The Buzz

Boycott Barilla, Dump Stoli: the value of hashtag-driven boycotts

Categories: Celebrities, Social Media

Stoli vodkaThe #dumpstoli campaign is one of the latest social media-spread boycotts. (Getty Images)

If you were among those who recently rejected Stolichnaya in favour of a non-Russian brand (say Crystal Head, distilled in Canada no less) to draw international attention to Russia's anti-gay legislation, you might want to think twice.

The campaign to "dump Russian vodka" seems, at first blush (possibly induced by a frozen shot) to be a catchy way of taking a stand. But ever since sex-and-relationships columnist Dan Savage began his #dumpstoli efforts on July 24, the campaign has been shaken and stirred by conflicting responses.

First, there is confusion over the provenance of Stolichnaya vodka. According to the New York Times, Stoli bottles are from Poland and Estonia, the caps from Italy, while blending and filtering takes place in Latvia. On the other hand, the alcohol is distilled from Russian grain and Yury Shefler, owner of the Riga factory that manufactures the stuff, is a wealthy Russian (One who reportedly risks arrest in Russia because he was accused of "stealing the Stolichnaya name").

That hasn't entirely stopped the #dumpstoli social media train though. Last week, producers of the critically acclaimed New York production of Russian-themed musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 nixed serving vodkas with "ties to Russia."

And while the famously frank singer Cher did not get on the #dumpstoli tweetwagon, she publicly turned down what she said was an invitation to perform and be "an ambassador" at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

Then, along came Barilla Pastagate, kicked off when the chairman of the biggest pasta company in the world said his company wouldn't make a commercial featuring a homosexual couple. Next thing you know, #BoycottBarilla was trending. Celebrities took up the cause, with Mia Farrow going after both the issue and the pasta in one pithy #BoycottBarilla tweet

But are these boycotts effective?

In terms of impact on Russia's treatment of its lesbian and gay community, one Russian politics scholar thinks choosing a non-Russian brand of vodka instead of Stoli is about as meaningful as changing one's profile picture on Facebook or sharing a YouTube video (Not to mention that it gives President Vladimir Putin a way to "portray the American boogeyman as intent on violating Russian sovereignty"). So far, Putin is apparently utterly unmoved by the #dumpstoli campaign.

However, on the other hand, just a day into #BoycottBarilla, the company chairman issued a kinda sorta apology.

You might draw the conclusion that these hashtag-driven boycotts can be as unpredictable as any form of hashtag publicity. (Remember Britain's Got Talent singer Susan Boyle's #susanalbumparty fiasco?) But the problem isn't the medium or the message. Whether or not a boycott works depends, in large part, on the recipient of the boycott.

"Activists seeking to create corporate change are partly dependent on the conditions of the company they're targeting," says the author of a study by Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management .

"It has to be vulnerable to change to have any transformative effect...Companies with poor reputations to begin with are less vulnerable to boycotts because they have less to lose."

The same could be said to be true of countries. And Russia, it seems, doesn't feel it has a lot to lose.

-- by Li Robbins

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