The Russian Vodka Boycott Is Working, Whether You Like It or Not

It's time to stop thinking measuring how successful a boycott by how much financial damage it does. The truth is that boycotts, including the gay Russian vodka boycott, almost never hurt the target's bottom line. Instead, experts tell us, the measure of a modern day boycott's success should actually be the amount of press it generates. 

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In the last 16 days, gay bars around the world have joined in the #dumpstoli campaign, the movement created by Dan Savage in late July asking gay and straight bars across the country to boycott Russian vodka to protest the country's aggressive, anti-gay laws. We've seen photo-ops of smiley, muscled bartenders pouring Stoli onto streets. There is a hashtag. There was even a protest of the gay "Stoli Guy" beauty competition. 

There has also been pushback—people who say that Stoli is being unfairly targeted. Latvian gay men and women have also spoken up and reminded people that Stoli is produced in Latvia. and Stoli's CEO has even come out and voiced his support for the gay community—an act that could get him punished in Russia.

The inevitable question as we approach the third week of this boycott and ever closer to 2014 Olympics in Russia, now is: Is this boycott working? And further: What does "working" mean? Is its success a good or bad thing?

Everyone knows what a boycott is: a movement in which a group of people stop using or consuming a certain product in order to affect change. But not everyone knows that boycotts, almost always, are actually pretty ineffective when it comes to damaging a company or getting a country to change its ways.

"In our study, what we found was that boycotts almost never hurt the bottom line of the target," Mae McDonnell an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at Georgetown University, told The Atlantic Wire in an interview. "Boycotts don't do what they're ostensibly made to do," she added.

McDonnell's studied 221 boycotts between 1990 and 2005 for her study "Keeping Up Appearances: Reputational Threat and Impression Management after Social Movement Boycott." What she and co-author Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern, found was that these boycotts never really spurred the company to change its ways, hurt the company financially, or changed the way the average person thinks of a product (e.g. a person who likes gay rights may not necessarily dump his stash or switch brands if he's been life-long Stoli drinker). "Consumers are slow to change their behavior even when they support a boycott’s ideals," the study's abstract reads.

McDonnell also points out that the vodka boycott is called a "proxy boycott" where people attempt to punish, Stoli in this example, companies as a symbol of discontent with a bigger entity, like the country of Russia. Perhaps the biggest examples of a "proxy boycott" was when Arabic countries boycotted companies Starbucks and McDonald's to protest the U.S. foreign policy.

If movements don't put a company in financial trouble and aren't convincing enough to change consumers' ways, do boycotts achieve anything at all? McDonnell explained that boycotts that gain media attention spur the most philanthropic reaction from companies, but she also points out that the reaction doesn't necessarily have to be related to the boycott itself. "Companies increase their charitable activity after they're boycotted to dilute the negative press they're seeking by providing positive press themselves" she told me. And further: "firms are likely to react with a larger increase in prosocial claims when the boycott is more threatening (it receives more media attention)," her study reads. The bottom line: companies don't really have an incentive to act unless a boycott gets media attention.

If you take into account that Stoli's CEO is now publicly announcing he and the company are allies of gay rights, McDonnell's theorem works. And there's further proof. Here's a look at the Google trend results for searches on the terms "gay rights Russia" (blue), "gay vodka" (red) and "gay boycott" (yellow):

Notice how the lines all spiked at the end of July, when Savage introduced the boycott. And notice how quiet the blue line was throughout most of the summer, even though these anti-gay laws were being debated and passed in early June (the spike) and signed into law at the end of June and the beginning of July. And what that means, as the blue line shows us, is that more people are Googling for information about the gay rights in Russia—a good thing. "The amount of time the boycott can continue to last and capture attention of the media, is a good litmus test of how important the public thinks the issue is," McDonnell told me.

Professor Joel Penney at Montclair State University says that though awareness is one of the bonuses from this boycott, he believes that singling out Stoli is misguided because of the company's history of advocating for gay rights. Penney is an expert and studies social advocacy in the digital world and on social media. "I suppose that sharing information about the vodka boycott on social media could have similar effects like raising awareness about the treatment of the LGBT community in Russia and inspiring people to get more involved in this struggle," Penney wrote to me in an e-mail, when asked about the net positive, if there was any, in this vodka boycott. "If that is truly the goal of this campaign, then it may indeed lead to some good. However, this goal could also be achieved in many other ways, such as simply sharing news articles about Putin's anti-gay policies."

Ultimately, the boycott has informed more people about gay rights in Russia, and it probably hasn't hurt Stoli too badly, so there's a net positive. That makes it harder for politicians, companies, and organizations involved with Russia and the 2014 Olympics to keep quiet on the issue. Hopefully that means an increase in international pressure on Putin and Russian lawmakers to make life better for LGBT people, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen. And yes, Putin and Russian lawmakers, not gay vodka boycotters or slacktivists, have the final say on policy. But the very fact that we'ret talking about Russian gay rights months before the 2014 Olympics is an achievement.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.