Exploring Motivations For Participation in a Consumer Boycott

ABSTRACT - While the threat of boycotts has become an important consideration in management decision-making, there has been little research of factors influencing an individual’s motivation to participate in a boycott. This paper examines self-enhancement and need for consistency as possible explanations. It also adapts theories about pressure group motivations underlying calls for boycotts to explain individual motives for boycott participation. An empirical study found perceived egregiousness of a company’s actions predicted boycott participation. However, the findings demonstrate that people differ in their reasons for participating in a boycott and that most individuals have mixed motivations, though instrumental motivations appear to predominate.


Jill G. Klein, N. Craig Smith, and Andrew John (2002) ,"Exploring Motivations For Participation in a Consumer Boycott", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 363-369.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 363-369


Jill G. Klein, INSEAD, France

N. Craig Smith, London Business School

Andrew John, INSEAD, France


While the threat of boycotts has become an important consideration in management decision-making, there has been little research of factors influencing an individual’s motivation to participate in a boycott. This paper examines self-enhancement and need for consistency as possible explanations. It also adapts theories about pressure group motivations underlying calls for boycotts to explain individual motives for boycott participation. An empirical study found perceived egregiousness of a company’s actions predicted boycott participation. However, the findings demonstrate that people differ in their reasons for participating in a boycott and that most individuals have mixed motivations, though instrumental motivations appear to predominate.


Friedman (1999, p. 4) defines consumer boycotts as "an attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the marketplace." In the early 1990s, the business press appeared to agree both that consumer boycotts work and that they were increasing in number. The Economist (1990, p. 69), for example, concluded: "Pressure groups are besieging American companies, politicizing business and often presenting executives with impossible choices. Consumer boycotts are becoming an epidemic for one simple reason: they work." That judgment is still current. As Friedman (1999) notes, however, their frequency, scale and impact are difficult to quantify, in part because boycott targets are generally reluctant to disclose a boycott’s effectiveness and influence on management decison-making (including statistics on reductions in sales).

Recent prominent consumer boycotts include the European boycott of Shell over its plan to dump the Brent Spar oil platform at sea; the U.S. boycott of Texaco over alleged racial remarks by senior management; and the U.S. boycott of Mitsubishi over alleged sexual harassment in the workplace. All three of these achieved most, if not all, of their organizers’ goals. Commenting on the Shell boycott, The Economist (1995, p.15) suggested that "it may be no bad thing for consumers to ask for a higher standard of behavior from the firms they buy from. The best companies make a point of explaining their policies Shell thought it had done enough explaining, but had not. Regardless of the merits of its case, it made a costly blunder." Shell’s problems were compounded by public reactions to its involvement in Nigeria and the company’s failure to use its influence to prevent the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogonis by the Nigerian authorities. Criticism of Shell by environmentalists and human rights activists and the associated boycotts were said to be key contributors to a fundamental transformation in how the company strives to live up to its social and ethical responsibilities (Cowe 1999; Shell 1998).

As the Shell example suggests, boycotts can serve as a form of social control of business and as a mechanism for promoting corporate social responsibility (Smith 1990). But boycotts may also be socially harmful. For example, it is likely that Shell’s decision to dismantle the Brent Spar oil platform on land, as a result of the boycott, was less environmentally responsible than the planned disposal at sea. Moreover, boycotts may be organized by groups with many different values and political persuasions (contrast the Texaco boycott with that of Disney called by the Southern Baptist Convention over Disney’s position on homosexuality, including its policy of extending health benefits to partners of homosexual employees).

Friedman (1999), in a recent comprehensive study, finds that boycotts have involved a wide variety of protest groups, target organizations, and social concerns. Nonetheless, in all cases, boycott effectiveness is very dependent upon consumer participation. Although boycotts are clearly important from business and societal perspectives, little research attention has been given to why individuals choose to participate in a consumer boycott. This paper reports an exploratory study of factors influencing an individual’s motivation to participate in a boycott.


