Can consumer boycotts seriously affect media?

The Football Fans Union has called for viewers to boycott ITV, but is viewer action ever likely to be a major factor for media, Alasdair Reid asks.

Been taking part in the Football Fans Union boycott of ITV? The campaign, which has the support of the Football League and the Professional Footballers' Association, aims to squeeze ITV so hard that it coughs up the money owed to the lower league clubs when ITV Digital went under. Not that the Chelsea mafia that is the UK media industry worries over much about the lower leagues. Yet. And anyway, consumer boycotts tend to be a hit and miss affair, with the emphasis on the latter. Since the mid-60s, consumer power has become woven ever more deeply into the fabric of the economy, but the effect is usually both general and superficial - for instance, the lip service routinely paid to green issues. Specifically targeted campaigns tend not to inflict the incisive damage they usually aspire to. For every German boycott of Shell (over the Brent Spar issue in 1995) there's a host of McSpotlights (the anti-McDonald's pressure group that has arguably failed to bring the fast foot giant to its knees). Most of the usual suspects are listed on www.damto. cam.ac.uk/user/pmh33/boycott.html, where you can also get more information on bizarre things such as the ongoing protest about Pepsi's alleged support of bullfighting. Specifically, media industry boycotts have an equally chequered history. Adbusters has been ploughing its lonely furrow in the US for years now;and neither the High Church Right nor the Low Church Left have even somuch as dented the ambitions of Rupert Murdoch in the UK - or elsewhere for that matter. And people power hasn't made the BBC noticeably less contemptuous of those who fund it. True, the only really successful boycott in living memory (when Liverpudlians shunned The Sun in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster) involved Murdoch - but it's a relatively small result to weigh in the balance. So how has the ITV boycott been going? Alex Burmaster, the campaign director for the Football Fans Union, says: "So far it has been very effective indeed. We've been increasing awareness of the issue itself and also increasing people's awareness that they really can get involved, that they really can make a difference. The campaign actually started during the latter stages of the Champions League and the aim hasn been to build toward a critical mass, to cultivate certain media habits and we're in for the duration - until Carlton and Granada pay the money they owe. We'll continue at least until Christmas, which will take us through a critical period for the companies in advertising terms." In terms of raw results, Burmaster points to the Denmark game where the BBC and ITV went head to head. The audience ratio in favour of the BBC would normally be 60:40 but here it was 80:20. For the defeat against Brazil it was 70:30. Strange, because, according to Mick Desmond, the joint managing directorof the ITV Network, there's no evidence whatsoever of the campaign's impact to date: "To be frank we didn't see any effects during the Champions League and we haven't seen any effects during the World Cup. Much is made of the BBC:ITV ratio for the Denmark game but that's more down to the fact that it was originally scheduled to be a BBC-only game and it was in the TV listings as such. Secondly, the BBC cleverly scheduled the Lewis-Tyson fight before it, which drew a lot of people in." Desmond insists the tournament has been fantastically successful for ITV, with a good overall ratings performance and the best one-off audience, on either channel, where the Sweden game was concerned. "It's also been exciting in terms of the non-England games too. We've had huge male ratings in parts of the day where we wouldn't normally expect them - year on year, all adults ratings are up by 40 per cent and ratings against all men are up by 100 per cent for the World Cup. We had a good upfront sales pitch and that combined with late money coming through has meant June is up in excess of plus ten. From a Football League point of view it's a PR stunt to get column inches, he says. But are advertisers more worried about the ramifications of this sort of campaign? Anthony Wagerman, the head of group marketing and communications at Travelex, the sponsor of ITV's World Cup coverage, says he's been very pleased with the way it has gone so far. He explains: "We know we are not Coke or McDonald's - what we are after is awareness and I think the research will bear out the fact that our name is now tremendously well known. I know that many fans of football will be concerned about the ITV Digital issue and our view is that if large numbers of people have concerns about any subject, then that has to be of concern. You should always be mindful of that."

Wagerman liked the audience number ITV delivered for the Sweden game. "If you are a football fan you will switch on come what may and will watch the game whatever channel it's on. It's just too important not too, he says. "When there is a choice we know that in matters of national significance, the nation turns to the BBC and this is obviously a matter of national significance. But I have to say I think that the ITV presentation team has been superb." But could viewer power become an issue advertisers and media planners will have to take into account? Are we likely to see more boycotts – or more successful boycotts? David Fletcher, the head of Mediaedge:cia's MediaLab, was considering researching this issue but decided in the end that the effects of this particular FFU campaign were going to be too small to measure. "The ratio of 4:1 in favour of the BBC for the Denmark game is a testament to the way that it has approached the World Cup, he says. In fact it's a sobering reminder of what TV is - it's a medium between you and the event and the greater the event the more people resent anything that gets in the way. For many reasons not necessarily to do with the home nations, this has been a momentous World Cup. And in the same way as there's no such thing as bad publicity, it's difficult to make people change their media habits. The test would not be the England matches but non-England matches shown by ITV." Fletcher also argues that the Hillsborough backlash experienced by The Sun was an exceptional phenomenon. "The truth is that for the majority of us, it really is difficult to give real offence. The Hillsborough thing was a community in mourning. People actually died. People haven't died as a result of the ITV Digital situation. Consumer power doesn't work unless there is a really substantive issue. The fact that media are ephemeral compared with branded goods might suggest to some that they are more vulnerable to changes in behaviour, but it doesn't work that way. In fact you have to get things spectacularly wrong to damage your situation." If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.

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