Boycotts 101: Why the gay boycott of Russian vodka is already working

While there’s been a rather massive explosion of support in the past five days for a boycott of all things Russia, especially vodka (and especially Stolichnaya, aka Stoli), some have asked about the wisdom of targeting Stoli, vodka, or Russian products at all, let alone the wisdom of boycotts.

Call this post: Boycotts 101.

First a little background…

As most of you know, over the past few years the Russian government has severely clamped down on its gay and trans communities. In addition to increasing violence, coordinated by far-right “thugs” thought by many to be in cahoots with the Russia authorities, the Russian parliament, with the help of President Vladimir Putin, has been taking a series of anti-gay and anti-trans actions.

Those actions include blocking adoptions of Russian children by any country that recognizes marriage equality for gay couples.  Concern grew even further with the recent passage of a law that basically makes anything and everything gay, and pro-gay, in Russia illegal.  Even uttering words believed to be pro-gay are illegal, and wearing anything perceived to be pro-gay is also against the law (someone was actually arrested for wearing rainbow suspenders).

Worse yet, the new Russian law specifically targets pro-gay foreigners, and threatens to jail them for 14 days before kicking them out of the country.  Under the Russian law, foreign companies that offer any kind of same-sex benefits, even simply having a corporate non-discrimination policy that recognizes the rights of gay and trans employees, could now be breaking the law in Russia, and both the employer and employee could face imprisonment, or the simpler Russian way of enforcing the law, simply beating the crap out of, or disappearing, everyone involved.

Russian anti-gay thugs kick an LGBT rights activist. (Photo by Ilya Varlamov, with permission)

Russian anti-gay thugs kick an LGBT rights activist. (Photo by Ilya Varlamov, with permission)

The same man, after the beating:

Russian anti-gay thugs kick an LGBT rights activist. (Photo by Ilya Varlamov, with permission)

Russian anti-gay thugs kick an LGBT rights activist. (Photo by Ilya Varlamov, with permission)

There are also concerns about the safety of athletes and attendees at next year’s Sochi, Russia Winter Olympics, as the brutal beating of gay and trans people in Russia, with the wink and nod of the authorities, is sharply on the rise.

And while the International Olympic Committee claims, oddly, to have brokered a deal with the Russian government that Olympic athletes and visitors “may” be held harmless from Russia’s anti-gay laws, it’s not entirely clear how local skinheads, following the presumed orders of local Russian officials, are going to discern between Russian gays, who are fair game to beat the cr*p out, and Olympic gays, who are not.

Perhaps the IOC can assign pink triangles to the athletes in question.

Gays in Nazi Germany were considered a threat to German purity. The Nazis arrested 100,000 men, with 10,000 to 15,000 sent to concentration camps to die.

Gays in Nazi Germany were considered a threat to German purity. The Nazis arrested 100,000 men, with 10,000 to 15,000 sent to concentration camps to die.

In response, a boycott was born.

Boycotts don’t work. Unless they do.

As a rule, boycotts are a bad idea because they don’t work.

Until they do work.

Then they’re a great idea.

When a group of us targeted “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger in 2000 with our campaign (the group include me, Mike Signorile, Alan Klein, Robin Tyler, William Waybourn, Joel Lawson and many others ), we went after the advertisers for her then-upcoming TV show, and we ended being wildly successful, scaring off nearly 200 advertisers, and eventually killing the show.


And while I wasn’t pleased that they never went in for the metaphorical-kill, the boycott of Rush Limbaugh’s advertisers a few years back was also quite successful, and is still causing him serious pain.  (My gripe with that effort was that the organizational leaders backing the boycott never took it seriously, IMHO, never put up the money and staffing necessary for making it truly effective, and thus they Limbaugh slip away when we could have dealt his show a metaphorical-death-blow.)

But both instances show that, when well done, and done at the right time against the right target, boycotts can work, depending on how you define “work.”

The problem however is that too many people yell “boycott” when neither the time nor the target is right.  Their boycott then doesn’t even make a dent, and thus our cause looks feckless.  So boycotts themselves aren’t necessarily a bad idea. Rather, flippantly calling for a boycott at every drop of a hat is a bad idea.

What’s the goal of a boycott?

Some have suggested that boycotting Russian vodka is ineffective as we won’t be able to make a big enough dent in any one company, and the companies involved won’t do anything real to try to influence Russian leaders.

And maybe that’s all true, but the point of a boycott isn’t always the boycott itself.  People often lose sight of that simple organizing fact.  My goal in this campaign is to make clear to countries that homophobia is not okay, and that they will pay a severe price for oppressing their gay and trans citizens.  And that goal can be accomplished whether or not Stoli or any other Russian brand loses a lot of, or “enough,” (or any) money.

