They poured the liquid – flavored with blueberry, orange and the original unflavored version – tweeting #DumpRussianVodka and, in gay bars across the country, they stuck to Absolut and soda à la square.
That was in 2013, after Vladimir V. Putin imposed tough new measures targeting LGBTQ Russians.
And now, as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine takes a horrific human toll, turning millions into refugees, the boycotts are back: American consumers are channeling their outrage into abandoning products they assume are made by Russians in Russia, with ties, one way or another, to Mr. Putin.
The problem with this logic is that Americans hardly consume any truly Russian products. That goes for vodka – and oil too. Russian oil represents 3% of what Americans consume daily.
This mistaken impression has led people to punish companies that are really only Russian in name. Some states that have recently banned Russian spirits have found they are implementing a policy that only affects two low-footprint brands domestically – Russian Standard and Ustianochka. President Biden announced a ban on all Russian alcohol imports on Friday. But less than 1% of the vodka consumed here comes from Russia, a beverage industry trade group noted.
The vodka most commonly but incorrectly associated with Russia, Stolichnaya, has again been the target of online boycott calls. It has been produced in Latvia since 2002 and its parent company, the Stoli Group, is headquartered in Luxembourg. Last week, the company officially rebranded its signature spirit as Stoli after bar owners from Vermont from Michigan to Iowa said they would no longer serve it and shared a video of themselves throwing bottles down the drain.
In New York, the famous red banquettes of the Russian Tea Room are no longer so full of people these days. But the restaurant’s Russian heritage is a bit of a sleight of hand. It was opened in 1927 by a Polish immigrant who called it the Russian Tea Room Albertina Rasch – named after a ballet dancer who was Viennese, although many at the time thought she was Russian.
In Chicago, a Russian-style bathhouse called Red Square reported receiving strange phone calls from people trying to figure out if it had taken sides in the war. But Red Square is co-owned by a man who was born in Ukraine and said he still has family in the country.
In Washington, the Russia House restaurant near Dupont Circle had its windows smashed and a door smashed. Its co-owner told local media that the business, which has been closed since the pandemic, has no ties to Russia. According to its website, which advertises caviar spreading as the kind of indulgence many Americans associate with Russian decadence, one owner fought in the Gulf War and the other was born in Lithuania.
The backlash’s misplaced anger at Russia has been an instructive development for those who study consumer habits, highlighting how boycotts are particularly ineffective and often counterproductive as a tool of protest in the age of media. social. A staple of American political resistance since the Boston Tea Party, boycotts have played a vital role in shaping public opinion on protests for social progress. Bus boycotts for civil rights in the South and grape boycotts in the 1960s and 1970s to protest the conditions of farmworkers helped bring about significant change.
But that’s not so true today, despite the exponential growth in the number of boycotts targeting big business. A study by a pair of academics, Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Joseph Gaspar of Quinnipiac University, found that boycott calls against Fortune 500 companies had nearly tripled since 2010. The study, which has not yet been published, also found that the most common trigger was politics.
Boycott calls can be effective in creating bad publicity that, at least temporarily, tarnishes a company’s image. Sometimes they inspire companies to change, as did a backlash against SeaWorld over its treatment of killer whales. The company announced in 2016 that it was ending its breeding program, meaning the generation of killer whales currently in its theme parks will be its last.
But more often than not, consumer boycotts don’t have much of an impact on the targeted company’s bottom line because they’re either too hard to enforce, as people have discovered when they’ve tried to avoid BP gas after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or because they inspire an enthusiastic response from consumers who want to support a company precisely because it is under attack.
After the CEO of Chick-fil-A declared his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2012, mayors in liberal cities like San Francisco and Boston said the Southern fried chicken restaurant should look elsewhere to open new restaurants. Conservatives like Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher and two-time presidential candidate, rallied their supporters in support of the channel. Its national expansion continued at a rapid pace and there are now Chick-fil-A restaurants from Brooklyn to Seattle.
“It either turns out to be too delicious or too convenient,” Mr. Schweitzer of the Wharton School said of avoiding certain products. Another factor, he added, is the sheer volume of news that people find politically motivating. “There is cause for outrage on a weekly or monthly basis,” he said. “And in the moment, the emotion feels raw and powerful, but we fail to appreciate how fleeting it is.”
One of the reasons boycott calls continue to grow despite their ineffectiveness is that many people seem to believe they are sticking to their guns when they are not.
A draft of a new study by academics from Northwestern University, the University of Toronto and Harvard Business School examined the impact of several recent politically motivated calls to action, including the boycott campaign or, conversely, to “buy” Starbucks after it announced in 2017 that it would hire 10,000 refugees. The move came in response to former President Donald J. Trump’s order to halt migration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The Russian-Ukrainian War and the World Economy
The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 consumers, obtained their actual spending at Starbucks over several months, and asked them if they had changed their shopping behavior due to the refugee announcement. They found that those who said they changed their ways — either in favor of Starbucks by buying more or against it by boycotting it — actually did nothing different.
Katy DeCelles, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and one of the study’s authors, said the results showed people of all political persuasions believed what they wanted. be truthful about their own behavior. .
Finding that there was no measurable impact on spending with such an emotionally charged and highly publicized issue surprised the researchers.
“We thought if we were going to find an effect on people’s behavior it would be now,” Ms DeCelles added.
As this research — and current anti-Stoli sentiment — shows, the anger channeled into consumer boycotts often lacks coherent logic. Although some states like Pennsylvania and Oregon did not include Stoli in their ban on Russian spirits, New Hampshire did. A spokesperson for the state liquor board confirmed that because Gov. Chris Sununu’s order applies not only to Russian-made products, but also “Russian-branded” ones, Stoli would remain off the shelves of state-run stores.
Damian McKinney, Managing Director of the Stoli Group, said in an interview that misleading brand impressions almost led to major business losses. He recalls a recent conversation with the head of a major British retailer, who informed him that Stoli was about to be pulled from its shelves.
“I said, ‘Do you know we’re Latvian?’ And there was a pause,” Mr. McKinney said, declining to name the retailer. As he spoke, the background of his Zoom screen was framed in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag alongside the hashtag #StandWithUkraine. “I needed people to understand that we are on the side of the good guys. And this is about a bad man and a regime, not about the Russian people,” he added, noting that Stoli employs both Russians and Ukrainians.
Like many companies, Stoli does not have an easily delineated singular identity. Its recipe is Russian, just like its name. “Stolicnaya” roughly translates to “metropolitan”. The company’s founder, Yuri Shefler, fled Russia after a dispute with the government over control of the Stoli brand. He now lives in Switzerland. For years, Russia fought Stoli in court for the right to claim ownership of the name. The company manufactures its bottle caps and some of its bottles in Ukraine and recently evacuated five Ukrainian employees from the country to Cyprus and Luxembourg, McKinney said.
The Russian Tea Room, where during Friday’s theater rush only a few tables were occupied, has an equally complicated lineage, despite its name. Its current owner is a New York real estate developer. But it started in 1927 as a popular meeting place among Russians who emigrated to America and became citizens. A 1977 New York Times article on the restaurant’s 50th anniversary noted that the restaurant was frequented early on by exiles who called themselves “White Russians”, to distinguish themselves from Lenin’s “Red” Bolsheviks.
And nearly a century later, making those distinctions with the Moscow regime is more important than ever. On the restaurant’s website, a pop-up banner about the war in Ukraine greets visitors, noting its history as an institution “deeply rooted in speaking out against communist dictatorship.” He adds: “We are against Putin and with the Ukrainian people”.
Kristen Noyes contributed research.