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This week I was reading part of the book “A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen”. While reading I came across something that got me thinking. It was about what the authors called consumer activism which is when people select the products they purchase based on political or social ideals. Two types of consumer activism were distinguished in the book; boycotting and buycotting. I assume most of you are familiar with boycotting where a person refuses to purchase a product or service in retaliation against the practices of company or country. The opposite of that is buycotting where an individual specifically purchases products or services because they support the practices of a company.

The authors performed the National Civic Engagement Survey (NCES) in 2002 that asked 3,200 respondents about their civic and political engagement such as voting, volunteering, contacting public officials, donating to campaigns and other such political and civic activities. While they found that 79% reported that they were registered to vote and 51% reported that they voted the next most common civic / political engagement was boycotting with 38% and buycotting with 35%.

What I found surprising is that boycotting and buycotting were far more prevalent than many other types of civic / political engagement such as non-electoral volunteering (23%), signing petitions (23%), contacting a public official (18%) or volunteering for a political group (6%). That means that with the exception of registering to vote and voting, boycotting and buycotting are the most common forms of civic / political engagement. In fact “49 percent say that political and social concerns have influenced retail decisions in the last year”. That immediately leads to the question of why it isn’t having a massive effect on business practices.

Well digging deeper it seems that boycotting and buycotting is largely unorganized. “People engaged in consumer activism overwhelmingly see it as an individual activity rather than as part of an organized campaign. Among those who’ve boycotted or buycotted in the past year, only 7 percent each (and 9 percent overall) tied the most recent occurrence to an organized campaign; the rest said it was something they just decided to do on their own… The vast majority of people who boycott or buycott – 79 percent – say they do it for altruistic or self-expressive reasons.” “In response to a question about where people got the information that helped them make a decision to boycott or buycott, a plurality (35 percent for boycotting, 33 percent buycotting) mentioned the news media. Fewer (16 percent and 23 percent, respectively) mentioned friends or family members, and only around 1 in 10 (9 percent and 11 percent) mentioned groups or organizations. The Internet was also mentioned, but by only 7 percent for boycotting and 6 percent for buycotting.”

Now here is the kicker, those that have boycotted or buycotted report volunteering and contacting public officials at a much higher rate. While only 23% of the population surveyed volunteered, among those that report boycotting or buycotting 63% report volunteering. Furthermore only 18% of the population surveyed reported contacting a public official yet among those that boycott or buycott 75% report contacting a public official. 

For me this paints a picture of those that boycott and buycott. While they may see boycotting and buycotting as an individual choice they are clearly people who are involved in trying to solve public and civic problems through volunteerism and direct contact with public officials. That is they are civic and politically engaged. Yet the most common source of information for boycotting and buycotting is the new media (35% and 33% respectively). At the same time very few are acquiring information for boycotting and buycotting from organizations (9% and 11% respectively).

Well when you think about it the new media has a vested interest in preventing or mitigating boycotts and buycotts. The media’s revenue is based on advertising so if the media encourages a boycott then that news source may loose advertising dollars from the company being boycotted as well as associated companies. Anymore so many companies are owned by parent corporations that a boycott of toilet paper could result in the loss of advertising for office products, chemical companies, textiles and even steak just because of the parent companies. This leaves news media with a conflict of interest when it comes to informing the public about social or political concerns over corporate behavior, their revenue is driven by advertising by the very companies which people may not agree with.

This leaves us with sporadic and unorganized consumer activism. But that does not mean that it must always be that way. It may be possible to organize people into more long term and concerted efforts at boycotting and buycotting. The people that report boycotting and buycotting show a willingness to get involved by their high rates of volunteerism. The difficulty is to get the message and information out to people so that boycotting and buycotting is more than just an individual choice, so that it can become a organized campaign which can challenge the practices of companies.

Though it would be unfair if I did not bring up some counter information. When those that boycott or buycott are probed about the frequency of that behavior 23% of those boycott and 19% of those that buycott have done so in the past week. While 18% of those that boycott and 25% of those that buycott have done so in the past month. The remainder (more than half) have boycotted or buycotted less often. That may indicate that people are not really dedicated to consumer activism or that may indicate that people have difficulty in figuring out what they should boycott or buycott. Furthermore all of the statistics cited here are based on self reports which can be quite biased. It would be good to measure this behavior in a more direct manner such as surveying people who are shopping to see how frequently people select products based on social and political ideals. When it comes down to it people may only boycott or buycott sporadically because they are not really dedicated to it or they may just find it difficult to engage in without good information or due to time constraints.

But even with these problems in the data and it’s measurement I still think that the information presented is a reasonable reflection of reality. It would appear that those who boycott and buycott are more involved socially and politically. Even if self report data can be skewed it is clear that those boycotting and buycotting are far more likely to volunteer and contact public officials as compared to the rest of those surveyed. It is also clear that a subset of those who boycott and buycott do so frequently even if a majority don’t. Finally it is clear that news media is the single largest source of information used to boycott and buycott. Thus there is the potential that these people could be organized and unified into a powerful force for change. The biggest question is how to wake the sleeping giant of consumer activism.


*Note: All quotes and statistics are from the book  “A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen”.