Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

To boycott or not

Published in Sep-Oct 2014

Although voicing opinion through boycotts is a right, conflicts between countries are usually not so black and white.

You are watching the idiot box (TV). Scenes of a conflict on the news flash in front of your eyes, cajoling your subconscious to create context with the eventual culmination to settle on whose side are you on, if any.

The subconscious rummages through personal history, past imagery and a library of random files tucked away inside your mind. Conclusion from the exercise – these guys who are getting thrashed have the same ideology as you and the opponent conjures feelings of the class bully who picked on you in school. So now you have picked a side. What do you do next? Be an armchair warrior in this conflict or do something about it. Well, what can you do?

Social media! Maybe a tweet or a Facebook ‘like’ on a protest page followed by hours of discussions with friends and family. But you want to do more… ease that conscience… but can’t get involved in the conflict… what do you do… wait! You open your mobile app Buycott (500,000 downloads on Android) and scan the barcode on products you own to see which one is connected with the bullying country. Low and behold it’s your shampoo, shrouding its dark side in a sensual plastic bottle. The foamy indulgence which invigorates your hair is made by a multinational that has a factory in the country you don’t like. You stop using it and warn everyone else not to use it either – boycott the brand! Does it work?

As with everything in this increasingly interdependent world – it depends. What are you protesting? Is one side in clear violation of international norms? Is it obvious or is there a shadow of a doubt? What is the outcome you are looking for? What impact will your actions have?

In cases where the violation is questionable business practices which are no-brainers, such as testing on animals or using sweatshop labour or avoiding taxes, exposure of these practices through media is usually enough to cause companies to mend their ways. But brands’ association in a geopolitical conflict is different.

Let’s take the example of the multinational shampoo maker. It seems like a straightforward emotional reaction – they are supporting the bullying country as they own a factory there. The brand should be punished!

Let’s add some more information. It so happens that the factory in the bullying country is small and whether they shut down or not, it won’t fiscally impact the country or company. On the other hand, the multinational is one of the largest employers in your country and solely supports a large welfare project. Your boycott will hurt the multinational, but in your country. Thousands of people would be laid off. What do you do?

Does this mean you don’t protest? Of course not. But it is important to understand the issue, the brand’s involvement and what form of protest makes sense. Is the brand directly supporting the bullying country through funds or other support or is it an unintentional consequence of operating as a multinational? Also, geopolitical conflict is invariably related to national security, although boycotting brands is unlikely to be a major consideration at GHQ. National security will probably not be compromised because export of shampoos could fall. But scale and unanimity of the protest can put pressure in terms of reflecting world opinion which over time can become a loud voice.

Although voicing opinion through protests and boycotts is a right, conflicts between countries generally have the added dimension of not being so black and white.

“Truth is a battle of perceptions, people only see what they are prepared to confront. And when different perceptions battle against one another, the truth has a way of getting lost.” Revenge (TV Show)

Amin Rammal is Director, Firebolt63, The Brand Crew and APR.