Can it bring the powerful to heel?

Executive Summary

As consummate consumers, Americans have embraced the boycott as a distinctively American way to influence powerful people and institutions. The internet and social media act as accelerants for activists launching boycotts, and the country’s deepening political polarization in the Trump era has further encouraged people on both sides of the divide to vote with their wallets. Both the Left and the Right maintain lengthy lists of businesses to be shunned. Some boycotts are successful in reducing sales; even when they fail to do so, boycotts can damage a brand and serve as a lever for winning concessions.

Among the key takeaways:

  • Boycotts are most successful when the issue is easily understood and deeply felt, the boycotted company has numerous competitors and the news media takes an interest.

  • President Trump has become a consumer litmus test, with his opponents boycotting retailers that carry his family brands and supporters retaliating against companies that drop his brands.

  • A boycott can exact a stiff price: The state of North Carolina faced $3.76 billion in lost business over a now-repealed law that forced transgender people to use bathrooms aligned with their birth gender.

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Resources for Further Study



Friedman, Monroe, “Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media,” Routledge, 1999. A psychology professor at Eastern Michigan University analyzes the evolution of boycotts and the growing importance of media coverage through academic research as well as interviews with boycott targets and protest groups.


“How should companies navigate polarized politics in the Trump era?” PBS NewsHour, Feb. 9, 2017, Polarized politics in the United States is making life difficult for companies.

Abrams, Rachel, “Nordstrom Drops Ivanka Trump Brand From Its Stores,” The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2017, Nordstrom says it is dropping Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and accessories because of poor sales.

Chinni, Dante, and Sally Bronston, “Trump Product Endorsements Drive Consumers … Away,” NBC News, April 9, 2017, An NBC poll looks at whether a Trump endorsement would make people more or less willing to buy something.

Diermeier, Daniel, “When Do Company Boycotts Work?” Harvard Business Review, Aug. 6, 2012, A Northwestern University professor looks at what elements make a great boycott.

Halzack, Sarah, “Trump lashes out at Nordstrom in a tweet for dropping his daughter’s apparel line,” The Washington Post, Feb. 8, 2017, After Nordstrom drops Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, the president attacks the department store in a tweet.

Kell, John, “Starbucks Faces Boycott After Pledging to Hire Refugees,” Fortune, Jan. 30, 2017, Starbucks becomes a target of pro-Trump activists who threaten a boycott.

King, Brayden, “Why boycotts succeed – and fail,” Kellogg Insight, Aug. 1, 2009, A Northwestern University professor examines why some boycotts succeed and why some fail.

King, Brayden, and Mary-Hunter McDonnell, “What the Breitbart-Kellogg Feud Says About the Next Era of American Politics,” Fortune, Dec. 13, 2016, Two professors look at how Steve Bannon’s White House job changes the implications of the Kellogg-Breitbart feud.

Peterson, Hayley, “An open letter calling on Nordstrom to drop Ivanka Trump’s ‘toxic’ brand is going viral,” Business Insider, Oct. 27, 2016, A letter from a shopper helps ignite the boycott against Trump family merchandise.

Reports and Studies

“Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014, A think tank and polling center looks at how Democrats and Republicans have moved further away from each other.

Tankersley, Jim, “Donald Trump lost most of the American economy in this election,” The Washington Post, Nov. 22, 2016, A study shows that the counties Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won represent the majority of economic activity in the United States.

Watson, Bruce, “Do boycotts really work?” The Guardian, Jan. 6, 2015, Boycotts have proved successful when they attract media coverage and capitalize on their participants’ moral outrage.

The Next Step

Advertiser Boycotts

Abrams, Abigail, “More Than 60 Advertisers Have Dumped Bill O’Reilly’s Show After Sexual Harassment Allegations,” Time, April 6, 2017, Sixty-two advertisers pulled commercials from “The O’Reilly Factor” timeslot in response to uproar over sexual assault allegations made against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.

Ingram, Mathew, “Advertising Boycott of Breitbart News Appears to Be Growing,” Fortune, Feb. 21, 2017, Global advertising company Omnicom advised its employees to avoid putting any ads for their brand clients on conservative website Breitbart News, according to a leaked memo.

O’Reilly, Lara, “The real motivations behind the growing YouTube advertiser boycott,” Business Insider, March 22, 2017, More than 250 brands are boycotting YouTube by suspending their advertising campaigns until parent company Google can ensure that their ads will not be placed next to extremist content or videos containing hate speech.

Boycotts in Sports

Berkman, Seth, “U.S. Women’s Team Strikes a Deal With U.S.A. Hockey,” The New York Times, March 28, 2017, After threatening to boycott the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship unless they received more adequate compensation, the U.S. women’s hockey team and USA Hockey reached a deal that gives the women’s team equal support to that of the men’s team.

Lynch, Andrew, “Warriors’ Draymond Green encourages Raiders fans to boycott games in Oakland,” Fox Sports, March 29, 2017, Basketball forward Draymond Green of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who are located in Oakland, Calif., encouraged Raiders fans to stop going to the NFL team’s games in Oakland in protest of the franchise’s move to Las Vegas in 2020.

Moore, Evan F., “NCAA Lifts North Carolina Boycott After Bathroom Ban Repeal,” Rolling Stone, April 4, 2017, The NCAA ended its boycott of events in North Carolina after the state replaced its controversial “bathroom bill,” which banned people from using restrooms that did not correspond to their sex.


American Anthropological Association
2300 Clarendon Blvd., Suite 1301, Arlington, VA 22201
World’s largest association for professional anthropologists, with more than 10,000 members.

American Family Association
PO Drawer 2440, Tupelo, MS 38803
Faith-based organization and website promoting pro-family values in popular culture and corporations.

American Studies Association
1120 19th St., N.W., Suite 301, Washington, DC 20036
Organization dedicated to furthering American studies in higher education.

Ethical Consumer
Unit 21, 41 Old Birley St., Manchester, M15 5RF, UK
+44-161 226 2929
Liberal website and magazine dedicated to making global businesses more sustainable through consumer pressure.

Website dedicated to boycotting Trump family products and other liberal causes.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680313.n1