That comment caught the attention of the New York City police union, which said in a statement, “It’s no surprise that someone who makes a living glorifying crime and violence is a cop-hater, too. It’s time for a boycott of Quentin Tarantino’s films.”

Or are some boycotters just trying to make noise, get some attention for themselves? You’ll probably recognize this voice:

DONALD TRUMP: Oreos. I love Oreos. I’ll never eat them again. OK? I’ll never eat them again. No. Nabisco closes a plant — they just announced, a couple days ago — in Chicago. And they’re moving the plant to Mexico.

Or is the boycott more of a moral statement, hoping to build awareness around a problem, or maybe aiming for reform rather than damage?  Then there’s the fact that boycotts are closely related to — and may become intertwined with — protests or worker strikes or even embargoes.  So, as you can see, there are a lot of variables. Let’s start with a basic question: why do boycotts usually happen?

KING: When I was thinking about this, you know, I of course had in mind the civil-rights movements and the grape-workers boycott. And so I thought, “We’re going to have a lot of labor issues, we’re going to have a lot of civil-rights or race-related issues.” And those two were relatively high — they were both maybe in the top five number of issues that showed up in boycotts. But I was surprised to find that a lot of relatively conservative issues get represented in boycotts as well. So, the top category — I sort of lumped them all together in one category — were religiously motivated boycotts. This would be, you know, groups that were boycotting Disney.

AMERICAN FAMILY ORGANIZATION VIDEO: Disney signed an occultic rock band to a Disney record label … Disney extended insurance benefits to the live-in partners of homosexual employees.


KING: They felt that Disney was too liberal in its employment policies, too supportive of LGBT employees. So there was actually a group in the nineties that boycotted Disney because of that.


AMERICAN FAMILY ORGANIZATION VIDEO: The  Assemblies of God today announced they were boycotting the Walt Disney Company….


KING: If you look at boycotts even today, it’s still a tactic that’s often used by religiously conservative groups.

Religious conservatives are also on the receiving end of boycotts. Like the Chick-fil-A boycott in 2012.

[MUSIC: Three Day Threshold, “Chicken Shack” (From Against the Grain)]

MEDIA CLIP: Gay-rights supporters calling for boycotts after the president of the chicken restaurant chain said he opposed same-sex marriage.


DIERMEIER: This is very common. A company makes a statement like that. There’s outrage. Then typically they apologize. There’s some damage to the brand and that is that. And then the question is, “How well does the company handle that?”

Chick-fil-A didn’t quite apologize, but its CEO did say he regretted getting his company involved in the same-sex marriage debate. But the Chick-fil-A case was uncommon in other ways.

DIERMEIER: What was interesting and different about the Chick-fil-A case was that there was a countermovement. So that in addition to the support of same-sex marriage, that were calling for a boycott of Chick-fil-A, there were both customers of Chick-fil-A, but also members of the public, politicians and so forth that supported Chick-fil-A.


MEDIA CLIP: Supporters of the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A flocking to establishments all across the country for appreciation day, started by, that’s right, Mike Huckabee had the great idea for it.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Look, in America the company’s CEO has a right to an opinion.


DIERMEIER: And that led then to the curious phenomenon of what’s called a “buycott,” which was that people were encouraged and participated in that particular countermovement to actually buy more chicken.


GLENN BECK: The lines were out the door. Instead of losing business, Chick-fil-A had world-record-breaking sales numbers.

So what was the net effect of the Chick-fil-A boycott — at least the financial net effect? Did boycott plus buycott equal less than or more than zero, as measured by whatever rough measures you want to use – quarterly revenues, share price, etc.?

DIERMEIER: I don’t know of any kind of serious empirical work that looked at that.

One market-research firm did claim that Chick-fil-A sales were up 2.2 percent for the quarter over the previous year – but that data just came from customer surveys, and didn’t control for long-term trends.

DIERMEIER: There was some kind of casual looking at the numbers at this point, and what, from what we can tell just from looking at that is that the initial boycott, didn’t have much of an impact on Chick-fil-A. In some cases there were reports that sales went up and so forth, which is consistent with this movement-countermovement story.

