Boycotts rarely work, experts say amid Bud Light anti-trans backlash

"The vast majority of boycott calls fail."

April 14, 2023, 3:03 PM

Fresh calls to boycott Bud Light volley across social media nearly two weeks after a product endorsement from Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, set off backlash among some prominent conservatives.

Far-right House Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., on Wednesday reposted a video for her 700,000 Twitter followers that featured a rapper in a pro-Trump hoodie burning empty Bud Light boxes. Celebrities Kid Rock and Ted Nugent previously voiced similar messages.

The boycott, which coincides with a conservative push in state legislatures nationwide to restrict LGBTQ rights, is the latest in a string of efforts among advocates on the left and right to damage the bottom line of companies deemed anathema to a given group's views.

However, the campaigns rarely succeed in hurting a company's sales or influencing its decision making, experts told ABC News, adding that they expect the calls to boycott Bud Light to ultimately fade away with little consequence for the brand's parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Dylan Mulvaney attends Miscast23 at Hammerstein Ballroom, April 3, 2023, in New York.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

"The vast majority of boycott calls fail," Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business who studies consumer movements, told ABC News.

"They fail because you need people to have a sustained and coordinated response," he added. "Most people fall back on what is convenient and inexpensive."

Anheuser-Busch InBev directed ABC News to a statement from CEO Brendan Whitworth posted on its website on Friday.

"We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people," Whitworth said. "We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer."

"My time serving this country taught me the importance of accountability and the values upon which America was founded: freedom, hard work and respect for one another," he added. "As CEO of Anheuser-Busch, I am focused on building and protecting our remarkable history and heritage."

Since April 1, when Mulvaney posted an Instagram video promoting Bud Light, the price of Anheuser-Busch InBev stock has fallen about 3%.

It is difficult, however, to assess the financial impact of the boycott campaign, since many factors influence a company's performance, said Allyson P. Brantley, a history professor at the University of La Verne and author of "Brewing a Boycott," told ABC News.

"With consumer boycotts, it's really hard to figure out if they're making an impact on a company's bottom line," Brantley said. "Generally, consumer boycotts don't really work."

Budweiser has promoted itself as an LGBTQ-friendly brand for decades, Brantley said, adding that the brand had previously drawn ire from prominent conservatives in response to such marketing.

"The company has spent a lot of money and time trying to win that market," she said. "It's probably something they anticipated because they've faced this kind of backlash before."

Politically motivated consumer boycotts typically pass with little consequence because participants become distracted by a different cause and revert back to old consumption habits, according to Schweitzer.

"Boycotts for different things displace the old calls for boycotts," he said. "The news cycle keeps spinning so quickly."

The boycott against Bud Light faces a further challenge because it follows an LGBTQ-friendly ad that may encourage sympathetic consumers to buy more of the product, offsetting or even exceeding the protest, the experts said.

"The benefits of appealing to one audience may outweigh the costs of another audience," Schweitzer said.

In some cases, however, boycotts succeed because advocates remain focused for a prolonged period and a target proves sensitive to the pressure, experts said.

In 2019, celebrities Ellen Degeneres and George Clooney called for a boycott of Brunei-owned hotels worldwide because the country punished gay sex and adultery with the death penalty.

Ultimately, Brunei decided not to impose the death penalty for offenders of the anti-gay law.

A successful boycott "requires people to be quite passionate about something," Schweitzer said.

Mulvaney responded to the backlash in an interview on the podcast "Onward with Rosie O'Donnell."

A Progress Pride Flag held above the crowd of LGBTQ+ activists during the Los Angeles LGBT Center's "Drag March LA: The March on Santa Monica Boulevard", in West Hollywood, Calif., April 9, 2023.
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

"I have tried to be the most uncontroversial person this past year, and somehow, it has made me controversial still," Mulvaney said.

She continued, "I think it comes back to the fact that these people don't understand me, and anything that I do or say then somehow gets taken out of context and used against me. And it's so sad, because everything I try to put out there is positive."

Matt Tumminello, president of LGBTQ marketing firm Target 10, says brands have been marketing to queer consumers for decades – and it's a smart business strategy to be encouraged.

"This is what America looks like, and so from a business perspective, time and again, marketing studies prove that being culturally inclusive, culturally resonant, reflecting the true fabric of America drives business and drives sales," Tumminello told ABC News.

"From a societal standpoint, I think we know that this is the right thing to do. Because invisibility breeds isolation, and that's a dangerous thing, especially for young people," he added.

Cans of Bud Light beer are seen, Jan. 10, 2019.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP, FILE

LGBTQ advocates applauded companies that have used their platforms to support the community despite political attacks. LGBTQ people are their customers too, they say.

"The best that brands can do is be ready to stand up and defend and to talk about why they did what, why their marketing plans are inclusive, and why that really matters," said Eric Bloem, Human Rights Campaign Senior Director of Programs and Corporate Advocacy, in an interview with ABC News.

Pride events across the country have long been sponsored by corporations and brands across industries, from airlines to banks to department stores to beauty brands and so on.

"Progress like this often comes with backlash, but it's important to remember that at the end of the day, transgender people are your friends, family members, neighbors, business owners, and simply everyday Americans," said Ash Orr, a spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a statement to ABC News.

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