You won’t catch me dead in a pair of Ivanka Trump shoes. You won’t find me anywhere near a Trump golf course. And I won’t be checking into any Trump Hotels, no matter how many times the president notes that they’re “gorgeous.”
I’m in good company. But other people are taking their economic protest far beyond the businesses that bear the new president’s name.
Take a look at the Boycott Trump app, which claims to be “the first app of its kind, allowing users to hit Trump where it hurts most — his wallet.” It lists companies such as 7-Up, which is connected to Trump only because it sponsored “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2011; Amazon, which sells Trump’s brand of menswear; and Gucci, which rents retail space in Trump Tower. Hundreds of companies are implicated, many due to their CEOs’ supportive comments or campaign donations. A competing app called Boycott Trump Businesses sorts the offending businesses into categories (Trump-owned, Trump tenants, campaign supporters, friends and associates) but is just as broad.
I don’t want to yell into the wind to make myself feel better; I want tangible results.
In a way, boycotts are the perfect protest mechanism for this particular president. Trump was elected without a majority of votes and, if you still trust opinion polls, has historically low approval ratings—in other words, most of us wish he weren’t the president. He cites his business acumen as his primary qualification for office and has refused to divest himself to avoid conflicts of interest. What better time to call on the power of the purse?
But I’m skeptical that a wide-ranging, multi-target boycott effort will have the intended effect—assuming the intended effect is punishing Trump and the people who want to realize his agenda, rather than merely assuaging the consciences of those doing the boycotting.
When there are hundreds of businesses on the no-buy list, that dilutes the political message, and there’s a smaller chance that any one company will be hurt by its inclusion.
Historically, boycotts aimed to change a company’s policy. Collective withdrawal of financial support led to the integration of the bus system in Alabama in the 1960s and improved working conditions for grape-picking farm workers in the 1980s. There are also some modern examples of this style of activism: A three-year boycott of Driscoll’s berries ended in November when the company agreed to allow workers to unionize.
Yet boycotts these days are often more nebulous. In 2012, for instance, LGBT rights supporters refused to eat at Chick-fil-A not because of labor conditions or factory farming or any of the usual suspects, but because its CEO spoke out against marriage equality. And when boycott campaigns are oriented around words—or beliefs—rather than specific actions, it becomes much harder to track results or declare victory. The Chick-fil-A CEO later said it was a mistake to link his personal views with his business, but he’s still in charge of the company, which is still posting profits.
Too often, consumers are just trying to register their displeasure, which is certainly their right. But they don’t stop to ask themselves a basic question: What, exactly, do they want their boycott to accomplish? In the case of Chick-fil-A, did the boycotters want to silence the CEO, force a change in leadership, or get the CEO to change his mind? That was never clear.
Boycotts, especially boycotts untethered to specific company policies, may also have unintended consequences. To counter the Chick-fil-A boycott, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas promoted a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. In 2015, after Trump said that Mexican immigrants were rapists, Macy’s stopped carrying his menswear line. (It still carries his daughter’s brand, and is listed on the Boycott Trump app.) Trump repeatedly tweeted calls to boycott Macy’s as a result. Since then, the department store has had seven straight quarters of declining sales.
“We are going through a challenging period in our industry, so [Trump’s tweets] certainly didn’t help but it’s hard to pinpoint if it had any impact,” the former CEO told Fortune.
Like many people who were politically energized by the outcome of the election, I’ve had to look at my actions and think about where I can effect real change. I don’t want to yell into the wind to make myself feel better; I want tangible results. So while I may avoid shopping at companies whose CEOs have said they support Trump, I probably won’t check to make sure every place I spend my money is ideologically pure. I’ll only actively participate in a boycott if it’s connected to a desired policy change. And I’ll make a point of writing to the company to demand that specific outcome.
That said, I wouldn’t shop at Trump-owned businesses even if the president were to fully divest himself. If that’s an example of making myself feel better, so be it. There are exceptions to every rule.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion. She lives in Los Angeles.