Now, remember, the Chick-fil-A boycott was a bit of a special case. But let’s ask another basic question: how well does this kind of boycott usually work?

IVO WELCH: Boycotts almost surely will never work.

That’s Ivo Welch.

WELCH: I’m a professor of economics and finance at the Anderson School at UCLA.

What makes Welch so skeptical about boycotts? It goes back to apartheid South Africa.

[MUSIC: Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City” (from Sun City)]

WELCH: In the early 1980s and before then, it was a very large movement to divest all sorts of holdings and break all sorts of business and sports ties with South Africa. South Africa, at the time, had an apartheid regime that was institutionalized racism and about as abominable as it gets. So there were a lot of protests by students on campuses — at Columbia, which is where I was at the time. There were sit-ins. There was a big movement to divest the pension holdings. Banks actually had to have different requirements if they wanted to invest in South Africa. The tax laws were changed. There were all sorts of coordinated actions that were not just in the United States, but all over the world, all designed to bring the South African regime to its knees. Or to at least have an influence on the perception of the public about South Africa.

It was generally assumed that the divestment campaign hurt the South African economy and hastened the end of apartheid.

MEDIA CLIP: A symbol of black resistance to apartheid and to many he became a martyr. Tonight he is a free man … As hundreds of people cheered, Nelson Mandela walked from the prison gates to freedom.

So, was that the case? Was the boycott the lever — at least the economic lever — that helped pry South Africa out of apartheid? Roughly a decade after apartheid ended, Welch and some colleagues tried to answer that question.

WELCH: If you had asked me before we had done this study, I would have said, “This is something that seems quite reasonable.” If the Nazi regime was still around and we had a boycott of the Nazi regime, I would be thrilled about this, just as I was thrilled about a boycott of the South African regime. But we wanted to see if we could really measure the effect, how large it was. And unfortunately, when we started measuring it, we found that it had  no impact whatsoever, which made us go back, scratch our heads and start wondering, “Hmm, how would a boycott really work?” And when we started to think about it, it became fairly clear, fairly quickly that the boycott was never really fully enforced; that is, there were always easy ways to get around the boycotts. It was relatively easy to get gold and various other items out of South Africa, sell them within Africa and then sell them further on. So in the end, there were just a lot of different ways to escape the boycott.

Not only did the South Africa divestment movement not seem to have played much of a role in ending apartheid, Welch says it didn’t even really hurt South African companies.

WELCH: So if you think about somebody who holds stock of a South African company, if they decide to sell their shares, it will take about a microsecond before there’s another buyer to be found in the public markets. So it’s very, very easy — the demand, supply of shares in the stock market is extremely elastic. And your decision to boycott — that is, to divest yourself of the shares — isn’t going to make a difference. Now, if you could make it so that everybody in the world who wanted to hold South African stocks wouldn’t have bought any shares from South Africa anymore, it would have made a difference. However, that wasn’t the case. In reality, in real life, there were just too many people that were willing to hold the shares, and they immediately snapped up all the shares that people were willing to sell.

So despite a coordinated global effort by activists and institutions, Welch and his colleagues found that South African firms were essentially unharmed by the boycott.

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[MUSIC: Rouge, “Paris Cafe Swing”]

Here’s another example: when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 to get rid of Saddam Hussein, France opposed the American-led war. How did Americans respond? Some people started calling French fries “freedom fries.” Others suggested boycotts of things like Le Cirque, the famous French restaurant in New York. This provides a good example of how boycotts can be fantastically off-target:

MEDIA CLIP: This restaurant, a great French restaurant, Le Cirque, it’s owned by an Italian family! Do you want to hurt Italians? It is employing probably 90 percent people who are New Yorkers who’ve come from everywhere in the world. Do we want to hurt them? Their suppliers are from everywhere. All we’re doing—any kind of boycott is simply shooting yourself in the foot.