Boycott effectiveness entails a reduction in sales of the boycotted product; it can be distinguished from boycott success, which is the attainment of the boycott’s objectives and may occur without a reduction in sales (Smith 1990). Boycott effectiveness is highly dependent upon consumer participation (a reduction in sales has occurred in some boycotts as a result of picketing or other actions by boycott organizers that hindered product distribution). Garrett’s (1987) review of the boycott literature hypothesized six factors in boycott participation: the awareness of consumers; the values of potential consumer participants; the consistency of boycott goals with participant attitudes; the cost of participation; social pressure; and the credibility of the boycott leadership. This list is probably incomplete (Smith 1990) as well as largely untested. Although some studies have looked more broadly at factors in boycott effectiveness and sucess (e.g., Friedman 1999; Smith 1990) and although some empirical studies have examined which consumers are more likely to incorporate ethical concerns in their consumer decision-making (e.g., Webster 1975; Auger, Devinney and Louviere 1999), little specific empirical work has been conducted on consumer motivations for boycott participation.

In the study reported in this paper, we examine self-enhancement and need for consistency as possible explanations for boycott participation. Theories of the self suggest that the maintenance or enhancement of self-esteem is a fundamental motive in human behavior (Baumeister 1998; Pittman 1998). Accordingly, we might expect consumer motivation to participate in a boycott to be influenced by esteem maintenance or enhancement. This might occur in a variety of ways. Boycotts are often organized by public interest groups claiming to represent fashionable or anti-establishment (and sometimes anti-business) positions. These groups also lay claim to the moral high ground or, at least, espouse a commitment to moral values that the firms they target for boycotts are generally less able or are unwilling to do (Smith 1990, 2001). Members of these groups often describe themselves as working for a cause (e.g., the organizers of the famous California grape boycott in the late 1960s referred to "La Causa"). Thus, participating in a consumer boycott is potentially a way of identifying with fashionable attitudes and important moral valuesCoften at a low costCand this helps the boycotter feel good about himself or herself. Further, boycott participation is often a public act (e.g., not wearing Nike sneakers, wearing a badge proclaiming support for the boycott) and this may also be self-enhancing. Although research findings are mixed, it has been theorized that group identification is motivated by the need for self-enhancement, so we might expect some individuals to identify with public interest groups in order to repair or maintain positive self-esteem (Brewer and Brown 1998).

From a more cognitive standpoint, we would not, however, wish to deny the importance of the individual’s belief that boycott participation may help remedy a 'wrong’ or, at least, disassociate the individual from the company engaged in the wrong, though these behaviours also may be self-enhancing. Hence, we theorize that boycott participation may represent an opportunity for self-enhancement because of a boycotter’s identification with the 'cause’ and the group promoting the boycott as well as a sense having done something on a matter of some importance to the individual. Having 'clean hands’ through boycott participation also may be self-enhancing (as we further discuss below).

Theories of the self also suggest that people wish to confirm what they already believe about themselves and thus consistency is another important motive in human behavior, though not, perhaps, as dominant as self-enhancement (Baumeister 1998; Pittman 1998). Noting the shift in psychology away from the explanatory utility of the consistency principle, Cialdini et al. (1995) offer a possible explanation for difficulties found in studies attempting to replicate consistency effects. They suggest that individuals may differ in their preference for consistency and that this dispositional preference may moderate consistency tendencies. Accordingly, we theorize that individuals with a high need for consistency may be more likely to participate in boycotts because of the heightened desire to avoid inconsistency between their purchasing behavior and knowledge of corporate conduct of which they disapprove.

The study reported also attempts to incorporate theories about public interest group motivations underlying calls for boycottsCadapted, however, to explain individual motives for boycott participation. Friedman (1999) identifies two main purposes for boycotts: instrumental and expressive. [Friedman also discusses punitive boycotts, which for our purposes can be thought of as a type of expressive boycott, and catalytic boycotts, which are called simply as a means of generating publicity, and do not hinge on the motivations of consumers.] An instrumental boycott aims to coerce the target to change a disputed policy. Goals here are often stated in precise and measurable ways, such as the lowering of prices, or the signing of union contracts for workers. Expressive boycotts, by contrast, are a more generalized form of protest that communicates consumers’ displeasure with the actions of the target. Typically, this form of protest is characterized by a vague statement of goals and may simply vent the frustrations of the protesting group.

