Through Advisories or Boycotts, Can Companies Be Shamed into Change?

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NAACP Boycott
An American Airlines Boeing 747 sitting on the tarmac. (Courtesy: WikiMedia)

For only the second time in its history, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has opted to issue a travel advisory to its members. Citing several incidents where African-American travelers were allegedly ignored or mishandled, the NAACP has officially cautioned African-Americans about traveling with or patronizing American Airlines

“The NAACP for several months now has been monitoring a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African-American passengers, specific to American Airlines,” the longtime civil rights organization’s statement said. “In light of these confrontations, we have today taken the action of issuing national advisory alerting travelers — especially African Americans — to exercise caution, in that booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions. This travel advisory is in effect beginning today, October 24, 2017, until further notice.”

This advisory comes at a troubling time for the airline industry. There has recently been multiple high-profile embarring cases of passenger abuse, such as that of Dr. David Dao, who was recorded being dragged and bloodied from a United Airlines plane seat he purchased simply because the airline wanted the seat for its own crew. The airlines find themselves struggling to prevent consumer backlash from a highly connected social media-savvy populace.

Travel advisories are typically issued by governments warning citizens of hazards that may affect the viability of safely traveling or doing business in a contentious region. Advisories are issued when extreme caution is felt warranted, such as the presence of civil war and/or military strife, frequent terrorist attacks, or unstable infrastructure. These advisories are temporary and are lifted when the adverse conditions change.

Private organizations, such as AAA and AARP, have offered travel advisories in response to atypical circumstances, but the practice is rare for non-governmental organizations. The NAACP previously issued a travel advisory against the state of Missouri in response to reports of aggressive police targeting of African-Americans. This advisory was lifted when the state agreed to speak with the group and consented to a reform plan.

This raises the question of whether “corporate shaming” actions such as boycotts and advisories can work. If an advisory is nothing more than a warning, can it be argued that this episode can be a call to action? If not, then why should anyone pay attention to this?

Even though the NAACP offered the advisory as a symbolic gesture the group intended it to spark a national discussion and meaningful reforms.

“All travelers must be guaranteed the right to travel without fear of threat, violence or harm,” Derrick Johnson, the newly-installed president and CEO of the NAACP, said. “The growing list of incidents suggesting racial bias reflects an unacceptable corporate culture and involves behavior that cannot be dismissed as normal or random. We expect an audience with the leadership of American Airlines to air these grievances and to spur corrective action. Until these and other concerns are addressed, this national travel advisory will stand.”

The NAACP enumerated four incidents of potential racial insensitivity and alleged racial bias in this claim against American Airlines in a press release. These include the case of an African American man who was forced to give up his paid seat because he addressed disrespectful comments lobbed at him by unruly white passengers and an African-American woman being downgraded from first-class to coach at the ticket counter while her white traveling partner was allowed to remain in first-class.

The NAACP also listed a case where a pilot ordered the removal of an African-American woman because she complained about a seat reassignment that was done without her consent and a situation where an African-American woman and her child were removed from a flight when she asked that her stroller be retrieved from checked baggage before she disembarked. The NAACP acknowledged that these cases are known only because the passengers asserted their rights and spoke out; these cases likely only represent a small portion of the offenses passengers must put up with daily.

While an advisory is not a boycott, it is a form of “corporate shaming” where there is an organized attempt to steer customers away from a company for a perceived ill. This is the first time the NAACP has issued an advisory against a corporate entity; previously, the civil rights organization called for a travel advisory against the state of Missouri following reports of aggressive police profiling and targeting of African-Americans. The advisory was rescinded following discussions with state officials and the implementation of a reform plan.

Under certain situations, “corporate shaming” can produce viable results. Mike Catania is the chief technology officer at PromotionCode, a savings and coupons site. Following the outcry against Donald Trump, Catania noticed a shift in buying patterns.

“After the public backlash from supporting Trump-involved companies, several retailers bowed to public pressure, starting as early as February of this year,” Catania said to Atlanta Black Star. “We saw decreases in sales by 12 percent – 20 percent (compared to 2016) for Nordstrom’s, K-Mart, and Sears during the peak of the #GrabYourWallet campaign. [All three] retailers were removed from the boycott list in February, and their sales and coupon usage had reverted to 2016-level numbers by April.”