There were also widespread calls for an American boycott of French wines. According to three economists who later analyzed the data: “we show that there actually was no boycott effect.” So why is there often no boycott effect? One reason may be that boycotts get a lot of attention — they’re a good, easy, spicy story for journalists to cover — which gives the impression that the outrage is larger than it really is. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, recently went on a trade mission to Israel, where he was asked about a group of British academics urging a boycott of Israel over its Palestinian policies.

BORIS JOHNSON: The supporters of this so-called boycott are really just a bunch of corduroy-jacketed academics who have no real standing in the matter.

But if most boycotts of this sort tend to be relatively ineffective, what about a more formal, more muscular version of a boycott — like a government embargo?

WELCH: So, the first place where boycotts or something like this has made a difference is probably Iran. We were very good at having international sanctions that Iran finds very hard to circumvent. That just simply means that Iran doesn’t have as easy substitutes towards being embargoed upon them. They don’t get the goods from Russia, they don’t get it from Europe, they don’t get it from the U.S. Similarly, there’s an embargo on North Korea that seems to be fairly effective. Those are very different from boycotts. Boycotts are basically just part of the population. They’re not really enforced. They’re not really legal. They are very leaky. So those have never worked, as far as I can tell. Embargoes may work; boycotts almost surely never will work.

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[MUSIC: Mohkov, “Falling Leaf”]

One more reason a certain type of consumer boycott doesn’t work: because they are sometimes just … stupid. Every now and again, people who are upset over the price of gasoline will declare a “No Gas Day.” They’ll send around a chain email saying that if everyone refrained from buying gas for just one day – here, I’ll read from one of the e-mails: “It would hit the entire industry with a net loss of over $4.6 billion! … We can make a difference. If they don’t get the message, we will do it again and again.” So, what’s the problem with a boycott like this? Even if everyone in the U.S. didn’t buy gas for one day — today, let’s say — they’re still going to buy the gas tomorrow that they used today. So if you have a “No Driving Day” boycott, that might accomplish something. But a “No Buying Gas Day” wouldn’t hurt the oil companies at all — and would just make long lines for everyone at the gas pumps the next day.

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[MUSIC: Joe Hedges, “Cadmiums” (from Alchemy)]

Most of the evidence we’ve heard so far suggests that most boycotts don’t really work. The political scientist Daniel Diermeier:

DIERMEIER: There are a variety of empirical papers that point out that the economic impact of boycotts —looking at various different companies — is limited. Not all of them.

But “not all of them.” So that leads to our next question: what are the characteristics of a boycott that does work? Brayden King, the management professor at Northwestern, has written some of these empirical papers.

KING: And one thing we have noticed is that boycotts tend to be more effective, both in getting concessions and in generating negative-stock price returns, when they tend to be targeted against a single firm.

So instead of a boycott of all French winemakers, or all South African industries, a targeted boycott against one firm. But King also learned that even these boycotts can be weak. Because, well, because we are weak.

KING: There’s some research that suggests that even consumers who are ideologically supportive of a boycott don’t tend to follow through and support the boycott either because they don’t want to change their behavior. It’s just hard to actually stop buying a product that you’re used to buying. Or because they never bought the product in the first place. Because of that, because there didn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that boycotts influenced consumer behavior directly, I was more interested in the announcement of the boycott. So I ended up focusing on the announcement date as the beginning of the boycott and then sort of ignored whether it had any kind of subsequent effect on consumer behavior.

This led King to conclude that boycotts, while not very likely to hurt a company’s short-term bottom line, can still hurt the company.

KING: Boycotts seem to be effective because they create some sort of reputational crisis for the firm that they have to deal with.

And what does it mean to “have to deal with” a boycott?

KING: If you look at all boycotts that have received some minimal national media attention, about 25 percent of those boycotts lead to some sort of public concession on the firm’s part.

King found that targeted companies tend to make amends.

KING: If you look at companies that have been boycotted and compare them to other companies that are very similar to them in every way except for they were not boycotted, the boycotted companies tend to do a lot more prosocial behavior afterwards. Or they make prosocial claims.

