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Do calls for boycotts go the distance?

Much outrage over United Airlines and Pepsi, but action speaks louder than hashtags


It's a video that has been watched millions of times.

A United Airlines (UA) passenger, 69-year-old Dr David Dao, was forcibly dragged against his will off an overbooked flight. He had earlier said he was staying put as he had patients to attend to the following day.

The Chicago aviation policemen who manhandled him wanted to vacate his seat to make space for four crew members. In several viral videos, the Vietnamese-American is seen bloodied in the aftermath, visibly shocked.

We later learn that he suffered a significant concussion and a broken nose and lost two front teeth. He would need to undergo reconstructive surgery.

The outrage on social media was tremendous. Several trending hashtags dominated Twitter and Facebook.

One of the more popular ones, #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, for instance, had this caption: "Board as a doctor, leave as a patient."

Another one centred on an announcer on rival company Southwest Airlines, who said: "Welcome to Southwest, where we beat our competitors, not our customers."

"Plane" crazy memes like this were made in the wake of an incident in which a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor was dragged off a United Airlines flight. PHOTOS: TWITTER

There were also many calls to boycott the company. #BoycottUnited was one such trending hashtag.

"This is shameful beyond measure. Disgusted," said Twitter user Melissa, who promised never to fly UA again.

This backlash spread widely. Vietnamese social media users urged their countrymen to stop flying with the airline. In China, netizens took to micro-blogging platform Weibo to voice their displeasure.

This tweet from Ms Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, mocks a recent Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner as a protester who gives a can of the soft drink to a police officer.  PHOTOS: TWITTER

"Everybody should be equal. (The United States) shouts about equal rights but has done such dirty things," wrote user Yuan Tianwei lao shi.

But how much will this ill will affect the company?

UA's share price plunged as much as 7 per cent in the few hours after the incident. Yet, it shored up by last Thursday when markets closed, at just 2 per cent lower than its previous week's value.

Another recent example is Pepsi.

#Boycottpepsi was one of the top trends immediately following the outrage against the soft drink company's advertisement featuring social media personality Kendall Jenner. In one of the final scenes, Jenner takes part in a staged equality march, offering the canned drink to a police officer who gamely drinks it and smiles.

Ms Bernice King, daughter of the late renowned activist Martin Luther King Jr, tweeted: "If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi."

Social media calls for boycotts are nothing new. But whether a boycott has any real impact on the company under fire depends on how long it can be sustained for. After all, several thousand dissenters would hardly make a lasting impact on a company which has millions of customers.

Here's an example: #BoycottSamsung was one of the hashtags last year following recalls of several products including the smartphone Galaxy Note7 and several top-loading washing machine models.

But a new research note from analyst IBK Securities suggests that Samsung might hit record profits in the second quarter of this year, a 50 per cent increase year on year.


  • #CHINESELIVESMATTER: This hashtag was started by 18-year-old student Zhang Zishi from Britain after footage of the United Airlines incident surfaced. Mr Zhang had thought the victim was a Chinese man, although he was later revealed to be Vietnamese-American. More than 200,000 people have signed the digital petition calling for a federal investigation.

  • MOAB: The US used the term "Mother of All Bombs" on an attack in Afghanistan. It is reportedly the largest non-nuclear bomb used in combat. It supposedly killed 36 ISIS supporters, the US military say.

  • CHARLIE MURPHY: The elder brother of comedian Eddie Murphy died last week at the age of 57 of leukaemia. He was popularised in various comedy skits on stand-up powerhouse Dave Chappelle's eponymous TV series.

Samsung Electronics has also been witnessing a general uptick in share price over the past year.

So unless a boycott is sustained, don't expect flash-in-the-pan hashtags to have any real effects on the bottom line, which will ultimately drive a change in behaviour for many of these large conglomerates.


Facebook and Google have long been struggling to gain a footing in the China market with its notorious protectionist policies.

But one new player could potentially mix things up a bit.

Digital content distributor network Yoona has tied up with Chinese players - including Weibo, Tencent and Youku-Tudou - to bring in selected content from the US and Russia, reports news outlet CNBC.

Yoona is a third-party service provider working with YouTube that offers audience development, content and monetisation strategies.

The company reportedly manages more than 72,000 channels and drives over seven billion monthly views to its 650 million subscribers.

"People think that content that works well in the West can succeed in China, but that's not true. There is still a very big language and cultural barrier that we help creators overcome," says chief executive Eyal Baumel to CNBC's Squawk Box.

Mr Baumel added that aside from localising content, adjusting to Chinese market preferences remains one of the highest barriers to entering the elusive market.

For instance, revenue from video advertisements is significantly less in China than in the Western market.

Digital gifting and other aspects, like e-commerce, are the key revenue drivers instead, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Do calls for boycotts go the distance?'. Print Edition | Subscribe