- American political polarization is playing out on the dinner table with a recent round of brand boycotts.
- While the left is ditching Papa John’s, the right is cutting out Starbucks and tossing Keurigs out the window.
- The foods we eat eat are shorthand for certain beliefs, and that can be dangerous for some brands.
The past two years have seen an unending series of politically sparked boycotts and counterboycotts.
Now, as Thanksgiving nears, the boycotts seem to be playing out on dinner plates across America.
“We’ve never seen something like this – a consumer awakening, if you will,” Chris Allieri, the founder of the communications and marketing firm Mulberry & Astor, told Business Insider in reference to the rise of consumer boycotts in recent years.
In an effort to see how political divisions are dividing the American diet, we rounded up foods that have been politicized by the left and right over the past few years. Here are all the brands that have been sucked into politics and hit with boycotts – through alt-right-led Twitter campaigns, anti-Trump spreadsheets, and more.
Over the last two years, a new right-wing social-media movement has risen in prominence — and that means new boycott threats.
Not every right-wing boycott starts with the alt-right, a loosely allied group of white supremacists, men’s-rights activists, and other far-right people.
But with the social-media power of many alt-right personalities who aggressively supported Donald Trump’s political rise, right-wing boycotts are often rooted in or amplified by certain people or websites.
Perhaps no brand is a bigger target for the right than Starbucks.
Starbucks’ most recent “scandal” is that it’s featuring a cartoon lesbian couple in an ad and, potentially, on cups, leading to some backlash. But this #BoycottStarbucks flap is nothing compared to past drama.
In February, some customers threatened to boycott the coffee giant after the company spoke out against the executive order barring immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US.
In late 2016, alt-right Twitter user Baked Alaska challenged his 123,000 followers to go to Starbucks and tell the employees that their names are Trump to “trigger SJW” employees.
And while he was campaigning in late 2015, Trump encouraged boycotting the chain for its lack of Christmas cheer.
Basically, if you’re a pro-Trump conservative, Starbucks has been at the top of the boycott list for a long time. And,with its dedication to progressive social causes, it’s likely to stay there for a while longer.
Keurig recently entered the spotlight as some people smashed their coffee makers to support Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Keurig faced backlash when it cut advertising on “Hannity” after the show ran an arguably sympathetic interview with Roy Moore, an Alabama GOP Senate candidate accused of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old and other teens.
Many Hannity supporters promised to boycott the coffee brand, with some going as far as posting videos of themselves smashing their Keurig coffee machines.
Keurig’s CEO apologised to employees for appearing to take sides in a political debate. Hannity decided to accept the apology himself, and promised to replace the coffee machines of people who smashed their Keurigs. So, at the end of the day, Keurig seems to have actually boosted sales over the course of the drama.
Keurig wasn’t the only food brand caught up in the Hannity drama.
Hebrew National, Reddi-wip, and Marie Callender’s – all owned by Conagra Brands – announced on Twitter that they had also stopped running ads on the show.
But the brands were quick to try to avoid the spotlight — and the viral boycotts that hit Keurig.
Just as boycott threats started to bubble up on Twitter, a Conagra Brands spokesperson clarified the timing of the company’s decision to cut advertising to Business Insider.
“We adjusted our media spend several months ago due to the needs of our business,” spokeswoman Lanie Friedman said. “That said, we have not run on this program since August, so our decision was not made currently and has nothing to do with this controversy.”
Pizza Hut wasn’t so much boycotted by the right as much as it was embraced by the left after the CEO of Papa John’s slammed NFL leadership.
One day after Papa John’s CEO blamed subpar sales on NFL players’ protests during the national anthem, the CEO of Pizza Hut’s parent company, Yum Brands, said the controversy wasn’t affecting sales.
Support for Pizza Hut immediately exploded online from the left – many of whom were boycotting Papa John’s (more on that below).
Meanwhile, the alt-right fought an all-out war against Kellogg’s.
Many on the right organised a boycott against Kellogg’s after the cereal brand announced in November 2016 that it would no longer advertise on Breitbart in an effort to “ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company.”
While Kellogg’s entered a sales slump in this period, the company’s CEO denied that the boycott had any financial effect.
Chobani was also hit hard for supporting refugees, and that culminated in a lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Chobani sued Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist behind Infowars. Jones had encouraged people to boycott Chobani, which he said was “importing migrant rapists.” The boycott movement gained significant steam online, where Jones has a huge following, including apparent ties to Trump.
In fact, Chobani legally employs more than 300 refugees, but has never been tied to any sexual-assault cases. Jones apologised to Chobani and retracted the story in May. But boycott threats are still circulatingonTwitter.
Ben & Jerry’s faced boycott threats after speaking out to support Black Lives Matter.
Ben & Jerry’s leadership is about as left-leaning as it gets, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the ice-cream brand endorsed Black Lives Matter – and quickly faced backlash from conservatives who believe the anti-police-brutality movement is simply anti-police.
In sum, the right has called for boycotts against everything from avowedly progressive companies with left-leaning leadership (Starbucks, Chobani) to apolitical brands that attempt to stay out of politics by pulling ads from controversial conservative media (Keurig, Kellogg’s).
