Purpose – The paper aims to explore how idiosyncratic motives drive participation in consumer boycotts and how the motives of different adopters (e.g. innovators, laggards) differ. The study seeks to describe how boycott motives are embedded in the fields of consumer resistance and anti-consumption.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper applies a mixed-method approach of qualitative and quantitative methods. Internet postings of 790 boycott supporters are analyzed by means of a content analysis. The relevance of different motives is examined via frequency analysis. Contingency analysis is applied to explore segment-specific motives.
Findings – Using the example of factory relocation, the study identifies several idiosyncratic motives that are contingent to the boycott cause. Additionally, it confirms that the motives of different adopters differ. Individuals who are personally affected or feel solidarity with those affected join the boycott relatively early whereas those who join later consider the pros and cons of the boycott more rationally.
Research limitations/implications – Further research should apply quantitative research methods to ensure the stability of the findings. The external validity needs to be tested for different boycott types.
Practical implications – Some consumers join boycotts because they feel solidarity with those affected by the actions of a company (resistance-boycotter), whereas others generally criticize the free-market economy and are generally prone to boycott any company (anti-consumption-boycotters). Companies need to ensure that both types of boycotters consider them socially responsible.
Originality/value – This study provides evidence that boycott motives are case-contingent. Additionally, this is the first study to demonstrate how motives for joining a boycott vary in the course of time.
1. Introduction and background
Given the growing interdependence of the world’s economies, more and more employees in high-waged industrialized countries are afraid of losing their jobs because multinational enterprises shift subsidiaries to low-wage countries. As national governments often have no control over these relocation decisions, non-governmental organizations try to fill the vacuum of control by calling out consumer boycotts. This type of political action is defined as “an attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the market place” (Friedman, 1985, p. 97). A large number of consumers follow boycott calls to help control multinational enterprises, to retaliate or to vent their frustration (Hoffmann and Mu¨ller, 2009; Klein et al., 2004, Shaw et al., 2006). For example, 39 percent of German consumers agree that companies that reduce jobs, despite making good profits, should be boycotted (Infratest-Dimap, 2006). The fifth wave of the World Values Survey (World Values Survey Association, 2009) shows that a substantial percentage of the population in industrialized countries have already taken part in boycotts for this or other reasons, for example:
. Sweden: 27.9 percent;
. Canada: 21.6 percent;
. US: 21.2 percent;
. Italy: 19.7 percent;
. UK: 17.2 percent;
. Australia: 16.7 percent;
. France: 13.7 percent; and
. Germany: 8.8 percent.
Since boycotts negatively affect the target company’s reputation, sales, and stock price and since they are potentially effective to force change in corporate policy (Davidson et al., 1995) the question of what motivates consumers to join boycotts is relevant from both a managerial and a societal perspective.
Boycotts can be considered a type of anti-consumption, which is a means of consumer resistance. The concepts of anti-consumption (Zavestoski, 2002; Lee et al., 2009) and consumer resistance (Cherrier, 2009; Penaloza and Price, 1993; Roux, 2007) have several aspects in common. However, while anti-consumption is always expressed as the abstention from consumption in a certain domain, consumer resistance also comprises active consumption of specific goods (e.g. consumption of the goods of alternative producers or participation in co-ops). The phenomenon of consumer boycotts is a demonstrative example of the overlap of both concepts. It combines the voluntary reduction of one’s own level of consumption regarding at least one domain or brand, which is a striking characteristic of anti-consumption, with the wish to oppose a dominant force, which is a central aspect of consumer resistance. Within Iyer and Muncy’s (2009) typology of anti-consumers, boycotters can be ascribed to the market activists who reject specific brands rather than refraining from consumption in general for societal rather than personal reasons.
In the period from 1976 to 2009, thirteen articles have empirically analyzed the individual antecedents of boycott participation. To systematize these antecedents, we introduce a taxonomy of three distinct categories:
(2) promoters; and
Triggers are variables that prompt the individual to consider participating in a boycott. Promoters encourage consumers to join, while inhibitors provide reasons not to take part (Figure 1). Only few studies investigate antecedents that can be assigned to the category triggers. These studies focus on negative emotions, such as anger or perceived egregiousness (Klein et al., 2004; Nerb and Spada, 2001). Two types of promoters can be identified. One emphasizes the moral implications of boycott participation including the desire to act morally and the striving for self-enhancement (Klein et al., 2004; Kozinets and Handelman, 1998). The second type concerns boycott effectiveness, which has been analyzed on the individual level (self-efficacy) as well as on a general level (perceived likelihood of success; Sen et al., 2001). Several inhibitors have been discussed in literature. Since boycotting implies constraining one’s previous patterns of consumption, the consumer is less likely to participate if he likes the product and if there are no adequate substitutes (Sen et al., 2001). Furthermore, counter-arguments such as the perceptions of powerlessness impede participation (Klein et al., 2004). The more consumers trust in the management, the less likely they are to boycott (Hoffmann and Mu¨ller, 2009).
Given that boycotts have different causes and different objectives (Friedman, 1999), scholars need to examine the idiosyncratic mechanisms of participation for each particular type of boycott (e.g. labor, religious, ecological boycotts). Earlier studies indicate that some motives are universal and some are specific for the type of boycott under consideration. For example, consumers consider the perceived efficacy and the possibility of free-riding with regard to different types of boycotts (e.g. due to animal experiments, price increases, or factory closures; Klein et al., 2004; Sen et al., 2001). It seems that these antecedents are universal, whereas other drivers are case-specific. For boycotts due to factory closure, for instance, scholars have already ascertained idiosyncratic drivers, such as the danger of a boomerang effect or the reputation of the subsidiary to be closed, which are not transferable to other types of boycott (Hoffmann and Mu¨ller, 2009; Klein et al., 2004). Presumably, participation in this type of boycott is also motivated by several additional factors neglected so far, such as solidarity with the dismissed co-workers and a negative attitude towards globalization. In contrast, participating in other types, is caused by other idiosyncratic drivers. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of boycott participation, this study highlights the importance of case-specific investigations. We show that sole reliance on boycott drivers that are derived from general boycott theories draws an incomplete picture of participation. We investigate whether idiosyncratic drivers of participation have been neglected because scholars based their investigations mainly on general theories of boycotting. We have chosen the example of boycotts due to factory relocations, because they are highly relevant from a practical point of view. In the industrialized countries the fear of becoming unemployed because jobs are exported drives many people to boycott in order to prevent or at least to protest against offshoring. After Nokia announced its planned relocation of the German subsidiary to Romania, 56 percent of German consumers intended to avoid purchasing Nokia mobile phones (Weber, 2008).