Consumer Politics in the Facebook Era

Social media has breathed new life into the old concept of boycotts.

Case in point: I was perusing my Facebook newsfeed last weekend when I came across a post by someone urging his "friends" to follow him in boycotting Hy-Vee grocery stores. The reason: Hy-Vee (apparently) advertises on the the Rush Limbaugh radio show.

The comment was linked to an online petition at signon.org with this call to action: Hy-Vee Stop Insulting Us By Advertising on Rush Limbaugh. Stop Supporting Rush and We will Support Your Employees.

Sayeth the petition: "A majority of your shoppers are women and your support of a Radio Show that has repeatedly insulted women based on their support of policies is by de facto communication to us that you agree with his outrageous lies and insults.” As of Monday, the petition had slightly more than 11,000 "signatures." (And who remembers the old days when someone actually had to physically sign a petition? Imagine someone walking up to you with this one.)

I have no skin in this game. I don’t listen to Rush, nor have I ever taken anything he said seriously. He has admitted that he's nothing more than an entertainer, entertaining apparently an audience of racist misogynists who find comfort listening to a bitter old man spew ignorant spiels of hate and loathing for anyone different than himself. We all need our hobbies, I suppose.

Whenever the liberal media pounds its chest about how galvanizing and effective Limbaugh is -- commanding an army of millions who bend their will at his every word -- I smile and nod my head. Rush's army listens to Rush because they’re already buying what Rush is selling. He's not changing anyone's minds. Now if he could actually do that -- change people's minds -- then we'd all have something to worry about. Until then, he’s merely preaching to the same badly off-key choir he’s been preaching to for the past 20 years.

The other reason why this online petition and boycott doesn't touch me is that I already don't shop at Hy-Vee. Not because of any political reason, but because the 30-odd items I buy every Sunday morning during my weekly grocery trip simply are cheaper elsewhere.

Needless to say, the Facebook arguments about the Hy-Vee boycott quickly eroded from any serious back-and-forth about Limbaugh and his politics to which store has the better produce and bakery selection. Like everything in social media, it was merely another trivial distraction forgotten as soon as the post scrolled off the screen, pushed out of sight by another trivial distraction. 

Which brings us to the futility of such boycotts and petitions. I know that this one caught the eye of people at Hy-Vee because someone who said they represented the grocer responded on Facebook. I’d tell you what that response was but the original post has magically vanished, along with all of its comments -- yet another example of the impermanence of Facebook.

Whether Hy-Vee continues to advertise on Limbaugh’s show or not, the show will go on, likely forever or until Limbaugh punches his ticket. There will always be an audience for idiots. As for Hy-Vee, judging by their ever-crowded parking lots, they look like they’re doing just fine, thank you.

Boycotts, for the most part, are a waste of time. They oftentimes punish the wrong people for others’ decisions. Why should the employees who work at your local Hy-Vee suffer because of the actions by someone in the company’s West Des Moines-based marketing department? Do you think the guy who fills the shelves has any input on where the chain advertises?

And yet, as I write about the futility of boycotts, I have quietly, personally been taking part in my own boycott for a few years.

Back in 2010, a controversy erupted over one of the area’s most beloved local bars housed in one of the oldest buildings on the historic Lincoln Highway -- The 49’r at 49th and Dodge streets. The Dundee neighborhood erupted when CVS announced its plans to demolish The 49‘r building along with the rest of the block to build yet another pharmacy in a town where there’s a Walgreens on almost every corner.

The neighborhood pushed back. Letters were written. Voices were heard. When the proposal came in front of the Omaha City Council for approval, it was defeated by one vote... initially. And then a few days later, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray -- one of the original nay votes -- asked the council to reconsider.

Had Gray been swayed by alleged threats by CVS to pull plans for additional sites -- including a proposed location at 72nd and Maple streets, which was already in progress -- if the 49th and Dodge location was blocked? Gray didn’t say. But just a few days later, he changed his vote, the plan was approved, and the bulldozers began demolishing the block where The 49’r stood.

Today, an ugly CVS pharmacy stands where the 49’r once leaned, glowing like a tacky fluorescent beacon along Dodge Street. As for that proposed CVS at 72nd and Maple, well, that never happened, and judging by the condition of the property, never will. Don’t worry, Ben, you’re not the first politician to be conned by a corporation.

When that CVS celebrated its grand opening in September 2010, I vowed never to step foot in that store. And so far, I’ve kept that vow. You could say my decision was sort of a boycott, too, and I doubt it’s accomplished anything, except to make me feel a little better about myself.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 08:31 am
on Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

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