What do tuna fish, bleach, green grapes, candy bars, deodorant, and gasoline have in common? They have all, under specific brand names, been the targets of consumer boycotts. Take tuna, for example. Consumers became outraged when they learned that methods used to net tuna for commercial processing were also netting and killing dolphins. Activists targeted three major brands of canned tuna, representing 70 percent of the tuna sold in the United States. In early 1990, all three companies agreed to purchase and process only “dolphin safe” tuna. The strategy had worked.

The case with deodorant was somewhat different. It represented an effort to influence the standards of television programming by exerting pressure on a company that advertised on objectionable shows. In 1989, CLeaR-TV (Christian Leaders for Responsible Television), which represents Christian organizations and Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, urged its supporters not to buy Mennen products for a year. The real target was the programs. CLeaR-TV argued that Mennen bought advertising during television shows that contained excessive violence, sexual explicitness, profanity, and anti-Christian stereotyping. While Mennen pulled its advertising from one objectionable show, it resisted taking any further action.

What motivates involvement in such boycotts? Two major reasons, heeding conscience and changing society, led evangelical Christians to support many nineteenth-century “boycotts” (refusing to buy slave-grown cotton and sugar, for instance). When conscience motivates a boycott, we simply avoid buying products from companies whose policies violate our values. These values include standards of morality, human dignity, or social and environmental well-being. ...

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