So the CEO of Barilla says he won’t allow gay people to be depicted in their advertisements, and within hours, the LGBTQ community mobilizes big time. Boycotts, Internet petitions, op-ed pieces – the LGBTQ community and its supporters have stepped up in a big, big way, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
But I do have a cynical side (if you haven’t noticed by now). And that cynical side, when I first heard about the Barilla boycott, I thought, First it was Chik-fil-A. Then it was Russian vodka. And now it’s . . . pasta? Come on now. Is nothing sacred?
The reality is, I don’t drink hard liquor. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Chik-fil-A in my life. And Barilla – well, I’m not a big pasta eater, but in my graduate school days, when spaghetti from a box and sauce out of a jar was part of my regular meal repertoire, Barilla never made it into my pantry. So, for me, boycotting these companies is like giving up marijuana for Lent. If I don’t use it in the first place, giving it up doesn’t really count.
My cynicism comes from a much deeper place. There are a LOT of companies that the LGBTQ community should probably consider boycotting. Walmart, in addition to being cited numerous times for poor treatment of LGBTQ employees, recently included a book on its shelves titled Chased by an Elephant by Janice Barrett Graham (wife of LDS pastor Stephen Graham, believer of “praying the gay away”). The book description begins like this:
“Overgrown jungles? Mad elephants? Tarzan and Jane? That’s what LDS families will find in this book to help shed the clear light of truth on today’s dark and tangled ideas about male and female, proper gender roles, the law of chastity, and the God-given sexual appetite.”
Not exactly LGBTQ-friendly. That should be enough to prompt a boycott, don’t you think?
Or what about Domino’s Pizza, whose founder created an entire city – Ave Maria, Florida – devoted entirely to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church. Or Exxon Mobil, for failing to adopt non-discrimination policies for their LGBTQ employees? And then there’s Babies R Us/Toys R Us. Hobby Lobby. Lowe’s. Marriott. Tyson Foods. Dish Network. Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Celestial Seasonings. Radio Shack. Verizon. Curves. Purina. Gold’s Gym. Dole. Forever 21. These are all companies that engage in anti-LGBTQ practices in some way, shape, or form. And this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you find this list dizzying, then you’re in good company. And in my dizzy stupor, I’m reminded of a story.
Years ago, when I was in college, a bisexual friend and I would routinely go to the gym, work out together, and then go to the Wendy’s next door for a burger and fries. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell,” we’d say to each other – not referring at all to the fact that we were devouring junk food after our virtuous workout. In fact, our secretive behavior had everything to do with the fact that the LGBTQ community (among others) was actively boycotting Wendy’s at the time, and here we were, sneaking around behind the scenes.
I’ve written about what motivates people to boycott companies in previous blog posts. In one post, I talked about a study that identified, among others, two major variables that motivate boycotts: (1) a desire to make change happen; and (2) the personal growth that comes from participating in a boycott (the researchers call this “self-enhancement”). I definitely desire change, and I embrace the personal growth opportunities activism has provided me with. And yet, here I was at Wendy’s, surreptitiously scarfing down a bacon cheeseburger. That experience has stuck with me, and since then, I’ve wondered why someone like myself, someone so heavily invested in social change, risked having my “queer membership card” taken away – and over a trayful of fast food, at that.
How you spin your message has an enormous impact on how people receive that message – a phenomenon called a “framing effect.” For example, if you tell a teenager that there’s a 1 in 20 chance that condom use will result in a pregnancy, that teenager will probably be far more gun-shy about condoms than if they were told that condoms are 95% effective at preventing pregnancy (which sounds like pretty good odds). That’s the power of the framing effect in action. So what if we apply the concept of framing effects to boycotting?
Andrew John of Melbourne University (who is one of the co-authors of the study cited above) is an economist whose research focuses largely on consumer boycotts. In his research articles, he uses the term “boycott” – but alternatively, he frequently uses the phrase “purchase sacrifice.” I think that’s a brilliant phrase – because if you think about it, participating in a boycott is really all about sacrifice. It’s a purchase sacrifice, and a time, energy, and resources sacrifice – especially when it comes to researching which companies are LGBTQ-friendly or -unfriendly. Boycotting a company or product might require buying an alternative brand that’s more expensive, or not as easy or convenient to obtain (which, for some, might be a significant sacrifice, depending on one’s socioeconomic status). If I need to disconnect my Dish and pay $10 extra per month for DirectTV (or just tell myself, who needs TV, anyway?), forego the thick, plush towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond and get the ones that feel a little scratchy from Target, stop drinking my Celestial Seasonings herb tea and either do without or make a special trip to a more expensive store to get some other brand, force my cat to eat something other than Purina Cat Chow, find some way to explain to my kid why Toys R Us is bad (and then try to find an alternative), spend hours trying to keep track of the “good” companies and “bad” companies, and then feel all guilty because I just found out that Barilla is a “bad” company after I’ve bought five boxes of pasta – if my immediate personal loss is greater than the long-term potential gain, then the motivation to boycott is likely to be low. That’s probably how I felt years ago, when I chose to cross the boycott line and eat at Wendy’s – that it wasn’t worth giving up the burger.
I wonder if, instead of using the word “boycott,” we name the action more clearly and say, “We’re asking you to make a purchase sacrifice in support of the LGBTQ community.” Would higher levels of boycott participation result? I bet it would to some extent, although I have nothing other than gut feeling to back this up. There’s something about that phrase that reminds me that I’m in the driver’s seat when I make my spending choices – and I can also be in the driver’s seat regarding what losses I’m willing or able to take. Activists love to be in the driver’s seat – or at least feel like they are, especially given the level of disempowerment and marginalization many of us have experienced.