Boycotts Against Lattes and Burgers Don’t Always Bite

McDonald’s sparked controversy by giving free food to Israeli soldiers, leading to a boycott of the company. (Photo by Shayna Hanig)

By Shayna Hanig

As the smell of homemade raviolis filled the DePuy house, Edward Depuy had a look in his eyes that his son James had “never seen before.” James, his mother and his brother sat in their living room as Edward told the story of his friend Marvin’s day at his new job at an Amazon warehouse. He described a job without benefits or bathroom breaks, where the attitude was “work, work, work.” His brother and mother zoned out of the conversation and played on their phones, but James, who was 16 at the time, decided to never buy anything from Amazon again.  

It’s been four years and he’s kept that promise.

By not purchasing from Amazon, James DePuy hopes to minimize the harm they do to their workers. “They should be getting health benefits, dental, medical, all across the board,” he said.

James DePuy comes from a “union family,” but his mother continues to bring in Amazon packages. (Photo by Shayna Hanig)

James DePuy is just one of many people who boycott companies that do not align with their ethics. Since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict on October 7, the Palestinian BDS National Committee has urged everyone to stop buying from companies supporting Israel. The boycott specifically targets McDonald’s and Starbucks.

On Tiktok, #boycottstarbucks on TikTok has over 162 million views, and #boycottmcdonalds has over 60 million views. Despite this, Starbucks stores are still full of customers and McDonald’s packaging is littered all around New York City, showing that boycotts rarely hurt a company’s bottom line.

When Regina Martinez found out that Starbucks sued their union for workers’ pro-Palestinian posts on social media, she decided to join the boycott. She stopped going to Starbucks, donated to relief funds and signed petitions.Yet on November 28, she picked up her matcha tea latte and sat down in her Baruch College class. The 19-year-old barista did not realize she had broken her commitment because going there is so ingrained in her routine.

Pro-Palestine stickers have been placed on businesses that are being targeted in the boycott. (Photo by Shayna Hanig)

“Do I have to research the ethics of every single company that I choose to partake in?” Martinez asks. She “can’t even count how many companies” she engages with in a day, but she believes it’s her responsibility to hold brands accountable. 

Still, she is realistic about how little impact she can make. “These companies and the money and the power that they have are much larger than me in any boycott that I could partake in,” she said.

Starbucks claims to have not had any financial losses from this boycott. CEO Laxman Narasimhan said in a statement that “demand for Starbucks remains strong around the world” and that “revenue for the quarter was up a record 12 percent.Despite the videos across social media showing Starbucks’ handful of customers being shamed and speculation of millions of dollars being lost, it’s still too soon to measure the lasting impact of the boycott.

Sankar Sen finds that if there are not accessible alternatives, people will continue to use a boycotted product. (Photo by Kaili Lantigua)

Experts say boycotts are more complicated than people think. For a boycott to be successful, “it needs to be a very organized, coordinated strategy,” said Sankar Sen, a professor of consumer behavior at Baruch College. “Companies will think twice about changing their stance if it goes against who they think they are.”

But businesses know that boycotts rarely have any long-term effects. In a study from The Journal of Applied Business Research, “only 24 of the 90 studied boycott actions (26.7 percent) were successful or even partially successful” in getting a company to change. So, if a “less valuable group of consumers” are upset, it is often not worth it to change anything because their core audience will still be there. 

Customers who care about the issue, but not enough to stop buying a product, are the people that make or break its success. Uniting them with the cause can disrupt a company’s consumer base. The most successful movements “tend to have a lot of cooperation. They tend to have strong leaders who can convince people to participate in the boycott, make the cause an important one for everyone,” Sen said. 

This spring, the beer company Anheuser-Busch InBev partnered with transgender TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney to promote Bud Light. Anti-transgender customers protested, and staged a long-term boycott. Anheuser-Busch InBev, Bud Light’s parent company, said that its “revenue declined by 10.5 percent%” in the United States in the second quarter and 13.5 percent% in the third quarter.

 The company had to back-pedal. “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” CEO Brendan Whitworth said in a press release.

Despite the ongoing boycott, trash from McDonald’s is being littered across the city. (Photo by Shayna Hanig)

Many companies turn to public relations teams to minimize damage and rebuild reputation. For 32 years, Richard Laermer has been doing this as the CEO and President of RLM PR. “They should’ve known people were going to come for them,” Laermer said about the Bud Light boycott. 

Two different paths can be taken once this happens: “Remove yourself from the people’s consciousness” or “get in front of the public,” Laermer said. PR officials must understand what happened and what comes next. Big brands are surrounded by teams that know these kinds of things can be “fleeting and fast,” which is why Amazon can face several boycotts over the years and rank 36 on 2023 Forbes Global 2000 list.

This does not mean that people will stop trying to hold businesses accountable in this way. Eric Castro, a 21-year-old protester from The Bronx, has engaged in boycotts since the Black Lives Matter movement and is now protesting for Palestine after being influenced by his Muslim friends about the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

He says stopping a boycott is not an option. “That shows that I’ve lost my voice, that shows that I lost my care, my love, my interests, or the passion that I’m trying to help fight against.” Castro said that even minimal change gives him “more courage to go ahead and continue boycotting.” In his eyes, “slight change is change at the end of the day.”

Additional reporting by Kaili Lantigua and Priya Thakur.