This categorization has generally been applied at the level of the group calling for the boycott. For example, if the organizations’ goals are to bring about a specific change, the boycott is viewed as instrumental. At the level of the individual consumer, however, it seems likely that participation may be driven by a variety of motives, some expressive and some instrumental. A consumer might be angry at a firm and also hope to change its practices. There is also a third set of possible motivations: consumers may participate in order to feel good about themselves and avoid guilt (Smith 1990). Following Smith, we refer to this as the "clean hands" motivation. In the present study, we examine whether consumers are indeed motivated by these three different factors.

Finally, although not directly relevant to consumer motivations to participate in a boycott, an important issue that remains unresolved in the boycott literature is the impact of a boycott on product judgments. Klein, Ettenson and Morris (1998) found that consumer anger was unrelated to consumers’ judgments of product quality. In their study of consumers in Nanjing, China, anger toward Japan predicted product ownership, but not product judgments. In other words, Chinese consumers refused to purchase Japanese products, but did not denigrate the quality of these goods. An early boycott study, however, suggests that judgments of product quality might be positively affected by a boycott. Miller and Sturdivant’s (1977) investigation of a fast food chain boycott found that attitudes toward the chain (for example, taste, cleanliness, and service) actually improved over the course of the protest. One explanation for this finding is that by idealizing the boycotted good, the consumer feels more virtuous about boycott participating in the protest.

The Present Study

The current study examines consumer motivation for boycott participation in the context of an actual boycott. A number of groups, many of which are coordinated by the International Baby Milk Action Network (IBMAN), have called for the boycott of NestlT products due to NestlT’s marketing practices in promoting infant formula in poor countries. IBMAN points to the dangers of formula feeding in developing countries (most notably, lack of clean water to use in mixing formula powder). Further, it maintains that NestlT is exploiting vulnerable consumers and contributes to increased infant mortality. In this study, we exposed subjects to information about the NestlT boycott and examined intentions to participate, motivations for participating, and actual product choice.

Because this study is exploratory in nature, specific hypotheses were not proposed. We examined the effects of the perceived egregiousness of NestlT’s actions on intent to boycott, boycott participation and brand image. We expected perceived egregiousness to be a predictor of boycott participation, with many observers of boycotts referring to the 'moral outrage’ of boycott participants (Smith 1990). Going beyond this basic explanation, however, we attempted to establish whether self-enhancement and need for consistency motivated boycott participation. Furthr, we investigated whether consumers do indeed possess multiple motivations for boycott participation and we examined whether instrumental, expressive or clean hands motivations dominate as reasons for boycott participation. Finally, we examined the impact of boycott participation on product judgments.



One hundred and fifteen undergraduate students at a mid-Atlantic university participated in the study. Subjects were approached individually over a number of days in a large university lounge and were asked to complete a short survey. In return for their time, respondents were told that they would receive either candy or a pen as a gift. Of the 155 students approached, 74% agreed to participate in the study. The age of participants ranged from 16 to 50, with most of the respondents of college age, and a mean age of 22.5. Sixty-two percent of the sample was female.

Stimuli, Measures and Procedure

Overview. Subjects filled out a survey in which they were exposed to information about the NestlT boycott. When they completed the survey, they were offered a gift in exchange for their participation. Two-thirds of the subjects were allowed to choose from a bag of candy in which one of the candies was a Kit-Kat bar, mentioned in the survey as a NestlT product to be boycotted. The Kit-Kat bar was the only chocolate option among the candies. (Although the candy selection was made in a public place, in most instances it was only observable by the survey administrator. One-third of the subjects were randomly selected to be in the control group and were given a pen as a gift.

Stimuli and Measures. The first part of the survey asked subjects to rate their liking of four different foods (e.g., McDonald’s hamburgers) on an 11-point scale, with higher numbers indicating greater liking. The key question in the set asked subjects to indicate their liking for chocolate. They then read a printed web page modified from the web page of an IBFAN group: [http://www.babymilkaction.org/boycott/boyct27.html]

NestlT, the world’s largest baby food company, increases profits by promoting artificial infant feeding in violation of the World Health Organisation’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which stipulates that artificial feeding should not be promoted as a substitute for breastfeeding. 

