Friday, March 4, 2016
Presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he never plans to eat Oreo cookies again because the Nabisco plant is closing and moving to Mexico. Trump, who has starred in an Oreo commercial in the past, is actually wrong about the nature of Nabisco’s move, and it’s unlikely that he will affect Nabisco’s sales notwithstanding his tremendous popularity among some in the electorate right now. Mr. Trump has also urged a boycott of Apple over how that company has handled the FBI’s request over the San Bernardino terrorist’s cell phone.
Strangely, I haven’t heard a call for a boycott of Apple products following shareholders’ rejection of a proposal to diversify the board last week. I would think that Reverend and former candidate Al Sharpton, who called for the boycott of the Oscars due to lack of diversity would call for a boycott of all things Apple. But alas, for now Trump seems to be the lone voice calling for such a move (and not because of diversity). In fact, I’ve never walked past an Apple Store without thinking that there must be a 50% off sale on the merchandise. There are times when the lines are literally out the door. Similarly, despite the #Oscarssowhite controversy and claims from many that the boycott worked because the Oscars had historically low ratings, viewership among black film enthusiasts was only down 2% this year.
So why do people constantly call for boycotts? According to a Freakonomics podcast from January, they don’t actually work. Historians and economists made it clear in interviews that they only succeed as part of an established social movement. In some cases they can backfire leading to a "buycott," as it did for Chik Fil A. The podcast also put into context much of what we believe are the boycott “success stories,” including the Montgomery Bus Boycott with Rosa Parks and the sit in movement related to apartheid in the 1980s.
I have spent much of my time looking at disclosure legislation that is based in part on the theory that informed consumers and socially-responsible investors will boycott or divest holdings (see here, here, and here). In particular, I have focused on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals corporate governance disclosure and why I don’t think that using name and shame laws work—namely because consumers talk a good game in surveys but actually don’t purchase based on social criteria nearly as much as NGOs and legislators believe.
The SEC was supposed to decide whether to file a cert petition to the Supreme Court on the part of the conflict minerals legislation that was struck down on First Amendment grounds by March 9th but they now have an extension until April. Since I wrote an amicus brief in the case at the lower level, I have a particular interest in this filing. I had planned my business and human rights class on disclosures and boycotts around that cert. filing to make it even more relevant to my students, who will do a role play simulation drafted by Professor Erika George representing civil society (NGOs, investors, and other stakeholders), the electronics industry, the US government (state department, Congress, and SEC), Congolese militia, the Congolese government, and the Congolese people. The only group they won’t represent is US consumers, even though that’s the target group of the Dodd-Frank disclosure. I did tweak Professor George’s materials but purposely chose not to add in the US consumer group. After my students step out of their roles, we will have the honest discussions about their own views and buying habits. I’ll try not to burst any boycott bubbles.