Martin’s potato roll boycott is nothing new: Consumer activism shows mixed historical results

Bruce Siwy Kaity Assaf
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

Pennsylvania's great potato roll controversy is just the latest entry in Americans' storied involvement with consumer activism.

Last week, celebrity chef James Kenji López-Alt said to his 478,000 Instagram followers that he would no longer purchase from Martin's Famous Potato Rolls and Bread because company owner James Martin had given $110,000 to the campaign of Pennsylvania's Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. López-Alt cited Mastriano's proposed abortion ban and participation in the events of Jan. 6, 2021 as reasons for his boycott, and he urged others to do the same.

"Very organically, corporate advocacy has been one of the more effective means for change," said Eric Facas, CEO of Rally Starter, a website designed to help people create campaigns of consumer activism. "It's really easy for politicians to ignore their constituents on both sides of the aisle, and way more effective for consumers to ask companies for change. People are more and more inclined to vote with their dollars these days."

Because of this, many Americans are injecting their personal politics into otherwise innocuous, everyday purchases.

U.S. history of consumer activism

To some, making deliberate product choices is just part of being an educated consumer.

“I won’t buy them anymore," York resident Todd Diehl said of Martin's potato rolls. "There are others that are just as good."

According to Facas, supporting organizations that align with your values is simple and empowering.

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"I think boycotts are amazing," he said. "Exercising our consumer rights (is) democracy at its finest."

Recent history is filled with examples of consumer backlash to businesses based on political positions.

In the 1960s, college students and other activists protested recruiters from Dow Chemical Co. over its involvement in the production of napalm. The U.S. military used napalm for flamethrowers and bombs in Vietnam.

When the Florida Citrus Commission backed the repeal of a local ordinance that outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace and housing markets in the 1970s, many bar owners and restaurateurs stopped buying cartons of OJ.

Coors Brewing Co. was also boycotted with regularity during the mid-20th century. Gay activists, labor unions and segments of the Latinx population took issue with various political policies of the popular beer-maker.

More recently, there was a boycott call for Under Armour in 2017 because the CEO said then-President Donald Trump was doing a good job.

In Pennsylvania, both Yuengling beer and Maple Donuts have faced criticism. Yuengling hosted Eric Trump for a brewery tour in 2016, and Maple Donuts owner Charlie Burnside has drawn ire for some of his comments and advertising campaigns.

The electronic Maple Donuts sign along East Market Street in Spring Garden Township.

Others dropped their SoulCycle membership in 2019 because its owner planned a fundraiser for Trump. SoulCycle's competitors moved to capitalize on the outrage by offering promotions and donating to progressive causes.

Nor has this sort of activity been monopolized by the left.

After France opposed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, French bakeries in the U.S. were under pressure to change the names of their products. Menus across the country, including in the congressional cafeterias, changed "french fries" to "freedom fries."

In 2012, some conservatives boycotted Starbucks over its support for same-sex marriage. Others shunned Nike in 2018 for running an advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the ex-NFL football player who famously started the trend of kneeling during the national anthem before games.

"Conservatives are just as willing to participate," Facas said.

Perhaps the most famous example of American boycott predates the nation's founding: In 1773, members of the Sons of Liberty group dressed in disguise and destroyed an entire tea shipment from the British East India Company. The Tea Party activists were protesting taxes that enterprising colonists felt gave an unfair advantage to competitors.

"Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well," future U.S. President John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, in 1774.

"Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better."

A hand-colored lithograph by N. Currier from 1846 titled "Destruction of tea at Boston Harbor" depicts the events of the Boston Tea Party.

Does boycotting products work?

The success rate for boycotts, at least in the 21st century, is mixed.

Last year, professors Michael Neureiter and C.B. Bhattacharya collaborated on a research paper through the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. The pair examined eight boycott efforts between 2005 and 2020.

"There have been a few examples of consumer boycotts that have been effective at hurting companies financially and forcing them to change their behavior, such as (the liberal) boycott of Target in 2010 over its donations to anti-LGBT politicians," said Neureiter, a postdoctoral fellow at Pitt's graduate school of business from August 2019 to April 2021 who's now working as a postdoctoral researcher in at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.

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"In recent years, however, we observe more instances in which boycotts backfire and companies actually end up benefiting financially. The reason is that politically motivated boycotts often elicits (boycotts) from those on the other side of the political spectrum."

Of the eight boycotts investigated by Neureiter and Bhattacharya, just two were deemed successful in hurting the company's bottom line.

Liberal boycotts of Chick-fil-A in 2012 and Hobby Lobby in 2014 backfired. The same for conservative boycotts of Starbucks in 2012 and Nike in 2018.

"As you can see in the article, the occurrence, trajectory, and impact of consumer activism are somewhat difficult to predict and depend on a number of factors, including the level of political polarization, the nature of the issue at hand, and the political beliefs of a company's consumer base," Neureiter said.

Politics and business

It's likely to soon to tell how recent calls to swear off Martin's Potato Rolls is impacting the Chambersburg-based company.

“We are aware of recent criticisms leveled against Martin’s and our business partners," the company said in a press statement. "Like the rest of the country, Martin’s employees, business partners, and customers hold to a diverse range of personal opinions, beliefs, and values. Although the stockholders who own the company are members of the same family, they also hold a wide range of views. For these reasons, the company, as a matter of policy, does not support any particular candidate or party.

"We will continue to focus on the values that have made our company successful ... baking quality products, providing excellent service to our customers, and supporting the communities around us."

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York resident Jason McGarry said he wishes company leadership in general would stay out of politics.

“I don’t understand why businesses feel the need to follow or endorse politicians ... businesses (cannot) vote and you’re always going to be alienating some of your clientele," McGarry said.

Alyssa Ribeiro, assistant professor of History and Black Studies at Allegheny College, noted that the potato roll boycott appears to be mostly taking place through chain restaurants and other major commercial customers.

“It seems a little less focused on the individual level,” Ribeiro said. ”What does seem somewhat different for me about some of the more recent activism is that it is very focused on political stances, whereas things in the '60s, '70s and '80s are much more likely be about labor conditions or discrimination in employment.”

Ribeiro added that while we live in polarized times, most won't take this to the point that they'll make harsh judgments of those who don't participate in the boycotts.

“If potato rolls are going to be the thing that makes people not speak to each other," she said, "likely there was going to be something else that caused that."

For some, consumer politics place a distant second or third to the quality of the product and numbers on the price tag.

“I buy whatever is on sale or convenient," York resident Jeff Salzman said. "Don't have time to be politically picky with my food."

Fellow York resident Todd Allen Robertson would agree.

“I couldn’t care less," Robertson said. "All I care about is, 'Are the rolls fresh and as delicious as always?'”

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA Today Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceJSiwy.

Kaity Assaf is a regional news reporter at the York Daily Record, part of the USA Today Network. Contact her at kassaf1@ydr.com, on Twitter at @kaitythekite or by phone, 717-472-0960. Please support local journalism with a digital subscription.