In 2001, for instance, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition took umbrage with a Toyota TV ad showing an African-American man with the Toyota logo in a gold tooth. The Rainbow Coalition called for a boycott. Toyota apologized; pulled the ad; and, according to Brayden King, pledged to “increase their minority-spending budget by 35 percent.” In other cases, a boycotted firm may launch a new environmental program or make a big charitable donation. To which a cynic might say, “Well, isn’t that just public relations?”

[MUSIC: The Wintermarket, “Hulk Smash”]

KING: I think the PR departments of a firm are often involved. But this is not necessarily coming completely from them. And one reason I think that is because you often see the CEOs involved in these prosocial campaigns after a boycott. And I was sort of puzzled by this. And I think that CEOs don’t want to be associated with a company that has been sort of dragged through a reputational crisis.

DIERMEIER: There’s no doubt in my mind that when managers or CEOs are confronted by a boycott, reputational damage is top concern for them. Now, you may argue that it shouldn’t be, maybe they’re overreacting, or maybe they’re more concerned about their personal reputation than the company reputation. But that’s a fact. The fact is that when you interact with firms on an ongoing basis, the concern over the reputation is top priority. Then what you really have to ask yourself, right, is like, “How does a reputational dip impact a company’s performance in a whole variety of different dimensions?”

OK, how does a “reputational dip” impact a company, especially in the long term? Brayden King looked at the stock prices of companies that had been boycotted.

KING: I wanted to know, “to what extent do investors actually care about boycotts?”

Here’s what he found: At first, when a boycott is announced, there’s no discernible effect on the firm’s stock price. But…

KING: After a company has been boycotted, and it continues to receive media attention about the boycott, the effect of the boycott on the stock price is more negative. That is, investors tend to react more severely to a boycott, the longer that boycott remains in the media’s attention. And so that told me what investors care about is the ongoing media attention that this boycott is giving to the firm and the potential damage that this is doing to the company’s reputation.

Ivo Welch is skeptical of Brayden King’s argument. He thinks it may contradict one of the fundamental arguments of modern economics: the efficient-market hypothesis.

WELCH: And what that actually just says is that markets aren’t stupid. So when you learn something that an event has happened, what should happen at that instant in time is the stock price should move to reflect it, and it should be very hard later on to make money on this.

But what about Brayden King’s argument that a well-publicized boycott hurts a company’s stock price over time?

WELCH: Well, I would suggest that he start a hedge fund where he basically starts shorting those companies, because that would seem like a tremendously profitable investment strategy.

KING: I think it would be very difficult to beat the market with this strategy. How could you time the shorting of a firm in order to take advantage of this kind of reputational effect? You know, I also understand the efficient-market hypothesis and in writing about the effect of boycotts or protests on stock price, I’ve argued that it’s not because investors are fooled, it’s because they’re making sense of new information. And so then we have to ask ourselves, “Well, if investors are reacting to a boycott, what is the information they’re gleaning from that event that would cause them to react in that way?” And I think investors are probably smart enough to realize that boycotts are not going to have a big impact on sales, because there’s not a lot of empirical evidence to support that. But I think that investors are savvy in recognizing that a reputation matters in a number of ways besides just how it affects consumers’ decisions. For example, they know that employees want to work for a company that has a good reputation. You don’t want to work for a company that has a reputation of doing bad things for the environment, or doing bad things to its workers, or bad things to other people.

Daniel Diermeier agrees that the indirect, or maybe unmeasurable, effects of a boycott can still be substantial.

DIERMEIER: And it means that we continue to pay attention to something. Arguably, that can be just as important as the kind of economic mechanism of the boycott. It is entirely conceivable, even consistent with what we know about political processes in general, is that by keeping media interest and public interest focused on a particular topic, it can have an impact on public opinion and has an impact on what’s on the agenda, what politicians consider to be important topics that need to be addressed.

Brayden King’s last point — about how the reputation of a firm will affect the employees it attracts — reminded me of an e-mail exchange I recently had with a guy named Ben Hunter.

BEN HUNTER: I’m a scientist at Monsanto.

Monsanto is the giant agriculture company that’s been targeted by many protesters, for its massive reach, and for breeding and selling genetically modified crop seeds. But Ben Hunter wasn’t at Monsanto yet when we first began e-mailing.

