Others customers, however, are feeling more conflicted. On Twitter, one owner said that although he couldn’t throw away his pillows because they help him sleep, he would punch them daily “to show my anger . . . then will not buy any new ones.” Although one disenchanted MyPillow purchaser I know enthusiastically trashed hers and sent a photo to the company, a couple of others expressed ambivalence: Wouldn’t getting rid of a perfectly good pillow be wasteful?
What happens when our increasingly pervasive boycott culture unexpectedly comes for something as prosaic and personal as our pillows? I reached out to several consumer-behavior experts for psychological insight into the struggles of MyPillow owners who deplore Lindell’s message but are devoted to his products — or of fans of any product that becomes the target of a boycott.
“People are going to differ a great deal in terms of how much (if at all) this issue matters to them,” Andrew John, an economics professor at the Melbourne Business School in Australia, wrote via email. “Some may like their pillows more! Many will think about their pillows in purely functional terms and either not care about or simply choose to ignore any association with Mike Lindell. And, among those who are troubled, the intensity of the reaction will still vary a lot.”
Much of that reaction, all the experts said, will be connected to the concept of self-identity. “Researchers on consumer behaviour generally agree that our self-identity is connected to our possessions: We want to own things that fit with our sense of who we are,” John wrote. “So, when a brand acquires a negative association for some consumers, as is happening with MyPillow, consumers may feel tainted by their association with this possession.”
First, they’ll have to deal with the surprise that such an everyday item could have any association at all. “Normally, you would think of a pillow in the same category as other mundane, innocuous objects, like toilet paper or breakfast cereal,” said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. But Lindell has taken this commonplace object and imbued it with a political ideology. (Breakfast cereal, in fact, has been the target of angry consumers: Supporters of the right-leaning news site Breitbart boycotted Kellogg’s in 2016 when the company said it would stop advertising on the site because it “did not align with our values.”)
From a consumer’s standpoint, “everything is going to be driven by the extent to which I believe I have an identity that is strong relative to that political ideology that is now being added to the pillow,” Reed said. “How strongly do I identify or disidentify with Donald Trump and Trumpism? The more strongly I disidentify, the more likely I am to get rid of that pillow. And at an extreme level of disidentification, I might burn it and have a little self-identity ceremonial cathartic event.”
Both Reed and John said the personal nature of pillows could intensify some consumers’ feelings. “If the association with MyPillow is troubling for someone, they are not going to want to be reminded of it last thing at night and first thing in the morning,” John said.
“If I’m comforting myself with something that is symbolic of something that I despise and I’m . . . putting my head on this pillow, which is now a cauldron of chaos and anger and outrage, how am I supposed to sleep like that?” Reed said.
It’s relatively easy to find a new pillow, compared with getting rid of all your Apple products in protest of labor issues (Reed’s example) or a Volkswagen during the emissions scandal a few years ago (John’s example). “Replacing it probably is not going to be that difficult,” Reed said.
In addition to identity, another major factor that drives boycotts is peer pressure, because “the greatest influence on people is other people,” said Troy Campbell, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. “Groups of human beings eventually, for many different causal reasons, end up in a herd behavior and then decide, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ ” he said. “They like to be part of a collective, and they will be pressured by collectives that are their peers and have power over them.”
In this case, the fact that a pillow is such a personal, private object lessens the pressure to boycott or get rid of it. “The whole idea of the ‘looking-glass self’ model of psychology is that we are who others see us as,” Campbell said. “And since this product is not something that is on us,” such as sneaker brand, for example, “it isn’t a negative social signal. There’s not a lot of social cost to having it.”
Pillow owners may also take pride in not following the crowd. “Sometimes people like doing things even when other people are telling them not to, because it allows them to feel autonomous,” Campbell said.
Here, the image of the kind of person you believe you are overrides any negative association with the product. Do you pride yourself on thinking independently rather than following every tweet? Then refusing to join a boycott is a way to reaffirm that image to yourself, Campbell said.
When it comes to beloved products, we are “very good at rationalizing in order to reduce this discomfort while still consuming the product we want to consume,” John said. One method of maintaining a connection to the person, product or brand that is the target of a boycott is called “moral decoupling.” In this case, customers “decouple the moral or the political piece from the utilitarian piece,” Reed explained.
A famous example of decoupling occurred after golfer Tiger Woods’s sex scandal, Reed said, with some of his fans deciding they could separate “Tiger Woods the golfer and Tiger Woods the cheating husband.” Moral decoupling allows a consumer to “maintain affiliation, even in a situation where there may be an attitude that you have a negative perception toward.” In the case of MyPillow, Reed said, consumers may think: “The quality of the pillow is good enough that I can decouple that from what I may or may not feel about the MyPillow guy.”
In other rationalizations, “people will remind themselves that lots of different companies do bad things,” John wrote. “People will tell themselves that getting rid of their pillow is a meaningless protest. People may engage in some pro-social behaviour that — perhaps unconsciously — allows them to compensate for their use of a MyPillow pillow.”
The bottom line is that “there’s millions of different ways we can rationalize something away,” Campbell said. But not everyone thinks very deeply and critically about these things — a process known in psychological circles as cognitive elaboration. “Lots of times people could just be like, ‘I want to keep my pillow,’ ” Campbell said. “And that is literally all they think about. And they don’t really need to consciously justify it to themselves the way that other people who tend to think with more cognitive elaboration might.”
More from Lifestyle: