We’re at an interesting point in American history where corporations are becoming more politically reactive than elected officials. In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, citizens are furious about the ubiquity of high-powered firearms–and many are pinning the blame on the National Rifle Association.
Indeed, the gun rights organization has helped fund many American politicians, leading many people to figure out ways to boycott the organization. That includes applying pressure on the companies that do business with the NRA. Car companies and airlines, for example, have historically offered the organization’s members discounts–and these businesses are beginning to break ties. Enterprise, Hertz, United, and Delta all said they would stop offering those promotions, after a huge online outcry.
But they’re not the only ones doing business with the NRA. One of the bigger activist campaigns used the hashtag #BoycottNRAmazon, and tried to get Amazon to stop broadcasting NRA TV, the group’s streaming television channel (the same channel, it should be noted, is also available on Apple TV and Roku). Yet even with the increased attention, Amazon hasn’t said a word. This seems to follow a pattern for Jeff Bezos’s company; every so often there’s a slight uproar over the company’s affiliations or business dealings, and Amazon does nothing. Despite threats of a boycott, the e-commerce giant remains silent until the hubbub blows over. And its reputation emerges unscathed. So what makes Amazon different from United and Hertz and just about every other company that’s been targeted by activists?
What Makes A Boycott Successful?
A company’s vulnerability to a boycott doesn’t really have much to do with its customers, says Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, whose research focuses on corporate social responsibility. “Customers are not the reason companies give into boycotts,” says King. “Customers are pretty habitual creatures.” Which is to say that most people–even when they say they are going to–don’t change their spending patterns.
All the same, adds King, “boycotts are pretty effective as a tactic.” In fact, one in four boycotts that receive national media attention (that last part is important) prompts a desired response from the company being targeted.
Why? King says that boycotts create a “reputational threat against the company.” That is, a company claims to espouse some set of values, and the discovered action that led to the boycott directly goes against those. These media blitzes uncover a company’s faults and problems–“by doing that, the company risks damaging their long-term reputation.”
The organizations most susceptible to boycotts, he adds, are ones that already have some reputation-related problems. That is, those whose values are already being questioned by the public. (United is a great example, with its scandal last year when the airline dragged a passenger off a plane.)
Amazon, however, is in a different position–one that’s great for Jeff Bezos and annoying for activists. “For all its problems,” says King, “[Amazon] has a pretty robust reputation.” He goes on, “a boycott against Amazon doesn’t really change in people’s minds what kind of company Amazon is.” Which is to say, Bezos’s behemoth website has remained a relative constant for all these years, strategically staying out of the public eye while amassing hundreds of millions of loyal users. People know what the company is, what it has been doing, and the services its offers.
What’s more, the boycotts levied against the retail giant aren’t about some deep-seated collusion with the forces of evil, but rather passive business dealings. The activist organization Sleeping Giants, for instance, has been lobbying for Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart. Though the group has had success with other campaigns–it got over a thousand advertisers to pull advertising from both Breitbart and the Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor–Amazon has yet to change its ways. Though it may ruffle some people’s feathers that the company advertises on a far-right website or allows a gun rights organization to distribute its TV content, that doesn’t reveal an internal clash of values. Amazon is just doing business–the same business it’s been doing for years. And since people are very unlikely to stop using Amazon, the company probably sees no reason to acquiesce.
For the time being, companies like Amazon can largely avoid public outrage because they’re viewed quite favorably by the American public. “If there was a boycott that was able to demonstrate that Amazon was acting in inconsistent ways,” says King, “that may lead to internal strife.”
Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world, acts consistently. To many people’s chagrin, he’s maintained a very neutral public persona. “He’s aligned with the corporate values that [Amazon] established,” says King. “Until something happens that causes those things to be misaligned, he’s going to stick to his guns.”