Business » Corporate

EDGE 10.0: The Decade in Boycotts

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Aug 5, 2014

In celebration of our tenth anniversary, EDGE is proud to run the latest installment of "EDGE 10.0: The Decade in," a retrospective series of features looking back on the past ten years of headlines, politics, personalities, trends, music, film, parties, etc... written by Editor in Chief Emeritus Steve Weinstein, and the current editorial staff at EDGE.

As the premiere source for news of interest to LGBT readers, EDGE has consistently been reporting on boycotts, both pro- and anti-LGBT. In this, its 10th year, it's worth looking back on the way boycotts have permeated EDGE's coverage.

Boycotts have a venerable pedigree in the modern gay rights movement. The two earliest boycotts by the gay community were among the most effective. Like many other jurisdictions, the Dade County Commission, responding to pressure from Miami, Fla., actvists, had passed a bill early that year barring anti-gay discrimination in employment, housing and public services.

A local celebrity, singer Anita Bryant, was alarmed by what she saw as infiltration of homosexuals into the mainstream. Homosexuals, she said, "are trying to recruit our children into homosexuality." Bryant spearheaded what she unabashedly called a "crusade" against the Dade County ordinance and got far more than enough signatures to force a popular vote, which was overwhelmingly a defeat for LGBT rights.

Protests in New York and San Francisco were followed by a determined campaign to undermine Bryant's clout using economic means. Bryant claimed she was being blacklisted. But the biggest effect was on Florida orange juice. Bryant was the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, which initially backed her. By 1980, an organized boycott of Florida orange juice resulted in Bryant's contract not being renewed.

That was followed by another boycott against Coors Beer, which at the time was owned by the family of Adolph Coors, one of the most prominent supporters of right-wing, anti-union and homophobic causes in the country. Bars refused to serve Coors beer, and the company did a 180-degree turn on its policies.

Last year, there was a similar campaign when activists targeted Stolichnaya Vodka in what EDGE called "the Stoli War." While many bars participated in the boycott, some, such as the now-closed Splash Bar in New York, participated in a Stoli-sponsored campaign to find the "Most Original Stoli Guy."

The boycott was in response to Russia's virulently anti-gay law and anti-gay vigilantes who were beating up LGBT protesters -- or anyone perceived to be gay -- on the streets of the country's cities while luring young gay men to meetings on the Internet. The boycott received a great deal of publicity because of the timing, the weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

But EDGE had been noting boycotts long before then.

In the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 8, for example, activists called for a boycott of two San Diego Area hotels owned by a major donor to ballot initiative. Earlier that year, the American Family Association called for a nationwide boycott of McDonalds because of the fast-food giant's alleged support for the "gay agenda."

In response, McDonald's global chief diversity officer released a statement supporting "our people and their right to live and work in an inclusive society." The boycott appeared to have the same effect as much-ballyhooed similar AFA efforts against other corporate giants such as The Walt Disney Co. and Ford Motors -- which is to say, none at all.

The year before, right-wing groups tried to hurt the bottom line of Miller Brewing Co. (the very gay-friendly owner of Coors Beer, among other products) for sponsoring one of their bĂȘtes noirs, the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. It too, didn't gain any traction among consumers.

More recently, the group One Million Moms tried to claim victory in a boycott of J.C. Penney because it had signed out-gay lesbian powerhouse entertainer Ellen DeGeneres. But Wall Street and retail analysts unanimously dismissed the campaign as having exponentially less to do with the retailer's troubled bottom line than non-LGBT issues such as a disastrous campaign to do away with sales in favor of "everyday sale pricing," a tired product line and not keeping pace with changing consumer tastes.

A far more telling sign of just how little people regarded anti-gay boycotts was much more readily on display when the National Organization for Marriage, to great fanfare, announced a boycott of Starbucks in 2012.

The Seattle-based coffee chain was a major financer of the successful marriage-equality referendum that year in its home state of Washington. When confronted with a questioner at its annual shareholder meeting about the support, CEO Howard Schultz, remained unapologetic about pro-LGBT corporate policies and financial backing as "being the kind of company that embraces diversity."

In the months following the boycott, Starbucks' sales and its stock price both went on a very definite upswing. Analysts noted that part of the explanation could be the improving economy; but some mentioned the over 200,000 social media messages proclaiming that users would specifically patron Starbucks outlets.

Rebuffed in the States, NOM announced that it was taking its action on the road, to the Middle East, where coffee is an even more integral part of the culture than it is here. Since Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol, coffee houses are the most popular meeting places, and coffee the beverage of choice for a quick buzz. Rather than getting any traction, however, the campaign not only fizzled out, but also got NOM unwanted publicity for targeting Starbucks outlets for possible terrorist bombings and local personnel for hassling or worse.

On the other side of the equation, also in 2012, a proposed boycott of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food franchise, proved to be a non-starter and something of a public relations mess for our side -- at least temporarily.

LGBT activists and organizations reacted with fury after CEO Dan Cathay condemned marriage equality in a radio interview. As EDGE reported, "Chick-fil-A officials released a statement and said the company follows biblically based values." Further fueling the flames were reports gleaned from various anti marriage-equality organizations that showed Cathay as a major donor.

After Fox News personality Mike Huckabee announced a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," news reports showed long lines on a hot August day throughout the country. Interestingly, after the furor died down, the company quietly announced that it was getting out entirely of the advocacy game and would no longer fund organizations looking to influence legislation or public opinion on LGBT issues.

Ultimately, such actions on both sides of the equation bring up the thorny question of whether boycotts remain effective. Ironically, social media have not only made boycotts much easier to organize; they may have so multiplied boycotts to the point that they have lost their effectiveness.

In a 2013 story, "Boycott Battles: Do They Really Work," Tim Curran cited a study that indicated that the American public by and large had burned out on boycotts on both sides of LGBT issues: Only 13 percent of adults said they would boycott Chick-fil-A outlets; while only 11 percent would boycott a company that advocated for marriage equality.

Just the same, groups pro- and anti- keep at it. Last year, there was a brief call for a boycott of the most popular Italian imported pasta brand when Guido Barilla, the head of Barilla Pasta told a radio station, "For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the fundamental values of the company ... If the gays don't like it, they can go eat another brand."

That's just what many Americans were planning on doing before the company did a quick backtrack on its Facebook page, where Guido Barilla posted an abject policy. "I have the utmost respect for homosexuals and for freedom of expression to anyone," he (or at least his handlers) wrote. For good measure, he added, "I respect marriages between persons of the same sex."

And after Kraft Foods was confronted with angry protests after it came out strongly in favor of LGBT rights and marriage equality in 2013, the company didn't back down. What fueled the anger specifically was the posting of an image of a rainbow stack of Oreos on the company's Facebook page.

The ensuing controversy not only resulted in a huge amount of publicity for the venerable cookie, but also a "big bump in sales," as Killian Melloy reported here. Being the target of anti-LGBT groups, it seems, had become something that allowed products that consumers took for granted or were considered old hat to bump up their image.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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