BP: Boycotted Petroleum
Filling in for Dan Yorke, on Friday, Channel 10 reporter Gene Valicenti (another transplanted Jersey boy, by the way) took up the question of whether people feel it’s appropriate to boycott BP gas stations as a means of punishing the company for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Inasmuch as I was busy cutting seventy-two copes for massive crown molding in a coffered kitchen ceiling, I wasn’t able to offer my two cents on the air.
I find it highly unlikely that anybody engages in a full boycott of a particular gas station. Rather, people will look for alternatives to a greater or lesser degree based on their impressions of the company. Nobody’s going to walk or wait for AAA to bring a can of gasoline for an empty tank rather than pull in to a disliked station. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s probably rather easy to push people to pick one or the other competitors on the same intersection and with a price differential of a couple of cents.
Personally, BP’s pretentious environmentalish advertising had turned me off enough to engage in a boycott of the most mild sort (milder than my avoidance of dictator Chavez’s Citgo stations) even before oil began to flow toward our southern coast. Increasing the intensity of my wallet-vote statement wasn’t something that I’d considered, but I don’t think it’s an irrational decision for people to make.
Valicenti suggested that a boycott would only hurt the local store owner, but look, there has to be a consumer consequence for big companies. We’ve already got the federal government bailing out corporations that have gained a substantial claim on our economy; allowing companies to hide behind their employees and franchisees when they mess up would further undermine the very mechanism that makes capitalism a system for efficiency and quality. If a company like BP needn’t fear consumer backlash, then it really will become solely the role of governments to impose penalties.
That ties in with a secondary argument that Valicenti put forward — namely, that boycotting BP would do no good, because the company would just move its product elsewhere. That’s baloney on its face. That the company spends so much on developing and disseminating marketing materials in the Rhode Island market (for example) proves that it is very interested in ensuring that Rhode Islanders think well of it. The executives know that gas stations compete on the basis of mere pennies and that even something as superficial as dislike of a corporate logo can make the difference in consumer choices. Clearly, their response to pervasive anger at their brand is not something that they would brush aside.
To boycott or not to boycott BP is not a question in which I’m inclined to invest much passion. It’s a matter of practicality and preference. By contrast, striving to argue against a boycott on philosophical or structural grounds could actually do harm to our economic and political system.