The Boycott Problem

POLITICAL CAPITAL

by Scott Daniel // September 30, 2010

The following is a legacy post from the d.c. diaries, originally published on June 22, 2010.

The needle is angled a little too far to the left for my liking.  On the spectrum between “E” and “F”, I need a little more “F” and a lot less “E”.  I can feel the “E” weighing and grinding on the accelerator as I shift my way out of the parking lot of the train station.

Ca-thunk-a-thunk! Ca-thunk-a-thunk! Ca-thunk-a-thunk!

I really should have filled up the tank before my Ford Focus turned into a Flintstones car.  That would require forethought.  No.  Instead, I swear to God my car is actually borrowing energy from the physical force I exert on the gas pedal to make it the last 50 yards down Bellevue Avenue to the nearest gas station, the only set of pumps within striking distance of my God-forsaken lemon.  The sign at the station literally promises sunlight and hope, an oasis of glistening green and gold.

BP.  My salvation.  An ever-present help in time of need.

Go ahead.  Shoot me.

The nozzle spews 87 unleaded into the tank.  The anxiety subsides.  My streak of twenty consecutive months without a special gas can delivery from roadside assistance continues unabated.  But as my anxiety fades, my conscience emerges as a substitute mental bother.  Id yields to superego.  Images of bubbling black crude overwhelming the Gulf, taking animal lives and human livelihoods, stream into my field of vision.  I have cast my dollar vote in favor of the destruction of Planet Earth.  Surely, a conscientious American would have coasted on fumes until the car literally suffered a cardiac arrest on the I-95 onramp…

…or would they?

In the aftermath of a natural disaster so calamitous that it spawned its own course at the University of Minnesota, hesitance to patronize your local BP station is understandable and, at least in the abstract, commendable.  Who wouldn’t want to stick it to Tony Hayward, that evil yachting captain of industry, a robber baron whose corporate negligence may single-handedly devastate an entire ecosystem into perpetuity?

I hate to break it to you, but you’re not sticking it to Tony.  You’re sticking it to Ed.

Ed is a daytime cashier at the BP station straddling the corner of Lincoln Highway and Bellevue Avenue in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, one of over 13,000 independently owned and operated BP stations worldwide.  Contrary to what you may have heard, BP doesn’t actually own the vast majority of the establishments that bear its logo.  Instead, like virtually every other major oil company, it enters into futures contracts to supply local stations with gasoline, equipment, and branding; contracts too costly to get out of.  Independent franchisees pay BP in advance, then rely on consumer fill-ups to turn a profit.  The money you spend at the pump stays there; it doesn’t trickle up to the boardroom.  So by the time you have opted to bypass BP in favor of more “righteous” brands like Shell or Citgo, Mr. Hayward and his fellow shareholders have already lined the interiors of their wallets and the cabins of their flotillas.

When I pulled into Ed’s station just after noon on a hot summer weekday, my car was one of four in the parking lot.  The owners of a Chevy Tahoe, an Infiniti G20, and a Pontiac Grand Am were the only other patrons.  I sauntered into the storefront to grab a Gatorade.  Ed, an Asian male who appeared to be in his 20s, didn’t look too excited behind the double-plated glass that separated us as he rang up my purchase.  After he dispensed my change, I decided to raise the question looming in the back of my mind.

“How’s business been?”

I seem to have caught Ed off guard.  “Excuse me?”

I’m delicate, but direct.  “Over the last two months, how has business been for you guys?”

Ed wavers.  “Ehh…it’s been…yeah, it’s been fine…it’s been alright.”

The four cars in the lot during a non-peak hour indicate that he may be right, but I press anyway.

“The oil spill hasn’t hurt you?”

Instantly, Ed’s eyes widened, indicating that he now knew what I was getting at.

“Oh, dude, it sucks.  Totally sucks.  I see way more cars drive by without pulling in.”

I give him my sympathies, and explain that I’m asking him for the purposes of writing about the BP spill and the effect of the subsequent public backlash on local stations.  He wishes me luck as I exit the store.  The other cars have left.  None has taken their place.

A few days later, on a Saturday, I happened to drive by Ed’s station again.  At a kitty-corner from the station, in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts, two middle-aged women sat comfortably in lawn chairs parading lime-green poster board signs.  Their contents were scrawled in gaudy Crayola marker and garnished with grocery store glitter.  The messages were far less festive.

“BP Kills Sea Lions.”

“Save the Gulf – Boycott BP.”

The pedant in me wanted to pull over and explain the real ramifications of their message.  The pragmatist convinced me that the effort would be futile.  In the arena of public discourse, reason rarely trumps passion.  Symbolism wins handily over substance.

So it leaves it to me now to explain why it is that BP p.l.c. isn’t the one hurt by the burgeoning boycott.  With a few notable exceptions geared more toward social than economic change (e.g., the Montgomery bus boycott), most modern boycotts don’t work.  The primary reason is that they target the wrong “evildoer” – like Ed.  They are also rarely broad enough in scope to generate the economic leverage necessary to get the bad guy to comply.  Your individual boycott isn’t going to amount to much if others are willing to step in to suckle at the teet of your corporate nemesis.

It reminds me of my senior year in high school, when I courageously participated in the 2000 American Gas Out.  The Gas Out was a collective effort, coordinated via chain e-mail, to bring gas prices back down from the earth-shattering $1.50/gallon heights to which they rose.  From April 7 to 9, I presumably joined legions of outraged citizens in refusing to buy gasoline.  In celebration of my heroic efforts, I filled my near-empty tank to the brim on April 10.  If I recall correctly, it cost me approximately $1.50/gallon.  I begrudgingly called it a draw.

Our collective lesson in boycott economics remains unlearned.  As of this writing, the primary “BP Boycott” page on Facebook has 704,930 fans and counting.  If only those three-quarters of a million people had a chance to talk to Ed.

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