NestlT knows that once a bottle has come between a mother and her child breastfeeding is more likely to fail and the company has gained a customer. Because of NestlT’s continued disrespect for the International Code and infant health the company is subject to a consumer boycott of its products in 19 countries, including the United States. 

The boycott will continue until NestlT abides by the International Code and subsequent World Health Assembly Resolutions in policy and practice.


+ provides information to mothers which promotes bottle feed and discourages breastfeeding 

+ donates free samples and supplies to health facilities to encourage bottle feeding 

+ gives inducements to health workers for promoting its products 

+ does not provide clear warnings on labels of the benefits of breastfeeding and dangers of artificial feeding. In some cases the labels are in a language that mothers are unlikely to understand 

NestlT makes a profit while others count the cost.

Reversing the decline in breastfeeding could save the lives of 1.5 million infants every year according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), (Ref: State of the World’s Children 1991).

UNICEF states that in areas with unsafe water, a bottle-fed baby is 25 times more likely to die from diarrhoea than a breastfed one. 

The expense of bottle feeding affects all members of the family, impoverishing those already poor. In the developing world baby milks are over-diluted to make them last longer, which can cause malnutrition. 

Breastmilk is free, safe and best for all babies - but NestlT know that if they don’t get babies on the bottle, they don’t do business.

Subjects then read a list of boycotted products. (The list on the actual web site was quite long, but was shortened for this study to make it more likely that subjects saw that Kit-Kat candy bars were included in the list.)

How you can help with the Campaign Against NestlT...

$ Stop buying NestlT products, including:

$ Candy:

$ Kit Kat

$ Baby Ruth

$ Butterfinger

$ Beverages

$ Nescafe

$ Nestea

$ Perrier

After reading this information about the boycott, subjects completed a questionnaire. The first three questions measured the perceived egregiousness of NestlT’s actions (e.g., "I think that NestlT’s actions are very wrong."). Next, subjects indicated their intention to participate in the boycott. They were then asked to list reaons why they might participate in the boycott, reasons why they might not participate, and what they might think or feel if they purchased a NestlT product. (The present paper does not focus on the analyses of these open-ended responses.) Subjects then completed a constant sum scale in which they allotted 100 points across eight possible reasons for participating in the boycott (plus an "other" category). Each reason was related to either an instrumental, expressive, or clean hands motivation . Next, subjects rated NestlT on three dimensions (untrustworthy B trustworthy; bad B good; not at all ethical B very ethical) and then completed the brief form of the Cialdini et al. (1995) preference for consistency scale. Finally, they provided demographic information about themselves and indicated whether they were already familiar with the Nestle boycott before seeing the questionnaire (12.6% said they knew about the boycott before the study).

After completing the survey, one-third of the participants were given an inexpensive pen in gratitude for their participation. The other subjects were asked to choose candy from a clear plastic bag carried by the researcher. The researcher made sure that all participants, including those in the pen (control) condition, saw the candy. This ensured that all subjects were equally primed to desire candy/chocolate. Subjects selected from three different treats: two generally unpopular candies ('Mary Janes’ and 'Caramel Creams’Cboth second-tier brands) and a miniature Kit-Kat bar. (Unpopular candies were chosen to increase the cost of boycotting NestlT by forgoing the Kit-Kat bar.) After their choice, subjects were asked to indicate how much they liked Kit-Kat bars, and how much they liked chocolate.


Egregiousness, Intent and Participation

Two items ("I think that NestlT’s actions are very wrong" and "NestlT’s promotion of artificial infant feeding is inexcusable") were averaged as a measure of egregiousness. (A third item was not included because of non-significant correlations with the other two items). There was variance in perceptions of egregiousness with 20% or the subjects giving ratings of 3 or below (on a 7-point scale) and 36% of the subjects giving ratings of 5 or above. The mean was 4.67, and the standard deviation was 1.58.