HUNTER: Right, so, I’ve studied plant sciences and plant genetics at Edinburgh University and Cambridge University. And then I was a doing post-doc in plant genetics and evolution at Harvard University.

He was looking for options outside of academia.

HUNTER: I thought, “Maybe if I work in a company that’s breeding plants, that’s trying to sell seed of plants, that would excite me a lot more.” And I applied to Monsanto and a bunch of other companies and as I realized the job opportunities I could get would be a really fun and challenging job. And that got me to really thinking about Monsanto itself and talking to friends and family, “Hey, you heard of Monsanto, what do you think of me working for them?”

So, what’d they think?

HUNTER: There was mixed responses. A lot of caution. Some of them saying, “Well, you know, if you start working — going outside of academia, working for a large company, you’re going to get a significant pay increase and you might get sort of locked into that sort of lifestyle.” And others had lots of questions about Monsanto itself and cautions relating to that being a company with its reputation. The name Monsanto is for some people so heavily associated with this sort of evil or negative connotation.

The thing is, Hunter’s personal politics lined up pretty well with those very people.

HUNTER: Definitely liberal. Most of the people who are against Monsanto, all their other ideologies, I align more with than people who would not have strong opinions around Monsanto. So they are often people who will share a lot vocally about the need to do something about global warming and to have equal pay for men and women. All these sorts of things. And I love that people are sort of taking on these fights. But then that they also use their power to try and boycott companies like Monsanto, using a lot of, in my opinion, misinformation is really sad. But you can get a lot of momentum by using misinformation.

So Hunter shares a lot of opinions with the kind of person who might boycott a company like Monsanto. But in his view, and with his background as a scientist, he thought they were wrong about Monsanto.

HUNTER: I don’t think the company is doing anything evil. It’s a large company that makes the same decisions any other large company would.

This didn’t mean that taking the job was an easy decision.

HUNTER: I felt really baffled by this idea that I could get a job that I really wanted but would have, on a day-to-day basis, feel sort of weird in the public to say, “I work for Monsanto.” Like, if I meet a stranger in a bar or something, I’m not going to say, “Oh, I work for Monsanto. What do you do?” That was the part that gave me sort of reservations and got me thinking, “What if on Facebook, I change my job title to working at Monsanto? Am I going to shed friends?”

Hunter took the job, a few months ago. So far, he likes it a lot.

HUNTER: I think the reality of the company is completely different to the public perception. The people I work with on a day-to-day basis are just, in my opinion, are completely normal people.  The company’s values are the values of a successful, large company and they are not what the public perception might have you believe, that they are out to rip off and destroy agriculture and farmers.

Alright, so that’s just one man’s story. It may or may not change anything you think about GMOs, or big companies, or anything. But it’s a good illustration of the power of boycotting. Ben Hunter found a job he wanted with a company whose reputation had been, in his view, damaged. So the stigma imposed an extra cost on him — a cost that in the end, he was willing to pay.

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[MUSIC: Beckah Shae, “Your Kingdom Come” (from Champion)]

Now, our question of the day, you’ll remember, was simply this: “do boycotts work?” Here’s what the evidence seems to suggest: The typical boycott is more smoke than fire. And it doesn’t often seem to financially hurt the targeted company. But, humans being human, and the court of public opinion working as it does, a boycott can color the reputation of a given firm —  as it has for Monsanto, and for its new plant scientist Ben Hunter. And a boycott, when it reflects dissatisfaction with a larger social issue, can become some wind in the sail. The way the Montgomery Bus Boycott did. The way that even — perhaps, maybe, who knows, maybe just a tiny bit —  the Chick-fil-A boycott did.

KING: I think the activists would say the boycott against Chick-fil-A is successful even if they didn’t get people who typically go to Chick-fil-A to stop buying Chick-fil-A sandwiches. And the reason they would say it was successful is because they got the media to pay attention.  