Targeted boycotts against a single brand tend to be more effective than larger pushes. An example of this is the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, where it took slightly more than 12 months for Browder v. Gayle to take effect, ending busing discrimination. However, even with these type of boycotts, typically the goal of the corporate entity is to restore its reputation and not necessarily to remedy the wrong. This can be positive, as in the case of Nike, who, following a 1990s call for a boycott against its use of child labor, reformed itself into a sustainability leader.

Most times, however, the change is shallow and temporary. It should be remembered that in the immediate aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, white violence against Black bus riders – including the sniper-style shooting of a pregnant woman — effectively led to a return of Black riders sitting in the back of the buses. Worse, Montgomery moved to strengthen segregation in other sections of life citywide.

However, the boycott is considered a success because it elevated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement to national prominence and served as a domino leading to the eventual signing of the Voting Rights Act.

When Black celebrities call for boycotts the effects can be important even if the targeted company’s sales don’t seem to drop dramatically. In 2006 Jay-Z declared he was renouncing all association with the premium champagne brand Cristal after the company’s said in an interview that he was uncomfortable with his product’s wild popularity in hip-hop circles. Other rappers followed Jay-Z’s lead, and just the small drop in sales from turned-off black consumers had a cascading effect that led to a glut in supply of the formerly exclusive brand.

Boycotts can be successful. However, it is important to recognize that this success is typically limited.

Boycotts tend to serve as a platform to promote the finger-pointer. According to Ethical Consumer, there were 48 national boycotts as of March 2017. Most of these boycotts will ultimately fail to significantly change consumer patterns or meaningfully affect corporate policies. However, the boycotts themselves gave the organizations a platform to rally on and widespread recognition of the issue. Even in cases where there was a noticeable effect, such as the 2003 American boycott of French wines, where domestic sales dropped 26 percent, sales normalized to pre-boycott levels six months later.

Typically, boycotts are poorly planned. Brandon Steele, a stakeholder engagement senior manager at Future 500, explained to the Guardian that most boycotts do not give companies a viable option to move forward with the boycotters’ requests. The company’s natural posture would be to stem the bleeding and continue forward.

Steele explained that the best boycotts lay out two clear options for the company. “In one, the brand loses value because it is connected with a problem,” Steele said. “In the other, the brand gains value when it is perceived as a leader. Combined with a smart, do-able ask, a brand might be inclined to sign on without the need for a public boycott.”

This reflects directly on how much public opinion affects the company’s bottom line. In the case of Nike — a high-end athletic gear manufacturer — poor consumer image could have significantly undermined profits. Usually for a boycott to work, one must offer the company a carrot with the stick. However, as a politician’s boycott of a business can serve as a springboard for legislative change, sometimes pointing a finger is enough.

Second, even if a boycott is able to draw a corporate response, it is usually limited to face-saving. Without a preferable alternative, the impetus for a company to address boycotters is to move the issue far enough along that it is no longer attention-worthy.

It is worth noting, however, if the issue is big enough and the boycott bears the potential to be a large enough disruptor, this impetus to save face may actually lead to the protestors getting what they want. The boycott of North Carolina — where major businesses, entertainers, the federal government, and sports leagues cancel events, blocked business upgrades, and moved to stop doing business in the state because of the passage of its anti-LGBT legislation— ultimately led to the rollback of the state’s “Bathroom Law.”

Passage of the repeal, however, was a harrowing task with state Republicans blocking the effort at every step. It was only the election of Democratic governor Roy Cooper that allowed the state to consider addressing the boycott.

A boycott, within itself, is not enough to force change. Boycotts work by engaging the citizenry, enraging them to take action. Ultimately, public pressure forces political reform.

Talking publicly about these issues, however, may be the first step to fixing the problem. American is not the only airlines with customer service problems with people of color. However, by making an example of American Airlines, a public discussion may start that could lead to lasting changes.

“Public shaming does work when there is a critical mass of vocal advocates, but the grim reality is that there are so many corporations doing unsavory things that there’s an outrage fatigue by consumers,” Catania added. “In April, United was the target of a boycott after dragging a passenger off a plane, but their stock hit a yearly high within sixty days and beat its quarterly earnings, suggesting that boycotts are only as effective as the number of alternatives available to consumers.”

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