Boycotts, Backlash, and Chicken

As you may have heard on the news, or perhaps from a co-worker, August 1 was Chik-fil-a appreciation day. This was an event driven by backlash against the perceived stifling of the Dan Cathy’s (the president and CEO of the company) right to express his opinion on gay marriage (he is very much opposed). His comments spurred several gay rights groups to call for a boycott of Chik-fil-a. While the verdict is still out on the boycott it did have one major unintended effect, mobilizing opposition. To show support for Chik-fil-a, and Mr. Cathy’s comments hundreds of thousands of supporters showed up to purchase something from their local restaurant setting a single day sales record for the corporation. This story struck me for two very differnet reasons, the first is how tactics and strategy align to create success or failure for a movement, and the second is how social media played in this situation.

Boycotts have been a staple tactic in social movements stretching back centuries, though it really didn’t gain much prominence until the middle of the 20th century when boycotts like that of the Montgomery bus system aided the civil rights movement. In the Montgomery case, as well as in cases like the United Farm Workers boycott of produce, the target was vulnerable to the pressure being applied by the boycotting group and a boycott made sense within the larger strategic context. Since then though the boycott as a tactic has been used somewhat less discriminately but has remained a favorite tactic, likely due to a combination of convenience and familiarity. When someone announces a boycott there is little confusion regarding what is meant, typically the formula for a boycott follows a well0-worn path “We are boycotting X, because of Y” or “until X does Y” where X is the target and Y the desired outcome or triggering event. This means boycotts are easy to follow, easy for bystanders to understand, and most of all easy to at least show some kind of support. But too often this convenience, the ease of declaring a boycott, replaces actual strategic thinking. Will a boycott of X by group Z over action Y actual produce results? Too often the answer is ‘no’. Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of this is animal rights groups, such as PETA who have long-running boycotts against McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. These are boycotts that certainly address the core interests and goals of the group, but are not calling upon the a group who is a likely consumer of McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Unless I am very much mistaken PETA, and the people who tend to support PETA, are not the core demographic that eats at either of these restaurants. That core demographic is unlikely to be sympathetic to PETA’s claims.

This is likely also the case for Chik-fil-a, people who are ardent supporters of gay rights may occasionally eat at Chik-fil-a, but it is unlikely they do so in numbers large enough to count for a boycott, instead the boycott served to energize the counter-movement and allowed them to make a public, and highly visible, symbolic show of support for the company. In this case not only was the tactic ill-considered for the target, but it actually had the opposite effect, mobilizing online efforts that translated into a massive turnout of support.

And it is this media element, that fed and enabled the counter-protest, that is also fascinating about this incident. First proposed in comments made by Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and current talking-head on Fox, the counter-protest spread through Facebook and other social media outlets like Twitter, allowing counter-protestors to coordinate and quickly launch an action that would show support for the restaurants while the controversy was still in the news cycle. In a matter of days a comment by Huckabee translated into a visible showing that brought the company record one day profits and gave opponents of gay marriage a visible sign that they had many fellow supporters.

Is this a sign of things to come? Has the boycott moved from a tactic that is often misused, though with little detriment, to one which can, if not applied wisely and strategically to targets susceptible to this kind of influence, end up energizing  a backlash and counter-movement action? I’m not sure, but this does seem illustrative of how new media and a 24 hour news cycle can drive and affect old protest tactics in new ways.

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