The issue here, you’ll remember, was same-sex marriage. The firm’s CEO was against it. The boycott was in 2012. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right, and that every state in the U.S. must allow it. So, did the Chick-fil-A boycott generate noise that drove attention to the issue? Or, did the issue’s preexisting momentum create an environment for the boycott to make a lot of noise?

What’s the Chick-fil-A and what’s the egg? We’ll probably never know. But just because a question doesn’t have a concrete answer doesn’t mean it isn’t worth asking.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. Our staff also includes Arwa GunjaJay CowitMerritt JacobChristopher WerthKasia MychajlowyczAlison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas behind this episode:


Daniel Diermeier, professor of public administration and dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago

Brayden King, professor of management & organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Ivo Welch, professor of finance and economics at the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA

Ben Hunter, scientist at Monsanto



The Effect of Socially Activist Investment Policies on the Financial Markets: Evidence from the South African Boycott by Siew Hong Teoh, Ivo Welch, and C. Paul Wazzan, in Journal of Business (1999)

The Tactical Disruptiveness of Social Movements: Sources of Market and Mediated Disruption in Corporate Boycotts by Brayden King, in Social Problems (2011)

Keeping up Appearances: Reputational Threat and Impression Management after Social Movement Boycottsby Mary-Hunter McDonnell and Brayden King, in Administrative Science Quarterly (2013)

A Political Mediation Model of Corporate Response to Social Movement Activismby Brayden King, in Administrative Science Quarterly (2008)

Strategic Activism and Nonmarket Strategy by David P. Baron and Daniel Diermeier, in Journal of Economics & Management Strategy (2007)

 “French Wine and the U.S. Boycott of 2003: Does Politics Really Affect Commerce? by Orley C. Ashenfelter, Stephen Ciccarella, and Howard J. Shatz, in Journal of Wine Economics (2007)



Previously Unreleased Interviews with The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” WNYC (2013)

NAACP History: Rosa Parks,”

Quentin Tarantino responds to controversy, MSNBC (Nov. 4, 2015)

Chick-fil-A Awareness and Usage Up in Q3 2012 following Cathy remarks,” Sandelman & Associates (Oct. 22, 2012)

Cathy Seeks To Put Gay Marriage Flap Behind Chick-Fil-A, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (Mar. 14, 2014)



Good episode. But Ben Hunter--nobody doubts that Monsanto operates in the interests of "good business" and is not full of purely evil employees. You can defend its actions like you can those of pharmaceutical companies. But this good business is not ethical. Monsanto has ruined the lives of many farmers but also has ruined the food of this country and the health of its people. You may not be the puppet master at the top, but you're a willing cog in the machine who shares some of the blame. Scientists should work for the advancement of the human race--not its detriment and a paycheck.


"Monsanto [...] has ruined the food of this country and the health of its people"

And that claim is based on what exactly? Hearsay? Conspiracy theories?


This is something I've always wondered about, since generally I either can't boycott whatever group is being boycotted 'cause I don't buy their stuff anyway, or I feel like going out and buying stuff I wouldn't ordinarily buy just 'cause I disagree with the group doing the boycotting.


Sales of Chik-Fil-A may have gone up slightly, but they eventually capitulated and stopped their support of homophobic groups. In that regard it's hard to argue that the boycott was ineffective.


I'm boycotting Mozilla FireFox for dumping it's CEO for no good reason (IMHO).

I haven't told anyone until now. Web browsers are free. There's not much difference between them. Therefore, it's relatively cost-free to switch.

I'm sure there are others who are silently boycotting Mozilla. I believe the companies market share is down. Is it due to our silent boycott or other factors?


There's another problem, figuring out just why people are boycotting you. I boycott Mozilla (as do a number of other people, going by web comments &c) not because of their employment policies, but because of their stupid @$!% hamburger menus and such.


I really enjoy Freakonomics Radio and this episode was generally a good one. But I was really disappointed to hear the segment on Monsanto. There's no good reason to give this company any kind of good public relations. Fine, Mr. Hunter likes his co-workers. But has he gone and spoken to farmers in third world countries whose livelihoods are being ruined by Monsanto's suicide seeds? Go talk to them and then come back and tell us how warm and fuzzy your new employer is.


