Using the Expectancy Theory Framework to Explain the Motivation to Participate in a Consumer Boycott.

Author:Barakat, Areeg


Consumer boycotts have long been regarded as a tool by which consumers can voice their dissatisfaction with an organization's tactics, a government's policies, and with social issues in the hopes of influencing the offending target to change its ways. Both domestic and multinational corporations may be vulnerable to the boycotts of their brands. For example, consumers may oppose a multinational corporation's government policies and may in retaliation escalate the opposition to the boycott of the multinational corporation's products. Such a tactic may negatively impact the multinational corporation's market share and overall performance.

Boycotts have become even more powerful than ever because of the advancements in technology, especially with the birth of the Internet where one click of a button can communicate consumer dissatisfaction all over the world. Further, with the unstable political and global environment and with the surge in consumer boycotts in recent years, domestic and multinational corporations need to be equipped with identifying the factors that may set the motion for a boycott and should understand consumer motivation to participate in a boycott.

The literature on boycotts has extensively dealt with a target firm's actions that initiate the boycott behavior and the coercive nature of boycott organizers (Klein et al., 2004). Little attention, however, has been given to a consumer's decision to participate in a boycott (Klein et al., 2004) and the process by which they engage in a boycott. This paper focuses on these ignored areas of research and examines the consumer's decision to participate in a boycott using the expectancy theory as an explanatory mechanism.

The objectives of this paper, therefore, are threefold: (1) explain the psychological process of the motivation to participate in a consumer boycott using the expectancy theory framework; (2) explain the moderating variables that influence this process; and (3) generate hypotheses for future research.


Boycotts are important in influencing marketing policy and strategy because of the following factors according to Garrett (1987): (1) The use of boycotts is increasing; (2) Boycott agents are becoming more sophisticated due to the advancements in technology; (3) Recent court decisions have supported boycotts as legal forms of protest; and (4) Marketing strategists have neglected marketing policy boycotts as relevant marketing forces.

Boycott organizers expose target firms' misconduct, increase public awareness of such behavior, and cause these firms to change their ways, thereby eventually leading to a better society. Smith (2000) attempts to provide support to the proposition that corporate practices have changed as a result of the pressure of consumer boycotts and concluded that such pressure is imperative in influencing corporations to apply corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices.

Target firms should pay particular attention to consumer boycotts, especially since boycotts can be very dangerous and can threaten the existence of these firms. From the study of an actual boycott (Bremmer--a European-based multinational corporation that sells consumer food products--boycott), Klein, Smith, and John (2003), found that boycotting leads to the loss of sales, has an adverse impact on the company brand image due to the fact that the "boycotters tried competitors' products, found they preferred them, and rejected the Bremmer brand as a result" (p. 21). Boycotting can also lead to stock price decline and may damage the firm's competitive advantage.

Pruitt and Friedman (1986) applied a time-series research to study the influence of 21 consumer boycott announcements on target firms' stockholders' wealth and found that boycott announcements resulted in a statistically significant reduction in target firms' stock prices and the overall market value of these firms declined by an average greater than $120 million. Clearly, the boycott announcement substantially destroyed the wealth position of the target firms' stockholders (Pruitt & Friedman, 1986).


What is a Boycott?

Friedman (1985, pp. 97-98) defines consumer boycotts as "an attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the marketplace". There is scarce empirical research regarding contemporary consumer boycotts and this is due to the fact that the nature of the boycotts is not suitable to systemic scholarly research (Friedman, 1985). The word boycott emerged "about 120 years ago during a dispute between Irish peasants and their British landlords" (Friese, 2000, p. 493). In fact, the origin of the word "Boycott" can be traced back to the name of a British estate manager, Mr. Boycott (Friese, 2000). Boycotts come in different forms such as labor boycotts, minority group boycotts, boycotts by religious groups, and ecological boycotts (Friese, 2000). Further, boycotts can be classified into two additional basic types: economic or marketing policy boycotts and political, social or ethical boycotts. Economic or marketing policy boycotts are directed toward changing target firms' marketing policies such as lowering prices (Akpoyomare, Adeosun, & Ganiyu, 2012), whereas a political, social, or ethical boycott moves further by forcing target firms to behave more ethically and become more socially responsible (Sen, Gurhan-Canli, & Morwitz, 2001).

Boycotts may take the form of direct boycotts, also known as non-surrogate boycotts, against the parties that serve as the targets of the boycott activities such as retailers charging unfair prices (Friedman, 1985). Boycotts may also take the form of indirect boycotts, also known as surrogate boycotts, against the parties whose activities have offended the boycotters (Friedman, 1985). An example would be dissatisfaction with governmental policies in certain regions of the world might cause a call for a boycott of business firms operating in such areas and as a result may put pressure on the government to change its offensive policies. The Middle East is a hot bed for this type of boycott whereby nationals who are displeased with U.S. policy in the Middle East boycott U.S. brands.

Boycotts currently focus on a "quality of life" issue rather than on an emphasis to acquire economic necessities and market gain as previously seen in the past (Friese, 2000). Consumers today crave a better quality of life, especially since such an aspiration coincides with fast-paced advancements in technology making such a concept more attainable than ever. Also, boycotts today are geared towards large domestic and multinational corporations rather than at retailers and tend to be more media-orientated (Friese, 2000).

Boycotts are not the same as an individual's personal decision to withhold purchasing of goods and services. Boycotts are organized and collective social actions but are non-mandatory (i.e., boycotts cannot mandate consumers' participation) (Sen et al., 2001).

Motivation for Boycott Participation

Several studies have attempted to explain the factors that influence an individual's decision to participate in a boycott. Sen et al. (2001), examine the factors that influence an individual's boycott decision using two experiments. Relying on the social dilemma theory and the reference group theory to understand an individual's boycott decision, Sen et al. (2001) argue that social dilemmas are situations in which the interest of the individual is in conflict with the collective interest of the group, thus causing an individual to make a choice between maximizing his/her own self-interest or the collective interest of the group, thereby, making a decision to "not participate" or "participate" in the boycott, respectively. Therefore, participation in a boycott would be a function of the interplay between an individual's self-interest and the collective interest of the group. Reference group theory, on the other hand, proposes that an individual's assessment of his/her self-interest and the collective interest of the group will more likely depend on the degree of commitment he/she feels toward the social pressure to comply with the behavior of the reference group such as boycotters (Sen et al., 2001).

Numerous researchers (e.g., Klein et al., 2004; Sen et al., 2001) examined the effect of perceived participation of others on boycott participation and found that the perceived size of participation has a significant positive impact on participation in a boycott. In addition, Friedman (1999) found that boycott effectiveness depends upon consumer participation.

Moreover, research (e.g., Akpoyomare et al., 2012; Sen et al., 2001) also found that an individual's motivation to participate in a boycott is influenced by his/her perceived success likelihood (such as pro-boycott message frame that demonstrates the likelihood of boycott success), perceived efficacy (the believe that one can contribute greatly to the accomplishment of the collective goal); and cost associated with boycotting (such as the preference for the boycotted products and availability of substitute products). In this regard, boycotts cause consumers to give up desired products that they repetitively consume (John & Klein, 2003). Further, the cost of boycotting may also include free riders and the problem of small numbers (John & Klein, 2003). Free riders usually do not participate in a boycott based on their perception of the number of other participants in a boycott. That is, if free riders believe that there are already a large number of participants in the boycott (John & Klein, 2003), they will not participate since there are no incentives for them to do so. On the other hand, due to a boycott's problem of small numbers, others may choose not to participate because overall participation in a boycott is small and their role will not make a...

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