LuLu's in Palm Spring, California. A straight, but not narrow, establishment.

LuLu’s in Palm Spring, California. A straight, but not narrow, establishment.

Rather, the boycott is a tool – a foil, really – to foment and galvanize public ire in a way that generates publicity and eventually harms the brand of the ultimate target, in this case Brand Russia.

If the damage to the brands of tactical targets like Stoli, Russian products generally, individual governments around the world, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) becomes so extensive, pervasive, and unceasing, they will be forced to help us pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.

It’s a multi-front psychological war, really.  You’re trying to throw as much at the enemy as you can, from all directions (caveat: without watering down your assault by overextending yourself or your message), in order to make them finally admit, even if just to themselves, that it simply was not worth the price they are paying for having taken you on.  And hopefully, once burned, twice shy.

Is the Vodka / Stoli boycott working?

Hell yeah.

This issue has been bubbling up for a few years now, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere, in terms of true widespread international support from the grassroots and the media, until just a week or so ago.  Why?  Because Harvey Fierstein penned a piece in the NYT, Matt Stopera at Buzzfeed assembled 36 killer (literally) photos of gay and trans people in Russia being brutally beaten, and Dan Savage pulled all the strings together into a call for a boycott of Russian vodka.


That’s when the dams burst, the floodgates opened, and the world suddenly cared – really cared – about the plight of gay and trans people in Russia.  Bars across America, Canada, Australia and Europe started dropping Russian vodka, gay and trans people and our allies across the globe got enraged and engaged, and the international media suddenly found a hot new story that they’re stumbling over each other to report on.


The grand impact of all of that?  More pressure on Brands B (Stoli, Russian vodka, Russian goods, foreign governments and the IOC), and ultimately more pressure on Brand A (Brand Russia).

The very fact that this issue was ignored for years, and now is a page one story worldwide, is proof that the Stoli boycott “worked.”  At least “worked” for Stage 1, galvanizing the public and the media.  Now we have to fight Stage 2 simultaneously, channeling that growing ire towards positive change.

It also doesn’t hurt see other vodka brands jumping in on the boycott as an opportunity – that only feeds the flames that much more:


What about the naysayers?

In my twenty years of national (and international) gay rights advocacy, I’ve learned that the naysayers are part of the job.  Any time you launch a campaign, someone will always know better than you, they’ll always undercut the effort, claim it to be a bad idea, misdirected, ineffective, and even counterproductive.

That is, until you start winning.  Then they’re your biggest fan :)

But in all seriousness, a lot of people need advocacy to be proven to them, they need to see it in action to realize that it can work if done wisely.  And many of the naysayers are simply people who don’t know any better because they’ve never experienced anything better.  And part of the blame goes to all the failed “boycotts” that have made “boycott” a bad word.

But some are saying that we should be targeting anti-gay members of the Russian parliament instead of vodka?  What about that?

Well, we’ve just spent two years talking about how anti-gay Russian government officials are, and it got us bupkiss until Dan Savage came up with the idea of targeting Stoli.  You just can’t launch a campaign that’s going to inspire the masses in America, or likely anywhere else, that focuses on four no-name Russian legislators that no one has ever heard of.  People need a clear and easy target of opportunity, and that, more often than not, is a company, and not some previously-unheard-of foreign member of parliament 5,000 miles away.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t eventually try to expand our targets to more companies, and eventually target the worst of the worst of the Russian government.  I’m all for my country refusing entry visas to those parliamentarians, should they ever try to visit the US.  But the American people aren’t going to rally around that cause, and the US government isn’t going to listen to anyone promoting that specific course of action, until and unless we generate enough ire, domestically and internationally.  And currently, the only game in town that’s generating the necessary fire and brimstone is the Russian vodka boycott.  That doesn’t mean we don’t branch out at some point – but it does mean that we don’t give up the best thing we got. 

Where do we go from here?

Stay tuned.  This thing has only begun.  But for a movement that’s really only existed for 5 days – and I don’t mean local activists, they’ve been fighting this for years, I mean a true international grassroots movement energized and angry over the treatment of gays and trans people in Russia – getting a huge feature story in the Associated Press isn’t nothin’.

This boycott has begun as well as any boycott could, and really far better than even I expected.  And now that we have nearly two dozen of Russia’s top LGBT activists on board the international boycott effort, I expect things to get even more interesting.  It’s been a fine five days.  I’m looking forward to many more.


CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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