I was recently having a conversation with a financial investor about suggestions for investments. I was presented a variety of index funds and portfolios. Apparently 60% of index funds include tobacco/cigarettes companies as a part of the portfolio mix. I found this very disturbing and asked why it was so hard to find an index fund portfolio without tobacco as a part of it. I learned that even some alleged socially sustainable portfolios such a PAX Ellevate Global Women's Index Fund had a small percentage of tobacco companies included in the mix which surprised me. How would a person know this unless there was time to research the fund in detail which can take a great deal of time. This made me think of boycotts and the podcast made me curious about how many people really know what they are investing in when they choose a company 401K or 403B for example. To what extent do company investment plans support or harm society? (For example how many retirement plans offer, by default, index funds that do include tobacco companies in them?) I think investigating and researching both big companies and NGOs who claim to be doing "good" and then looking at the retirement portfolio options and how they are distributed would make for an intriguing and engaging future podcast? Also the question of what is "good" could also be explored. For example someone may view Bank of America as not an upstanding bank but see the value in how they provide loans for individuals and companies to succeed and provide benefit for society. Or someone may view weapons manufacturers as bad but like Boeing for their planes. How a person decides is interesting once asked the question: "Are you ok with investing in tobacco?" but this rarely happens. I feel people just quickly choose a retirement plan hurriedly with no real conversation about the overall implications and consequences of the choice. The market is really made up of all of us and how a person invests in a certain industry or idea can and does influence a shit in thinking and in the end can reflect a move toward positive change.


Ian Clarke

Yes, probably no white South African even noticed any negative effects from the economic boycott.
However, (perhaps because you are Americans) you missed the boycott that slowly but surely "nudged" white South Africans to realising that the apartheid system must be dismantled. And this was the
South Africans are crazy proud of their Rugby and Cricket Teams and it broke their hearts when they were prevented from competing on the International Sporting Arena It hurt, and it forced white South Africans to ponder why the English, Australians, Kiwis and many others regarded them with such disgust that the wouldn't even play a game with them .... and, forced to think about it they slowly came to understand that what they thought was 'normal' was really 'evil'. This was the beginning of the change-that-must-come-from-within.
Many SA athletes became citizens of other countries in order to pursue their sporting dreams. Later South Africa was banned (embargo?) from participating in the Olympic Games.
The movie 'Invictus' captures some of the relief and uplift that followed (white) South Africa's welcome return into the sporting fold.
Not all boycotts can be measured in dollars. Social boycotts (sent to Coventry) can have slow, but profound and PEACEFUL nudge effects.
Ian Clarke



The section on the South Africa boycott was interesting - but it lacked what makes Freakonomics an interesting listen - and that's evidence. We know -something- worked to make the apartheid regime change, if a hypothesis is put forward that it wasn't the boycott, then they really need to say in their opinion what -did- cause the change.

It's too easy to say it 'wasn't this or that' but in this case we have the counter-factual that change did occur.

Unfortunately this came across as someone's pet theory; solely assertions without evidence. As such, I'm just as likely to believe the boycott did, or didn't work.


You're kidding right?
(1) Have you checked out the 800 comments that follow "An Open Letter to Steven Levitt", at Real Science from Real Scientists? (2) The criticism of Freakonomics' claim about abortions and reduction in crime? (3) The criticism of the alarmist pension research by Joshua Rauh that was featured in a post at this site?
BTW was James Poterba, Levitt's advisor at MIT (alma mater of Charles, David and father Fred Koch)?


Why do fuel prices seem to go down after a 1-day gas boycott? Is it just perception?


I was a bit mystified by the arguments of the economist that was declaring that boycotts have no effects... I thought he made a very broad statement and then refuted it by saying that there are consequences in public relations and image deficit for the target of the boycott... In my opinion bad press is a major component of the boycott, and at the end of the day, has a consequence on the bottom line!

The assertion on the ineffectiveness of boycotting a given stocks on the market was also perplexing... If there is less demand for a stock (ie more sellers/less buyers than in a normal market), it will go down faster or go up slower...

