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.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, stereotypes

6 responses to “Sacrifice

  1. David

    I’m always amazed by companies (and individuals) whose anti-gay actions are based on the concept of “protecting traditional marriage values,” yet are totally silent on divorce, adultry and polygamy. Do they consider those to be “traditional” concepts to be valued?

    Anyway, on subject, boycotts seldom have a lasting economic impact on the boycottee; their value lies in the fact that they bring negative public attention to the offenders who usually change their (public) views out of shame, embarrassment or threat of legal action.

    • It’s probably the negative publicity, more than anything else, that make boycotts effective. Even though the company might take a financial hit from loss of sales, they’re more concerned about avoiding negative public attention – hence Barilla’s apology that was posted over the weekend.

  2. There’s always horrible things in every company. I think the Chik-fil-A boycott backfired because it got the franchise publicity and conservative people went there in droves out of some sense of solidarity. The only thing I do that’s kind of like a boycott is not donating to Salvation Army, because I don’t think doing good in the community should excuse a group from being actively anti gay.

    • I think you’re right, regarding the Chik-fil-A boycott. It got the LGBTQ and ally communities together in some solidarity, but it also galvanized the religious conservatives. As for the Salvation Army, that’s a tough one. If we had a natural disaster in our community, and the Salvation Army showed up to help me, I’d find it difficult to turn their services away out of principle. By the same token, it’s easy for me not to donate to SA, just like it’s easy for me not to eat Barilla pasta, or to drink Russian vodka, or to eat Chik-fil-A – because I never did in the first place, and because there are viable, easily accessible alternatives available.

  3. Gary Hollander

    Thanks as always for the intelligent post, Gayle. Have I ever told you that I look forward to Sundays to hear what you are thinking about?

    I do like the notion of purchase sacrifice for many reasons. In addition to those upon which you already comment, I like the notion of sacrificing to exempt ourselves from the capitalist mandate to consume without regard to consequences. I don’t actually need much. I have been convinced to want a lot. Recently my husband and I married and I blogged about it with 10 gift registry entries, all tongue in cheek and all really pushing in a groom-zilla sort of way to get exactly what we wanted at all costs: donations to LGBT causes, Planned Parenthood, hunger programs and the like. We also pleaded with people to give generous tips to servers, pay someone’s bill at a restaurant, help parents get off a plane with their children’s paraphernalia, and smile at passers-by. We don’t want crystal goblets or vases, the newest toaster, or a lace lamp shade. Our 25 year old pans are quite serviceable.

    So, our pasta buying is more frequent than our marrying and sacrificing for us would be to shop for it someplace besides Trader Joe’s. But these pasta wars suggest that there is a real difference between the company owner that has the nerve to advertise his bigotry and investors in another company that are just more circumspect with theirs.

    I am just not easy with using our buying power as the key lever for change. Is it really much different if I am seen as a wallet instead of a dildo, as a consumer instead of a pedophile? I am none of these things. I am me, a gay man.

    Now for the tricky issues involved with the Salvation Army. I think this is a different issue for boycotting, maybe a “donation sacrifice.” As wacky as the recent pronouncements are from their spokes persons, I am reminded of two things. When I was a boy, my family relied on Salvation Army more than once to be fed. Now as a man, I have witnessed their services helping transgender women when other more progressive people could not figure out how.

    These are not easy decisions, Gayle. Thanks for bringing them forward, filling my Sunday thoughts with the struggles for justice.

    • Oh wow, Gary, you put to words an issue I’ve been struggling to articulate clearly, but that’s been rolling around in my head since the Chik-fil-A thing – the “sacrifice to exempt ourselves from the capitalist mandate.” In some ways, consumer boycotts regarding LGBTQ issues feel like putting out fires – one fire might get extinguished (or at least reduced to a smolder), but there are many more that are burning out of control. Additionally, boycotts are like low-level activism – it’s easy, in many cases, to avoid buying a particular product (and then feel virtuous about that choice), but much harder to practice honesty and authenticity each day, or to speak out openly against injustice. For me, I think it takes more courage and strength to be out and open about who I am, to share my thoughts in a public forum (and reveal my insights as well as my shortcomings), and for people to get to know me as a person, rather than as a stereotype. I think that’s impacted a lot of people.

      The other, related issue that you subtly called attention to is the choice to divert our resources away from capitalistic spending, and towards causes we believe in – and frankly, I think the LGBTQ community should be ashamed of itself in this arena. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who directs a local agency that provides services to the LGBTQ community, and he told me that they have 12 regular financial contributors. TWELVE. I live in a large city, with over 400,000 people, and only 12 people are willing to fork over $5, $10, $20 a month? That is an embarrassment. We can quibble about what kind of pasta to buy, but few people are making those true “purchase sacrifices.” (Statistics back this up:between 1-3% of the LGBTQ community actually gives money to LGBTQ-related causes.)

      Thanks for your comments, as always! I’m glad my ramblings make you look forward to Sundays.

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