February 11, 2004

To Boycott or Not to Boycott II

Evan Kirchoff continued the MTV conversation with me in his latest post. I think that his objections don't stand up too well. First, boycott's are not always economic negatives. The Last Temptation of Christ spent very little on advertising because they knew there would be protests, boycotts, and massive interest generated by those acts so they skimped on advertising and did great ticket sales anyway. Banned in Boston was a sure-fire sales promotion tool for decades.

The mere existence of a boycott does not mean that the boycottee will be ashamed, shamed, or even suffer a net financial loss. This is historical reality. Badly designed boycotts backfire to the financial and reputational benefit of those subject to them.

The problem of coercion is being brought up through the back door and needs more detailed treatment:

Secondly, I don't agree that what they're doing is necessarily "healthy" or "freedom-friendly". Among other things, they're apparently attempting to get cable companies (local monopolies in some areas) to remove MTV from the channels they offer. I don't think this is especially likely to occur (although I can imagine more modest goals that could succeed), but I fundamentally disagree with them about the morality of the attempt. It's not "censorship", since the government's not involved and all proposed actions are within the context of the marketplace. However, it does amount to a form of cultural bullying. This may be a fuzzy line, but at some point there's a difference between declining to watch something and trying to apply economic leverage to prevent a much larger group from being able to watch something. BoycottMTV.com is begging this question by tossing around words like "sewage" and "trash" -- who could have a legitimate reason to want to watch "trash"?

A boycott recommending the non-purchase of a product is in some ways the negative version of a testimonial. What is being hinted here is two things, that negative opinions are somehow less legitimate than positive ones and that because the negative testimonial comes from more than one person, it somehow has less legitimacy than if the opinion is an isolated, individual one.

But a cultural judgment is also being passed that providing that good, that TV channel is worth withdrawing patronage from the provider. This is where Kirchoff engages in a little sleight of hand. The tail generally does not wag the dog. Boycotts are powerful only when they are large, and many times not even then (see Southern Baptists v. Disney for a current example). Often a boycott group that is too small is not just ineffective, it is ignored as an insignificant asterisk.

Where boycotts are effective are when enough patronage is controlled by those participating to hurt the bottom line or, in the case of a monopoly, are large enough to carry a vote stripping that monopoly right. But if the stripping of that monopoly is done to permit a second, competitive cable carrier to compete, I can't see where the harm is in that.

Finally, I have to say that the idea that there is no reason to consume trash is an insult to trashy romance novels, Jerry Springer, and other entire genres of entertainment that are sold explicitly as having little to no redeeming social value. Trash has sold, and sold well in the past, the present, and will likely sell well in the future.

The question today is whether you can live your life and raise your children fully engaged in society without being forced to bring this into your house? Ultimately, technology is coming down the pike which will make this debate moot. Until then, we're likely to continue to debate how much in the shadows the disreputable forms of entertainment will have stay.

Posted by TMLutas at February 11, 2004 08:01 PM