Understanding consumer sentiment behind the Israel Boycott movement.
Ever since October 2023, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have taken to protesting Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza in different ways. Out of all these nonviolent protests, one that seems to really be making a highlighted difference is boycotts. In fact, the issue seems to have brought renewed focus on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and its role in effecting change for its causes.
Initiated in 2005, a year after the International Court of Justice ruled the West Bank Barrier illegal, the BDS movement has been founded on the principles of the South African anti-apartheid of the 1980s. Consumers the world over had boycotted products made in the country and divested shares from South African companies, gradually putting enough pressure on the regime to tilt the scales and bring about an end to the apartheid. A similar pressure is being aimed at Israel’s government, the boycotters hoping they can have a severe enough impact on their economy to make them rethink their aggressive footing. As such, major corporations such as PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, P&G and others that are either owned by Israel, or support the genocide in any way, have made it to the list. The list is expansive and includes all sorts of companies, from FMCG to high-end and drugstore makeup manufacturers, car manufacturers, electronics manufacturers and even the search engine, Google.
This year, social media sites, starting from X to TikTok are heating up with hashtags such as #BDSMovement, with consumers listing companies to boycott.
The Vice President of the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, Michael Bueckert says that he supports the boycott and the movement as an effective tool to bring about change, and to ensure that countries are not complicit in oppression. The boycotts, however, do not target any particular company, nationality or religion. He also feels that the BDS movement has been misinterpreted and that the motive has never been to take down Jewish-owned businesses.
Generally, boycotts have been called unsuccessful forms of protest and the reasons are worth chewing upon. Shopper boycotts have become so commonplace that the word has been diluted to a point, being used for inconsequential reasons and desensitising people, as a result. While many conform (without true motivation) to remain relevant, most are seen to jump ship as soon as the media hype dies down. Some fail to realise that a boycott means a complete stoppage in using a brand until the situation in question is rectified. It is not uncommon for initially enthusiastic supporters, therefore, to get bored, lose patience, or get swayed by marketing tactics to fund complicit corporations again.
This time, however, public sentiment is different. Gruesome, no-holes-barred images coming out of Palestine have been enough to sway the toughest of hearts. Mutilated bodies of children, massacred babies and images of charred human flesh have made plenty of eyes around the world cry. Gaza’s Health Ministry has mentioned that it has documented 20,057 deaths so far and more than 50,000 wounded. As Gaza’s photojournalists become overnight celebrities, they amass more and more followers.
Just last year, a Pew survey found that around 84% of Americans had no idea of the existence of BDS, despite it existing for almost two decades. This year, however, social media sites, starting from X to TikTok are heating up with hashtags such as #BDSMovement, with consumers listing companies to boycott. Also, surprisingly, those who are boycotting complicit brands have pledged to never come back to fund companies that they believe have been responsible for taking innocent Palestinian lives.
Omar Bargouhti, one of the BDS co-founders, said, “The fact that many spontaneous boycott activists are now reaching out to the BDS movement for guidance on building strategic and sustainable campaigns gives us hope that indeed beyond stopping Israel’s current genocidal war in Gaza – supported by the US, EU, UK, Canada, Australia and others – we can channel all this unprecedented outrage into strategic campaigns that can truly cut a lot of the ongoing complicity in Israeli crimes.”
In the face of so much media coverage and constant scrutiny of angered customers, brands are finding it difficult to brush this outrage under the rug. The recent fashion campaign from Zara and the uproar that followed is just one of the examples that make this bout of boycotts different.
For those who are not aware of the full story, Zara recently released an ad campaign that had its model holding a mannequin wrapped in a white shroud, with limbless statues and rubble in the background. While Zara maintains that the shoot was done in September, before the Israel-Hamas conflict, customers felt that the campaign looked suspiciously like a mockery of the Palestinian plight. Amid furious calls for a boycott, Zara took down their controversial fashion shoot. Despite the clarification, most boycotters refused to budge, calling Zara insensitive and tone-deaf. The controversy has cost Zara a few stores around the world, most recently in London and Glasgow.
For organisations that feign indifference to this new onslaught of hatred towards them, there seems to be trouble ahead. Customers today know they have more choices at their disposal now more than ever before. All US consumers have reported a drop in loyalty, of about 14% at least, according to the SAP Emarsys Customer Loyalty Index.
Large food chains like KFC, Starbucks and McDonalds have resorted to clarifying their stance by sending out messages of solidarity to Palestine and letting customers know that they do not support violence of any kind. Refusing to buy into the narrative, customers have responded by posting videos of McDonald’s feeding Israeli soldiers for free and Starbucks employees being penalised for supporting Palestine.
Customers today know they have more choices at their disposal now more than ever before. All US consumers have reported a drop in loyalty, of about 14% at least, according to the SAP Emarsys Customer Loyalty Index.
In the face of empty stores and unsold foodstuffs, complicit food chains in countries such as Pakistan have seen reduced sales worth billions of dollars. Mcdonald’s and KFC have been offering numerous discounts, lowering prices and going for other sorts of promotions to pull in crowds. Despite it all, determined customers in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have managed to drive these corporations to a point where they are working shorter operating hours, laying off workers and even packing up. Never before, in its entire existence, has BDS seen this level of commitment in consumers. For a movement that was written off as largely inconsequential, this is huge.
A positive thing to come out of this boycott is the revival in the demand for locally made products. As people around the world reduce their consumption of Coke, Pepsi, and other drinks coming from these parent brands, they have turned to local soda. In Bangladesh, Meghna’s Fresh Cola and Akij’s Mojo have been clear winners, seeing a surge in sales. Companies offering mineral water have also responded by coming out with handy water bottles to cater to those who do not wish to go for Kinley or Aquafina, the mineral water brands belonging to Coca-Cola and Pepsi respectively.
In Egypt, its oldest carbonated drinks company Spiro Spathis is making a sensational comeback. Rolling out slogans such as “100% Made in Egypt” and “Egypt’s Original Gazouza”, the company is causing a stir in the fizzy drink market, proudly branding itself as the poster child for Egyptian Solidarity with Palestine.
According to a Bloomberg report, foreign investment in Israel has taken a dip this year, amidst political and social turmoil in the country. Monetary outflow that is funding the conflict is making an additional dent in the deep coffers of Israel. Putting on the line, quite successfully, the reputations of politicians, celebrities and journalists is not a small feat to achieve either. Amid severe pressure and consumer backlash, the Turkish Parliament has cancelled all Coca-Cola and Nestlé products from its parliament offerings, and the aviation giant Emirates has dropped flights to Israel indefinitely.
Unfortunately, however, despite there being massive hype about the BDS Movement, there is little evidence to show that a boycott has a very significant impact on the Israeli GDP as a whole. Revenue lost around the world thanks to Palestinian supporter resistance would only amount to a small chunk of the total Israeli GDP of over USD 500 billion.
For most supporters, however, the purpose is deeper than hurting Israel. Those that continue their resistance, more than anything, wish to send a message of solidarity to the people of Palestine, announcing to the world, that they are not willing to take their money to businesses that fund genocidal activity. As 31-year-old, Cairo-based Sahar Azizi says, “It’s the least we can do to support Palestinians under attack, and it is not a temporary action on my part. I won’t be eating or drinking something that has made the murder of an innocent Palestinian possible.”