Special Session Summary Consumer Activism: Boycotts, Brands and Marketing Communications

N. Craig Smith, London Business School
[ to cite ]:
N. Craig Smith (2005) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Activism: Boycotts, Brands and Marketing Communications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 494-494.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005     Page 494



N. Craig Smith, London Business School


Consumer boycotts and consumer activism more generally are increasingly relevant for marketing decision-making and yet have received little research attention (Klein, Smith and John, 2004; Sen, Gurhan-Canli and Morwitz 2001). A poll of 25,000 citizens in 23 countries found that over the previous year 40% had at least thought about punishing a specific company they viewed as not behaving responsibly and 20% reported actually avoiding a company’s products or speaking against the company to others (Environics 1999). While less mainstream, a diverse assortment of consumer activists from anti-globalization protestors inspired by Naomi Klein’s No Logo to culture jammers, are challenging brand marketing and offering radical critiques of consumer culture. This session focused on why consumers participate in boycotts and how they respond to marketing communications from boycott targets. (Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, the session was unable to include a third paper on how consumer activist attacks on corporate brands question what we mean by branding).

The first paper, by Klein, Smith and John, examined consumer motivations for boycott participation, proposing a cost-benefit approach grounded in the helping behavior and boycott literatures. Their framework had been tested with a nationally representative sample during a high profile boycott of a European firm over factory closures. Support was found for the effect of perceived egregiousness on boycott participation and for cost-benefit motivators (make a difference, self-enhancement, counterarguments and constrained consumption) that directly and indirectly affect boycott participation. Other findings related to the effects of the estimated participation of others and management communications about the factory closures as well as the impact of the boycott on brand image.

In the second paper, Morwitz and Sen examined factors influencing the effectiveness of marketing communications by boycott targets. Pro- and anti-boycott communications play an important role in influencing consumers’ boycott decisions. They asked: how and when should a boycott target respond to the call for a boycott of their products/services? Building on earlier work (Sen et al. 2001), Morwitz and Sen also used a cost-benefit approach to boycott participation, examining anti-boycott information content (that might reduce the perceived benefit of boycotting, increase the perceived cost, or reduce the perceived likelihood of boycott success) and information order (before or after consumers learn about the boycott). A first experiment found a direct effect for information order and that it interacts with the type of information communicated. A second experiment found effects for message focus (costs versus benefits, success likelihood) and message order (with an interaction of message focus and issue importance).

John Lynch, as discussant, observed that the two papers were linked by the question: "What is it that makes people see a company’s action as egregious?" He offered an alternative perspective emphasizing the role of rhetoric. The session concluded with remarks on both papers amidst a wide-ranging discussion.


Environics (1999), The Millennium Poll on Corporate Social Responsibility: Executive Briefing. www.mori.com/polls/1999/millpoll.

Klein, Jill G., N. Craig Smith and Andrew John (2004), "Why We Boycott: Consumer Motivations for Boycott Participation," Journal of Marketing, 68 (July) 2004.

Sen, Sankar, Zeynep Gurhan-Canli and Vicki Morwitz (2001), "Withholding Consumption: A Social Dilemma Perspective on Consumer Boycotts," Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (December), 399-417.