Boycott enthusiasts say results come when customers go

March 31, 1993|By Nancy Kruh | Nancy Kruh,Dallas Morning News

Zachary Lyons tells about the time he and a couple of his boycott-conscious buddies stopped at the store to pick up a six-pack of beer.

How about Dos Equis, one suggested. Nope, another replied, the importer is the subsidiary of a tobacco company, which is being boycotted for health concerns.

Coors? No way. It's been boycotted for a number of environmental and political issues.

Budweiser? Nope, the parent company owns an amusement park chain that's being boycotted for its alleged mistreatment of marine mammals.

Miller? Forget it. That's owned by another tobacco company.

"It took us a half-hour to pick a beer," says Mr. Lyons, editor of Boycott Monthly. "We finally settled on a New Zealand brand."

Such is the life of a person committed to political action through boycotting.

Sure, says the Olympia, Wash., journalist, it can be a hassle. But he does it, he says, because he believes boycotts make an impact.

For proof, one need look no farther than Arizona. After its citizens voted down a holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the state lost an estimated $250 million in business during the six years it was boycotted, according to Leia James, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Office of Tourism in Phoenix.

The biggest lost plum, of course, was the most recent Super Bowl, which was played in Pasadena, Calif. "We have it in '96, so that's a nice consolation prize," says Ms. James, "but it would have been nice to have had it here now."

Arizona is just one of several targets that have responded to consumer battle cries in the two years since Mr. Lyons launched Boycott Monthly. He's also watched as tuna companies have adopted dolphin-safe policies and McDonald's has stopped using polystyrene boxes for its burgers. Mary Kay Cosmetics has stopped using animal testing. Alaska has called off its plans to allow wolf hunting. Rap singer Ice-T has pulled "Cop Killer" from his album. General Electric has announced plans to get out of the business of building nuclear weapons.

His monthly publication is one of two that are devoted exclusively to tracking boycotts. The other is the National Boycott News, a more exhaustive accounting of boycotts that has come out on an irregular basis eight times in the past eight years. (A third publication, Co-Op America Quarterly, includes a compilation of boycotts among its regular features.)

Both the National Boycott News, which has a circulation of about 8,000, and Boycott Monthly are based in Washington state; Mr. Lyons started out at the National Boycott News in 1989 and split off amicably two years ago to start his own venture.

Both publications consider themselves educational organs. And while they do have a definite consumer slant, neither takes editorial stands on the issues. In fact, they welcome rebuttal from the targets of boycotts.

Timothy Muck, a staff writer for the National Boycott News, says boycotts have grown in popularity since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Since that environmental disaster, he says, the number of boycotts has roughly doubled.

Why the current popularity?

A recent article in U.S. News & World Report suggests boycotts reflect a cynicism and sense of powerlessness among American voters. But Mr. Muck isn't so sure.

"U.S. News looked at boycotting as a technique that's used because the ballot doesn't work," he says. "But look at it another way: Say we have a problem with Arizona. Do we expect Congress to handle it? Isn't there another way for us to deal with it?

"Boycotting may reflect a lack of faith in the political process, but it's also a way for consumers to resolve issues on their own."

That consumer power isn't necessarily a good thing, say those who have been affected by the boycotts.

More often than not, says Ms. James of the Arizona Office of Tourism, innocent people get caught in the boycott's scattershot approach. "The total taxes the state lost was $19.4 million," she says, "and over 5,000 jobs were affected. It seems the boycotters get so focused on a single issue that they lose sight of the big picture."

For a boycott to have lasting impact, says Mr. Muck, it must generate both publicity and public concern. And it doesn't necessarily have to hurt a target's profits to succeed.

"Companies consistently argue that boycotts don't affect the bottom line -- and it is difficult to judge that," says Mr. Lyons.

What's at stake, say Mr. Muck and Mr. Lyons, is the public's perception.

The key to the successful boycott against tuna, both men agree, was graphic video footage of dolphins dead or dying in tuna nets.

"Heinz was getting postcards from kindergartners saying, 'Why are you killing dolphins?' " says Mr. Lyons. "They realized they had a long-term problem. Those kids are future consumers. It all had to do with image."

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