It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but after a spectacular backfire California Democratic party chairman Eric Bauman has no doubt been pondering in recent days “what was I thinking?” in trying to stir up a boycott of the wildly popular In-N-Out Burger chain.
In-N-Out’s offense? The company made donations to the California Republican Party. Gasp. For its part, In-N-Out clarified that the company made equal contributions to both Democratic and Republican PACs in California.
Having lived in Southern California for seven years, I can personally attest to the huge fan base In-N-Out has in the state. It’s a California icon, and there’s no other fast-food chain quite like it. In-N-Out was a favorite stop for my family and me (the milkshakes are fabulous), and now fans are rallying to the restaurant chain’s defense, just as fans of Chick-fil-A responded to a similar ill-conceived boycott there several years ago.
Mike Huckabee, who came up with the record-setting Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day when the chain was targeted for a boycott, called for a “buy-cott” of In-N-Out, describing it as a “wonderful company” and asking a very reasonable question: “Why can’t a business express itself?”
I avoid doing business with organizations that I know support causes I don’t agree with, as do many people of all political and religious persuasions. But for a state party leader to call publicly for a boycott for giving contributions to the opposition party is really quite amazing, especially since In-N-Out gave money to both parties.
Boycotts can be tricky and risky. To avert a PR disaster that blows up in one’s face, it’s worth asking some important questions before encouraging people to avoid buying products or services from a company, such as:
- Is this an issue worthy of a boycott? A boycott can do more harm than good—especially in terms of perceptions—when it backfires like this one did. It’s hard to get people worked up over equal donations to opposing political parties.
- What will be the public perception of the boycott? It’s also difficult to get massive participation in a boycott that most people think is ridiculous. Generally speaking, people don’t like to see companies like In-N-Out attacked and dragged into a controversy when they’ve done nothing wrong
- What is the desired outcome of the boycott? Did Mr. Bauman really expect to bully In-N-Out into giving all its donations to one party? If that was the endgame, his effort was doomed from the start. Is it feasible to refer to In-N-Out as “those creeps,” as Mr. Bauman did in his tweet, and win the hearts and minds of the Californians? I don’t think so.
- Can the boycott be sustained long term? It usually takes a while for a boycott to affect a company’s bottom line, so there need to be sufficient resources, energy and passion to keep the boycott in front of the public. Even Californians who agree with Mr. Bauma may find those burgers, fries and shakes irresistible for more than a few weeks.
- If successful, what precedent will the boycott set? Do we really want to punish companies like In-N-Out for giving money to political parties? Republicans could, in turn, call for boycotts of well-known liberal companies like Starbucks because it gives money to Democrats. Where would this end? Or Republicans could call for a boycott of In-N-Out because it gives money to Democratic PACS in California. Between the two parties, successful boycotts could put the chain out of business for the absurd reason of making donations to both parties.
A far better approach, in my opinion, is to support freedom of expression for everyone and make buying decisions based on one’s conscience and preferences rather than the recommendations of someone like Mr. Bauman, who heads a state party that routinely lectures us about the importance of tolerance and diversity. Why listen to someone who doesn’t practice what his party preaches?