When fighting against a nuanced, broad and decades-old problem, what counts as a win?
Such boycotts, in general, don’t have a great track record of working.
“Whether it’s Nike over employment practices, KFC over chicken treatment…BP over the oil spill, boycotts happen often,” said Maurice Schweitzer, co-author of “Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both.” “For boycotts to effect change, they need to be sustained efforts with effective leadership. And they take time.”
This time, after only a handful of prominent actors declared they wouldn’t attend, it seems the boycott was effective. Academy leadership announced that people who “represent greater diversity” will be sought out as voting members of the Academy, added to the Board of Governors and hired onto executive and board committees. Membership will no longer be an automatic lifetime appointment and voting rights can be taken away from members who are inactive in the industry. The goal is to double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.
“This boycott was a PR nightmare for them,” Schweitzer said. “It wasn’t a broad-based movement that threatened the economic viability of the Oscars, but the celebrity status of the boycotters, given the nature of what they were trying to do, made it quite harmful.”
We’re used to seeing examples of boycotts such as the protest of Chick-fil-A, which was essentially an argument over same-sex marriage. These boycotts fail because both sides fundamentally disagree with each other. Then there are boycotts that ask people to disrupt their everyday routines: Stop filling up your gas tank at BP, stop wearing Nike clothes. These tend to peter out because Americans are creatures of habit whose search for the best deal can trump concern over hot-button issues.
In the case of the Oscars, the boycott was more likely to be successful because the protesters are only asking for viewers to change their habits for one night. Plus, the Academy and the boycotters seem to want the same thing: an awards process that is fair and reflects the diversity of its audience.
Of course, that was also true last year, when the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was first created. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American to serve as Academy president, told the Associated Press in January 2015 that the group had “made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members.” After that year’s ceremony, more than 300 new voting members were added to increase diversity, including David Oyelowo, who was widely credited as proof of #OscarsSoWhite when he was not nominated for his performance in “Selma.”
Those changes weren’t enough to stop a repeat of all-white nominations in the acting categories. #OscarsSoWhite was now not only about regular people protesting the show; prominent black celebrities (and Michael Moore) were deciding not to attend. And with them, came the flood of media coverage.
“The stated purpose of a boycott is to get people to stop buying a product or supporting an organization. But the main way boycotts influence is by drawing negative attention to the company or event,” said Brayden King, who studies activism and corporate change at Northwestern University. “Nobody wants negative attention.”
The boycott brought about just that, and the Academy responded to fix the damage.
So can Will and Jada go to the Oscars now?
“Everybody should do what they feel is best, but nothing has changed for me,” said April Reign, the inventor of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. “We’re operating in the now, and the now says there’s very little representation of people of color or marginalized communities in the 2016 Oscars.”
Reign said she’ll reevaluate next year, but she hopes others will join in choosing not to watch this year’s Oscars. She’ll be organizing “counter-programming” like she did last year, when she encouraged people to live-tweet while they watched Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” on Netflix.
Now that the Academy has responded to the backlash, the choice to completely boycott the Awards will seem more radical, said Paul Sergius Koku, who has studied consumer boycotts since 1997.
“It is not surprising that the Academy came out and said they are overhauling the system,” Koku said. “They are taking the wind out of the sail of those organizing the boycott. That is what targets [of boycotts] do. They try to win sympathy.”
With the public feeling like “at least the Academy is trying to fix the problem,” it will be harder for protesters to convince more viewers, and especially more celebrities, to boycott.
Experts say there are two roads forward from here: The #OscarsSoWhite issue fades and the Academy’s announcement feels like nothing but lip service, or the Academy follows up on its promises and change occurs quickly.
But often, one road leads to the other. During his time at Northwestern, King conducted a study of 221 boycotts between 1990 and 2005. He found that organizations under attack begin with “impression management,” like creating committees and promising improvement. Over time, those PR-motivated responses lead to actual change.
“What companies initially do as a symbolic attempt to appease activists creates an opening for those activists to have some influence,” King said. “It creates a shift in values in the organization to where they recognize that maybe, they had their priorities wrong in the first place.”
Until then, there’s a show to put on. The Oscars will air on Feb. 28, hosted by comedian Chris Rock. He won’t be boycotting, but according to the show’s producer, #OscarsSoWhite has motivated him to re-write the entire script.