Across the full sample, 45.1% reported that they would definitely or probably participate in the Nestle boycott (46.6% absent the control group; i.e., only the "non-pen" participants). As expected, egregiousness was a significant predictor of the intention to boycott (b = .40, p < .001). Logit regression results (excluding the pen condition subjects) likewise showed that egregiousness predicted forgoing the Kit-Kat (b = .53, p < .01). Intention to participate in the boycott was also a powerful predictor of forgoing the Kit Kat (b = 1.34, p < .001). Brand image was also affected by perceived egregiousness. The three brand image items (trust, good and ethical) were averaged (Cronbach’s a = .83). The greater the degree to which subjects thought that NestlT’s actions were egregious, the more negative was the brand image (b = -.48, p < .001). These results also indicate that boycott intentions are strongly predictive of actual behaviour.

Self-Enhancement and Consistency as Motives for Boycott Participation

The relationship between Preference for Consistency (PFC), boycott intent and participation was examined. PFC did not predict intention or participation (r’s n.s.). Further, we examined whether those high in PFC would be more likely to show consistency between their intent to boycott and their actual participation, but results were non-significant (c2 n.s.). Further, the ability of egregiousness to predict paticipation was not different for those low versus high in PFC (based on a median split of PFC; b = .11, p < .05 and b = .13, p < .05, respectively). Thus, the preference for consistency does not appear to mediate the relationship between attitudes or intentions and actual behavior.

The correlations between PFC and motivations for participation were examined. Results showed that the only motivation correlated with PFC was, "It would make me feel bad if other people saw me eating a Nestle product" (r = .28, p < .01). We might speculate that this is some indication of a need for "external consistency" (being perceived by others as consistent).

We found no evidence of self-enhancement by boycotters in this study. In particular, we did not observe any increase in liking for chocolate among boycotters, which could reasonably have been interpreted as a self-enhancement effect.

Instrumental, Expressive and Clean Hands Motivations

Table 1 shows the points allotted to each of the motivations for boycott participation. Subjects tended to dismiss punishment, anger and concerns about other people as reasons for participation. More instrumental motivations, however, were endorsed. The various motivations can be categorized as expressive (2 and 3, below), instrumental (4, 7, 8), and clean hands (1, 5 and 6), with the latter comprised of feelings about oneself anticipated as a result of participation (or non-participation). The average points given for the instrumental items (m = 17.05) was significantly higher than for the expressive (m = 4.72) and clean hands items (m = 9.41; t(109) = 10.84, p < .001 and t(109) = 5.01, p < .001, respectively). Further, clean hands motivations were allotted more points than expressive motivations (t(109) = 4.61, p < .001). Note that there were no significant differences between those who chose the Kit-Kat (non-boycotters) and those who did not (boycotters) for any of the three types of motivations.

There was a relationship between egregiousness and two of the motivation types: the more egregious NestlT was thought to be, the more people were motivated by instrumental and expressive motivations (r = .25, p < .01 and r = .19, p < .05, respectively). There was no relationship between egregiousness and clean hands (r = .04, n.s.).

Only 7.3% of the sample indicated no instrumental motivation for participation, 22.7% indicated no emotional basis for participation, and 45.5% indicated no expressive motivations. Thus the vast majority of the sample had mixed motivations for participating in the boycott. These results are illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the percentage of respondents who selected the various motivations. (The figures do not total to 100 percent because 3 percent of respondents cited none of these motives.)

Effects of Boycotting on Product Judgments

Boycott participation appears to have led to product denigration. There were no significant differences in liking for chocolate, as assessed at the beginning of the study, across the three groups (boycotters, non-boycotters, and the pen control) (F(111) = 1.51, n.s.). However, when subjects were asked at the very end of the study (after receiving their gift), how much they liked Kit Kat, boycotters gave significantly lower ratings than the other two groups (F(2,111) = 7.47, p < .001; see Figure 2).

Further, a mixed-model ANOVA showed that likingfor chocolate decreased among the boycotters. (Recall that the Kit Kat bar was the only chocolate option among the candy choices.) A marginally significant interaction was found between condition (boycotter, non-boycotter, pen control) and time of chocolate rating (F(2,111) = 3.07, p = .051; see Figure 3). Boycotters showed a decrease in liking for chocolate over the course of the study, providing additional evidence that the boycotted product was denigrated.


The findings of the present study demonstrate that people differ in their reasons for participating in a boycott and that most individuals have mixed motivations for their participation. Instrumental motivations were found to predominate among the reasons that subjects said would lead them to participate in the boycott, but clean hands motivations were also common. About half of the sample indicated that they would boycott to express anger or to punish NestlT.





The present study is exploratory in nature, and future research should examine, in more controlled situations, the link between motivation and participation. Perhaps it is difficult for people to understand and express their reasons for participation. For example, the expression of anger might play a larger role than is realized as the boycott decision is made. Still, the current work strongly suggests that the motivations for participation within a given individual are multi-faceted and quite complex. The simple categorization of boycotts as expressive or instrumental on the basis of the goals of the organization calling for the boycott is too simple a scheme for understanding the complex decision faced by the consumer.

Individuals had different responses to the accusations against NestlT. Some thought that NestlT’s actions were particularly egregious while others did not. These opinions were highly predictive of boycott intention, actual participation, and brand imageCan important finding in our view. While subjects did not indicate a strong motivation to express anger, those who felt that NestlT’s actions were particularly egregious were more likely to cite expressive motivations. Instrumental motivations, which were much more common, were also more strongly endorsed by those who felt that NestlT’s actions were egregious. Thus, believing that a firm’s actions are wrong is related to an increased motivation to express anger at the firm and to change the firm’s actions. But these beliefs do not affect the motivation to avoid guilt or to feel good about oneself.



Contrary to past research that has shown no relationship between consumer anger and consumer judgements of product quality (Klein, Ettenson and Morris 1998), or that has shown that product judgments improve over the course of a boycott (Miller and Sturdivant 1977), our results suggest that product denigration occurs, particularly for those who participate in the boycott. Boycotters decreased their liking of chocolate after forgoing a Kit Kat bar, and gave lower ratings to Kit Kat than did those who did not boycott or the control subjects. (Note again that levels of chocolate liking were equal among the three groups at the start of the study.) Thus, instead of exaggerating their personal sacrifice, boycotters seem instead to be reducing their dissonance by explaining their boycott behavior, in part at least, as a judgment of the product itself. If these results were only found for Kit Kat ratings, one might conclude that NestlT’snegative actions with infant formula somehow spread to quality judgments of its products (e.g., "NestlT does and makes bad things"). The fact that liking for chocolate decreased among boycotters, however, argues against this explanation of the results. It seems more likely that product (and chocolate) denigration made it easier for boycotters to pay the cost of boycotting. They simply reduced the cost of going without the Kit Kat bar, by decreasing their liking of chocolate and their judgments of Kit Kat. These findings suggest an additional penalty for the firm that is boycotted: judgments of product quality can suffer during a boycott. Future research should examine whether these perceptions improve, or return to normal, after that boycott has ended. More broadly, future research might also look at the relationships between the motives underlying boycott behavior, at personality variables such as rebelliousness, and use non-student (and older) samples. Also, in light of our results regarding motives and the possibility of a social desirability bias, researchers investigating this topic might consider including hypothesis-guessing measures. Clearly, research of this topic also might be informed by ethnographic research with active boycotters.


Auger, Patrice, Timothy M. Devinney, and Jordan Louviere (1999), "Wither Ethical Consumerism: Do Consumers Value Ethical Attributes?" Unpublished working paper: Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South Wales.

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Brewer, Marilynn B. and Rupert J. Brown (1998), "Intergroup Relations," in Handbook of Social Psychology, Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske and Gardner Lindzey ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Cialdini, Robert B., Melanie R. Trost, and Jason T. Newsom (1995), "Preference for Consistency: The Development of a Valid Measure and the Discovery of Surprising Behavioral Implications," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (2), pp. 318-328.

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Klein, Jill Gabrielle, Richard Ettenson, and Marlene D. Morris (1998), "The Animosity Model of Foreign Product Purchase: An Empirical Test in the People’s Republic of China," Journal of Marketing 62 (January), pp. 89-100.

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Jill G. Klein, INSEAD, France
N. Craig Smith, London Business School
Andrew John, INSEAD, France


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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