In January of this year, the US Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be limited under the First Amendment. Recently, consumers mounted a protest of Target Corporation for its donation in July of $150,000 to the campaign of conservative Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and favors Arizona's anti-immigration law. Best Buy also made a $100,000 contribution to Emmer campaign and protesters vowed to take action against them too.
One of the more creative responses is the flashmob action on Aug. 17 at a Target store in West Seattle. (See video above.) While some 250,000 people signed a petition to boycott Target, this video, which went viral, both for and against, arguably had a higher profile. YouTube records more than 1.2 million views since the video was posted two weeks ago.
As Monroe Friedman notes, in his classic study Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media, boycotts are one of the most frequently used tools of political action of the disenfranchised. And certainly the average consumer no doubt is feeling increasingly disenfranchised after the Citizens United decision, which overwhelmingly tilts the share of voice in political dialog to those who can afford to buy the biggest megaphone.
There are two types of boycotts in Friedman's analysis. The first are those which attempt to regulate the "target" by economic sanction, the classic boycott strategy as most people understand it. The second seeks to tarnish the target's reputation, drawing sanction from negative public opinion typically through the media. Friedman further notes that the latter strategies have become increasingly popular with the rise of so-called new social movements.
Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized to employees for any distress the donation may have caused in a message posted on the company's website on Aug. 5 (before the flashmob action), although it didn't rescind the decision.
The conflation of citizenship and consumption is direct in this case. The question is how effective it will be. One of the findings in Friedman's study, which more than ten years after publication remains definitive, is that consumer boycotts unfortunately have limited success over the long term. A major reason is the difficulty of maintaining the action when relying on individual attention and dedication. At some point, the formal political process must engaged.