People are saying the Tucker Carlson boycotts are a betrayal of free speech. They're wrong.

Rich Polk/Getty Images for PoliticonTucker Carlson is losing advertisers after boycotts.
  • Tucker Carlson has lost at least 18 advertisers after he said on his Fox News show that immigrants are making the US “poorer and dirtier.”
  • Activist groups organised boycotts against the show’s advertisers after the controversial segment – a practice some people on the right and left fear will suppress free political speech.
  • Advertiser boycotts do not suppress free speech. They give average Americans the chance to force cable news hosts making millions of dollars to face repercussions for their actions.

A new wave of boycotts is sweeping America. And, there is nothing wrong with that.

At least 18 sponsors have cut ties with Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show since last week, when the host said in a segment that immigrants were making the US “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” In response to Carlson’s statements, progressive activist groups and others on the left threatened to boycott companies that ran ads on the show.


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The boycotts sparked fury on the right.

Fox News issued a statement saying: “We cannot and will not allow voices like Tucker Carlson to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts from the likes of Moveon.org, Media Matters and Sleeping Giants. … While we do not advocate boycotts, these same groups never target other broadcasters and operate under a grossly hypocritical double standard given their intolerance to all opposing points of view.”

However, not all of the criticism came from the right.

“The logical endpoint of deeming advertisers to have endorsed the political messages of the shows they run ads on is that only milquetoast both-sidesism with a pro-corporate bent will be advertising-supported, if any political content is ad-supported at all,” Nate Silver tweeted on Tuesday.

Silver hints at the actual point of boycotts. Contrary to popular belief, boycotts’ success is not determined by how they negatively impact a company’s sales, something that rarely happens. Instead, boycotts are a tool to set a political agenda – in this case, pushing back against a Fox News host saying that immigrants make the US poorer and dirtier.

But, the assumption that “only milquetoast both-sidesism with a pro-corporate bent” will survive the recent rash of boycotts ignores history, both in centuries past and in the Trump era.

The history of boycotts

Leftist BrandsHollis JohnsonThese brands have been boycotted by the right in recent years.

While companies have been pummelled by boycott threats over the last few years, some of the most significant political shifts in American history have been accompanied by boycotts.

The Montgomery bus boycotts were a massive turning point in the Civil Rights movement, as a rare example of a boycott that directly resulted in a legal action. Prior to the Civil War, abolitionists organised boycotts against goods made with slave labour. And, the Boston Tea Party was essentially the bubbling over of a tea-centric boycott in reaction to what American colonists saw as unfair taxation.

With the US’ rich history of boycotts – and related destruction of goods – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people destroyed their Keurigs when the company pulled advertising from Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in 2017.

A successful boycott is one that raises political consciousness about certain issues, even if it doesn’t impact sales, according to Lawrence Glickman, a Cornell history professor.

For example, anti-slavery boycotts in the 1800s failed to substantially impact Southern businesses’ sales. However, the boycotts forced both Northerners and Southerners to realise how their daily lives overlapped with companies that profited from slavery.

“What boycotters try to do is try to personalise the economy, which is often abstract to people,” Glickman told Business Insider in 2017. “So, you see yourself buying a good, but you don’t necessarily see yourself affecting people or the environment in a direct way.”

“What boycotters have always tried to do is separate people from their illusions about consumption, and say, ‘this is the direct impact of you buying these goods.'”

Boycotts in the Trump era

Alt Right BrandsHollis JohnsonThese brands have been boycotted by the left in recent years.

Over the last few years, boycotts have become a near-constant response to the news of the day. Politics are polarised, so what is celebrated by one party may be unacceptable to another.


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Some companies take backlash as a chance to establish a reputation as a brand that will stand by certain values despite criticism, such as Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick in an ad or Dick’s Sporting Goods’ commitment to banning assault rifles.Sometimes, companies will apologise – as in when Prada pulled trinkets criticised for their similarities to blackface – or cut ad funding. Often, companies will do nothing at all and hope things will blow over.

In a handful of situations, the boycotts can impact sales. For example, anti-Trump #GrabYourWallet protests are seen by many to have negatively impacted Ivanka Trump’s brand, which shut down earlier this year. Target lost roughly $US20 million due to boycotts after it announced it would welcome transgender customers to use any bathroom or fitting room that matched their gender identity.

Boycotts of advertisers, however, have not noticeably impacted their sales. IHOP didn’t pull its ads from Tucker Carlson’s show because people stopped eating pancakes for one weekend. In terms of revenue, boycotts are empty threats.

Instead, boycotts do set political agendas. The #GrabYourWallet boycotts may have damaged the sales of Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand, but more than that, it highlighted concerns about the Trump family’s private businesses. NFL boycotts kept the narrative of athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality in the news for weeks.

If companies actually do cut advertising or sever ties in response to boycotts, it is usually when they feel the political conversation shifting in a way that could endanger their reputation in the long term.

Boycotts are a tool that every person has to highlight what they believe in politically or socially. Used hand-in-hand with social media, boycotts give people’s opinions weight through sheer force in numbers.

Dismissing advertising boycotts as a tool isn’t encouraging free speech. If anything, it is the opposite – taking away a strategy that allows people who aren’t Fox News hosts to communicate political opinions.

What this means for Tucker Carlson

Tucker carlsonGetty Images/Business InsiderFox News host Tucker Carlson is going to be just fine.

Constant boycotts aren’t causing a “milquetoast both-sidesism.” They’re a symptom of widespread political polarization. Because the polarization leads to near constant boycotts, advertisers now ignore basically all boycott threats.

Sure, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson have lost some advertisers. But, Carlson’s show is still the No. 1 in its time slot, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox News told Business Insider on Tuesday that all the sponsors were re-expressing their advertising spending. One show may have lost sponsors, but Fox New didn’t lose any revenue. Even if it did, Fox News does not rely on advertising for funding.

Further, the advertiser exodus is a rare phenomenon.

Bill O’Reilly faced boycotts for years, but didn’t lose advertisers until 2017, when it was revealed he had paid millions of dollars to settle sexual-harassment allegations. Carlson only lost sponsors after calling immigrants “dirty.” Ingraham dealt with it after mocking a Parkland shooting survivor, but didn’t lose advertisers after comparing child migrant detention centres to summer camps.

Can boycotts be used to further censorship or harmful ideas? Sure! So can cable news shows, blogs, and social media – all things we think of as being protected as free speech, even if we disagree with them.

I don’t want Applebee’s determining political programming, but that is not what is happening in 2018. If an apolitical company believes enough of its customers or employees believe something – and that few enough are in the group that will counter-boycott – it pulls advertising, but that is a relatively rare occurrence.

Instead, boycotts have served as a straightforward way to elevate the opinions of groups of people who typically don’t have massive political sway.

Advertiser boycotts are a tool to signal that a celebrity making millions of dollars said something that people don’t just disagree with, but that also falls far outside what many find acceptable or tolerable. Often, the reactions of the corporate sponsors are less important than setting a political agenda.

People – including Fox News hosts – are allowed to say what they believe. They can also face repercussions for their statements. Boycotts simply give the average person the power to hold public figures accountable.

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