With Twitter personalities with thousands to millions of followers leading the charge, once the boycott crusade is out of the bottle, it’s pretty much impossible to put it back in.
Just because many on the right are cutting coffee and ice cream from their diets, it doesn’t mean they’re going hungry.
Liberals are just as quick to jump on the boycott train. And when the left boycotts something, many conservatives automatically double down to support the brands in question – and vice versa.
No chain has sparked more boycott threats from the left recently than Papa John’s.
Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter slammed NFL leadership earlier in November over the ongoing controversy over players’ protests during the national anthem.
According to Schnatter, the matter should have been settled long ago. The fact that it wasn’t addressed and NFL ratings had declined was reportedly hurting Papa John’s sales.
Many on the left trashed Papa John’s for Schnatter’s comments, promising to boycott the chain. At the same time, people on the right rallied around Papa John’s.
Eventually, the backlash from the left (and support from white-nationalist groups) grew to such a degree that Papa John’s tweeted to clarify the CEO’s comments.
“We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change,” the company tweeted two weeks after Schnatter’s comments. “We also believe together, as Americans, we should honour our anthem. There is a way to do both.”
Some brands have been placed on boycott lists for less showy offenses.
There are only a handful of food brands on the #GrabYourWallet boycott list. The spreadsheet, started by brand and digital strategist Shannon Coulter in October 2016, encourages people to boycott companies that do business with Trump’s family.
King’s Hawaiian, See’s Candies, Trident gum, and Welch’s all made the “de-prioritised” protest list for advertising on “Celebrity Apprentice,” a show that Trump is a producer on, but that is unlikely to return to air.
According to Grab Your Wallet, “These companies will remain on the list until they make a statement that they would not choose to sponsor the show again, in the unlikely event of its return.”
In total, there are more than 70 brands on the Grab Your Wallet boycott list.
The bulk of the list is retailers that sell Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. In terms of food brands, Amazon – and therefore Whole Foods – made the list for advertising on Breitbart and carrying Trump products. MillerCoors and Yuengling made the list for having executives who support Trump or donated to his campaign.
The left’s official list of boycotted brands is even longer than the right’s — but people seem willing to make exceptions for certain missteps.
Wendy’s was designated the “official burger of the Neo-Nazi Alt-Right movement” by white-supremacist website The Daily Stormer after a rogue tweet was posted in January 2017.
The brand’s Twitter account tweeted, then deleted, an image of Pepe the Frog dressed up as the Wendy’s mascot. Once a commonly used meme, Pepe was declared a “hate symbol” by the Anti-Defamation League in September after it was frequently used online to express racist and anti-Semitic messages.
While there was backlash on the day the Pepe was tweeted, it quickly blew over when it became clear the tweet was an honest mistake. In all likelihood, few people even remember this scandal now – and no one on the left is boycotting the “official burger of the Neo-Nazi Alt-Right movement.”
Other times — as in the case of Carl’s Jr. — winning back the left takes more than deleting a tweet.
CKE Restaurants – the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s – was thrust into the spotlight when Trump nominated CEO Andy Puzder to be secretary of labour.
Puzder’s history of opposition to raising the minimum wage, promoting automation at fast-food chains, and support of the chains’ racy ads quickly inspired backlash. Puzder eventually withdrew his name from consideration in February, just a day before his confirmation hearing.
Meanwhile, Carl’s Jr. has been doing everything it can to separate itself from the ex-CEO. Puzder stepped down as CEO in March. Soon after, Carl’s Jr. debuted a new ad strategy that swaps scantily clad models for messages on the quality of the burger – a major change for the chain.
Chick-fil-A is a perfect example for how brands find post-boycott success.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A became the focus of a political maelstrom because of its donations to anti-LGBT groups. If you look at Chick-fil-A’s sales, the boycott was a failure. Just two years after the controversy, Chick-fil-A beat KFC to become the biggest chicken chain in the US in sales.
If you measure the success of the boycott on its social effect, a different narrative emerges. Chick-fil-A has attempted to move away from its conservative image and cut any talk of politics. Some franchisees have started donating to LGBT Pride events.
In 2015, same-sex marriage was legalised across the US. While you can’t draw a direct line between the boycott and the Supreme Court decision, the Chick-fil-A boycott kept marriage equality in the news and at the top of people’s minds whenever they ordered lunch. The boycott didn’t hurt Chick-fil-A’s sales, but it did send a message about Americans’ increasing support of same-sex marriage.
The brands we eat — and boycott — have become shorthand for certain political beliefs.
There’s something to be said for boycotting a brand that violates your values. Even if the opposite side of the aisle simply buys twice as much pizza or coffee, unified boycotts help keep certain issues in the news and force others to take notice.
However, in 2017, many brands are terrified of a misstep that lands them on the boycott list. With boycott threats primarily spreading over social media in 2017, it’s easy for minor offenses to be lumped in with companies taking political stances, as well as rumours and lies to be passed off as facts.
Food makers may want to stay apolitical – but that may be impossible in the Trump era.
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