Every few days I get an e-mail from one or another Christian group that wants me to boycott something or try to get someone else to boycott. Though most of the e-mails I get are from conservatives, liberals are by no means immune to the urge to boycott. I’m not a boycotter. I don’t even think official “boycotts,” as in economic sanctions, generally work all that well, and they don’t have the publicity and “forbidden fruit” effects.
So here we have the Chinese government, upset that people are sticking pins into dolls, and thus creating a black market, raising the price, and increasing the popularity. They have the force of law, but the force of culture just may be stronger. (Newsweek story Curse of the Bureaucrats.)
Boycotts create publicity. It’s a simple fact. If you say, “boycott Walmart,” and then explain that even though their prices are lower, one should avoid shopping there because of higher moral values, what you have done is given Walmart priceless publicity for their lower prices. My wife recently worked for a short period of time at a grocery chain that competes with Walmart in our area. Of course the employees would all hear the talk about bad Walmart, and the much better service at their store. But when we bought groceries at Walmart we would frequently encounter other employees of this chain. Bluntly, we, and they, bought groceries where we could most afford them.
One conservative boycott I was invited to join was against the NBC show The Book of Daniel. I was supposed to urge my affiliate not to carry the program because it was so bad. Instead, I blogged about it, told people they should watch the initial episode (assuming they were even vaguely interested) and decide for themselves. I e-mailed my local affiliate and suggested they should air the show and let us, the viewers, decide. Well, The Book of Daniel was not a good enough show for even the publicity effect of a national boycott to help. I suspect they had many more viewers of that first episode, but most of us decided we didn’t really care that much. On the other hand there was the show NYPD Blue, which also was the target of boycott calls, and which succeeded and prospered, substantially due to the publicity generated.
Boycotts make a show “forbidden fruit.” Face it, ever since the Garden of Eden, people have an attraction for things that are forbidden. I don’t think just permitting everything is necessarily the answer, but we do need to consider the attraction of forbidden things when we are trying to make rules. This is likely what China is running into with the voodoo dolls. A craze like that would probably pass on its own, but you make it illegal and see how hard it is to root out, even under a repressive regime.
There may be occasional, rare times when such action is actually profitable. I’m not certain of the figures, but I think that South Africa under apartheid was one such case. The government’s activities were so universally condemned, and people could easily enough find alternative sources, so boycotts did likely help bring the government down. But I think such things work rarely and irregularly, whether privately or government sponsored.
Besides these political boycott campaigns, I hope we’ll think about sanctions and how they are likely to work in international relations. We just came off of some 10 years of economic sanctions prior to the invasion of Iraq. Just how did anyone benefit? We’re looking at sanctions on Iran. Will they really work, or will they just make certain politicians feel better and let them tell their consituents, “Yes, we’re doing something about Iran. We’re calling for sanctions.”