Regarding Monsanto, their image is already so damaged that any additional bad publicity is probably not doing much... Awful company who's still in buisness mostly because they deal with professionals who need to make a profit and not the general public...



The stock boycott is an easy one. Not everyone is going to participate in any particular boycott. Some won't agree, or perhaps vehemently disagree, with the boycott, others either won't know about it, or won't care because they're interested in making money. When the boycotters sell stock, perhaps somewhat below its true market value, the non-boycotters will snap up the bargain.


Interesting podcast, but I was hoping to see something about the Market Basket Boycott in 2014 considering the huge impact it had on the company and the amount of coverage it received in the media. The loyal employees of this family owned company urged customers to shop at competing grocery stores until they brought back their fired CEO, who treated his employees well. Sales dropped dramatically and even warehouse workers left their jobs leaving millions of dollars of food sitting in hot trucks all summer. In the end the original CEO was brought back, and everything returned as normal. I think this is a great example of a boycott working and would have been a great addition to this podcast.


I am a big fan of Freakonomics podcasts. The depth of knowledge it has given me on a number of relevant and not so relevant issues is much appreciated. However, I do have one small problem with the analysis that is done on some of the podcasts. Often times the only analysis done on an issue has strictly an academic bent. This episode is no exception. If one were trying to determine whether boycotts work, I would think one might want to get a business perspective. Several years ago, when gas prices were over $5.00 per gallon, I spoke with, at that time, a recently retired Sr. VP of one of the top oil companies about a plan to lower gas prices to $2.75 per gallon by using a boycott that targeted a company's supply chain rather than its end product. The key to success was garnering enough public interest in the boycott. This was the plan.

Announce to the public that there would be a drawing (think picking a name out of a hat) on some future date in which one of the top 5 oil companies would be selected. Upon this selection anyone that had signed a petition to reduce gas prices would agree not buy gas at any station affiliated with this oil company until it lowered its gas prices to $2.75 per gallon. This would mean the top 5 oil companies would be faced with a dilemma that none of their supply chains could handle – a 20% chance demand would drop like grandma’s boobs but an 80% chance there would be a significant increase in demand at the expense of the oil company selected. After hearing this plan, the retired Sr. VP agreed that as long as millions of people signed the petition, the oil industry could not afford to let the drawing take place and would be forced to collectively lower gas prices to $2.75 per gallon prior to the drawing date. The Sr. VP also agreed that by using this boycott method, any industry dominated by a handful of companies, would cave to the demands of the public as long as the demand was seen as one that benefited society. For example this same boycott methodology could be used to increase the minimum wage for fast food employees to $15 per hour.



Did the boycott of, and adverse publicity surrounding tobacco corporations in the U.S., lead to the development of Asian children, as a new target market for cigarettes, or did management just think that up, independent of the public's revulsion after learning, from media, about the deceit of tobacco company management?

The direction, of plutocratic-owned media, with increasing fixation on right-wing ideology and selling products in consumer markets that are drying up (due to concentration of wealth), presents a danger to American character and values. Fox is Fox. CBS is vanity media for oligarchs (Jamie Dimon in the green room). NBC presents Gen X and Millennials as having a world view, limited to diets, exercise and shopping. But, there's a glimmer of hope with ABC. This morning a network reporter called out a congressman, by name, for blocking Medicare's negotiation of drug prices. Still sad that the once venerable TIME, stack ranks their reporters based on benefit to advertisers. And sad, Eli Broad finances education reporting at the LA Times.



I had hoped to hear some discussion of the NRA-led boycott of Smith & Wesson after it agreed to adopt gun safety measures to settle lawsuits against it.

Everything I've read described the boycott as very effective - both in getting Smith & Wesson to change its practices, and in scaring other gun manufacturers away from similar actions. S&W's sales reportedly dropped 40% in the year after the boycott was announced.


Early in the episode this statement was made: "...Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first major organized action against racial segregation in the United States."

Baton Rouge had a bus boycott in 1953, two years before Montgomery

In 1939, there was an organized effort in Alexandria, Virginia to open the public library to African Americans: