Boycott Battles: Do They Really Work?
When Coach Sue Sylvester says "Boycott Amway," you’d better listen - or you could end up with the Glee villain’s signature referee whistle jammed in your ear. So gay activist and former Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger knew he had a great endorsement when actress Jane Lynch, the out-lesbian who plays Coach Sue, signed a card supporting the Amway boycott he launched last summer.
The home-sales giant found itself in Karger’s crosshairs after
"I think it’s important that we single out these big, big donors who’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars, like the DeVos family, to take away rights from people," Karger told EDGE in a recent interview. Claiming that gay activists "didn’t start" this struggle’s boycotts, he traced their origin to the American Family Association’s boycott against the Walt Disney Co. AFA rallied its troops in 1996 after Disney began offering domestic-partner benefits to gay employees. (Though Disney never wavered on the benefits, AFA ended the boycott in 2005.)
In fact, LGBT activists did start them, with two legendary boycotts of the mid-1970s - back when gay rights groups were just beginning to flex the collective muscle of post-Stonewall LGBT Americans. The actions were against Coors Brewing Co. and the farmers’ collective promoting Florida orange juice.
The Beginning: Anita Bryant & O.J.
If activists were angry with Coors for allegedly conducting polygraphs to weed out gay employees and for Adolph Coors’ funding of right-wing organizations, they were furious with Florida orange growers for continuing to use singer Anita Bryant as their spokeswoman. Bryant’s successful campaign to repeal a newly enacted local law to include gay employment protections in Miami-Dade County marked the beginning of the Religious Right as the bête noire of gay rights in this country, and the rise of Christian evangelicals as a strong political force nationally.
We won that round. The Florida Citrus Commission fired the squeaky-clean singer in 1980, and her musical career went into a tailspin from which it never recovered. "She was too hot to handle," recalled Bob Witeck, a veteran marketing and communications consultant who specializes in advising businesses on the LGBT market. The orange growers felt they were "hostage" to Bryant’s political activism and didn’t "need the grief," he added.
Witeck argues that the Florida juice boycott was helped by Bryant’s unapologetically insulting campaign, which claimed that gay men were predators who recruited children and drew a visceral reaction. But its success was also spurred by the fact that a boycott aimed at a specific brand was unheard of. "It was unprecedented," Witeck said.
In the 40-plus years since Bryant warbled her last "Come to the Florida sunshine tree," the LGBT community’s surging political clout have prompted pro- as well as anti-gay boycotts. Those brought by LGBT groups include ones against Cracker Barrel, ExxonMobil and the Salvation Army, while Proctor & Gamble, Kraft Foods and Ford are counted on the anti-gay side.
Last year alone, right-wing organizations launched campaigns against JC Penney, the Girl Scouts, Starbucks, Toys ’R’ Us, Marvel and DC Comics, Kraft Foods (again!), General Mills and Google (good luck with that one). LGBT and AIDS activists, who until recently dominated the boycott field, assembled just a handful last year: the Russian airline Aeroflot, Hershey’s, Chick-fil-A and Karger’s move against Amway.
The Power of the Pink Dollar
Karger, a retired GOP political consultant from Los Angeles, is a big proponent of putting your money where your mouth is - or, in this case, closing your wallet and opening your mouth. "I have discovered the success of boycotts," he said.
The man speaks from experience. In recent years, Karger has put together five. He said that two - against Bolthouse Farms and Garff, a car dealership chain - eventually settled in our favor.
Witeck noted that Karger is one of the few activists who have come up with specific actions that companies can take to end a boycott. For example, he’s willing to call off the hounds if a company contributes an equal amount to whatever it spent against LGBT interests and agrees to no longer do what got it into trouble.
Many LGBT advocates are not enthusiastic about boycotts. Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, told EDGE that HRC generally doesn’t endorse them. "It’s difficult to achieve success on a large scale," he said.
Recent surveys of responses to both pro- and anti-gay boycotts would seem to support that position. Last August, a Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 13 percent of likely U.S. voters planned to boycott Chick-fil-A, while 77 percent said they would not avoid the processed chicken chain. On the other hand, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates released a survey conducted by Harris Interactive in October that found just 11 percent of U.S. adults would boycott a company that advocated or donated for marriage equality.