Commentary: Can boycotts over Gaza conflict achieve their intended objectives?
As awareness about political, economic and social issues become greater, brands can bear the brunt of unhappiness. SUSS’ Lau Kong Cheen explains, however, why boycotts can have limited impact.
SINGAPORE: The recent Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas has triggered intense emotions from empathisers all around the world.
You may have seen social media posts not only sharing related news but also going a step further to call for a boycott against brands owned by Jewish companies and businesses said to be channelling aid to Israel.
Calls to boycott McDonald’s, Hewlett Packard and Puma have been making the rounds in Malaysia, as awareness and support for the Palestinian-led movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions calling to shun companies supporting Israel grow.
Yet this is not something new. Brands have found themselves bearing the brunt of international conflict, cultural issues and social movements for some time.
Before Gaza, there was a massive boycott by nationalistic Chinese consumers on Swedish retailer H&M, as well as Nike and Adidas for taking a stance against the use of cotton from Xinjiang.
On occasion, they get into trouble with consumers when someone in their organisation does something egregious related to race, religion or nationality, like when Starbucks was slammed for telling workers not to wear Black Lives Matter gear in June 2020.
BRANDS AS PROXIES TO INTENDED TARGETS
In many such cases, brands are often seen as proxies or symbols with close associations to transgressors that deserve to be treated with animosity and made an example of.
Short of taking up arms, the action of boycotting and spreading negative sentiments towards brands intend for the victimised party to “avenge” the egregious acts carried out against them. By enlisting like-minded consumers in their cause, they hope to put financial pressure on a company to change their behaviour.
Proponents of such boycotts who rally around such anti-brand behaviours feel a sense of solidarity with the group they support for national, cultural or personal reasons and want to make their feelings known.
They sometimes have the impression such actions can hurt the targeted source of the acrimony by harming associated brands and businesses and causing them to lose revenue and reputation, thereby deterring others from providing support, in this case, to Israel.
Two years ago, leading e-commerce sites like Yoox Net-a-Porter, T-Mall and JD.com removed Dolce & Gabbana from their sites and stood in solidarity with enraged Chinese consumers to boycott the brand after an offensive advertisement mocking a Chinese model attempting to eat pizza and cannoli with chopsticks. The brand saw a drop in annual sales in China that year.
In reality though, do brands really get hurt? Over the past few decades, numerous incidents show while some experienced prolonged damage, most tend to blow over with the churn of the news cycle as public attention is focused elsewhere.
WHY SOME DON’T GET HURT AS BADLY
Take for instance, Nike and Adidas. In a recent initiative by some Chinese consumers to punish Nike for insinuating that Xinjiang uses forced labour to produce cotton, the reaction only lasted a few days in end-March.
After which, popular models of Nike shoes were totally sold out instantly at Nike’s online store in T-mall. Adidas too saw a 156 per cent surge in first-quarter sales in China despite calls for consumers to punish the company for earlier taking a stance on the treatment of Uighurs.
It sure looks like such spur-of-the-moment campaigns can be useful in launching a public expression of dissatisfaction and grabbing media attention, but aren’t all that successful in hurting companies.
For one, consumer-based boycotts can’t change the behaviour of loyal, longstanding customers who do have daily needs for the things such companies produce.
One example is Apple. In the trade war run up to US banning WeChat and TikTok back in 2020, Chinese consumers strongly supported their government’s threat to cut off iPhone if WeChat remained on the US trade blacklist.
And yet, sales of the newly launched iPhone 12 in China that same year exceeded expectations. Apple’s iPhone has become an integral part of so many Chinese consumers’ lifestyle, it is near impossible to quit using them altogether.
HOW FAR WOULD BOYCOTTS GO?
A litmus test could be the Snapdragon processors developed by Qualcomm, a US company with a Jewish founder. Will people really boycott their use to register displeasure with Israel? Many smartphones across most brands wouldn’t function without them.
If anything, the complex interconnections behind the devices and products we use, wear and purchase each day will challenge the effectiveness of boycotts, because where should such boycotts end?
Should companies collaborating with targeted firms also come under the radar? Even if omission is practical, would it not be hypocritical?
Consumers also do not realise who they hurt when they boycott brands. A controversial statement made by French President Emmanuel Macron over an offensive cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in October 2020 was met with huge backlash worldwide.
Indonesian politicians and activists called for boycotts to Carrefour, a French supermarket multinational, and other French brands. However, this ended up hurting the Indonesian factories and firms that manufactured almost 95 per cent of the products sold in Indonesia, not to mention the livelihoods of employed Indonesians employed by the chain.
WHEN FIRMS DO GET HURT
There are cases where boycotts can hurt because a critical mass of supporters hold out for a long time, as part of a deliberate national economic policy that see a collective attempt by consumers, government and corporations to punish brands.
In 2017, many Korean brands suffered heavy financial losses stemming from South Korea’s deal with the US government to deploy the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system on its territory.
Zealous Chinese consumer who perceived this as an act of passive aggression from the South Koreans united behind their government’s moves to suspend Korean business operations and travel to South Korea, and create barriers to Korean dramas and K-pop music in an unofficial ban.
Chinese consumers in solidarity began to shun a wide range of Korean brands in the food, beauty and apparel lines.
Hyundai and Lotte suffered the biggest damage. Lotte had to shut down at least 112 supermarkets in China and ultimately exit the China market with a total loss of US$7.2 billion.
BOYCOTTS COULD GROW WITH SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENTS
Animosity towards brands can be a powerful emotional response fuelled by social media that activists leverage to build awareness, get public buy-in and further their causes.
As the number of social justice movements and nationalistic sentiments around the world grow, this trend will not abate anytime soon.
But whether the intention to hurt brands will be met really depends on the traction, sustainability and focus of these campaigns.
Going back to Gaza, it remains to be seen how effective the strategies of BDS are, more than 15 years since its founding and to what extent Israel will be directly impacted. Israel itself has already faced decades of boycotts from Arab states since its founding in 1948.
The country’s widely differentiated and high-quality exports – from software, pharmaceuticals and advanced industrial machinery - are more difficult to be substituted.
However, BDS’ campaign to paint Israel as a pariah state (and by extension, brands supporting it as abhorrent) in the minds of progressives and liberals has forced critical conversations among businesses in a time where corporate social responsibility has come under the radar.
Dr Lau Kong Cheen is senior lecturer at the School of Business’ marketing programme in the Singapore University of Social Sciences.