Presentation Title: Moral High Ground: The Role of Moral Emotions in Consumer Boycotts

Abstract: The appraisal of perceived moral violation and moral emotions appeared to regulate retaliatory consumer intentions and behavior in two consumer boycott studies. Prior participation models focused on deliberative and cost-benefit factors that contribute to boycott intention (Klein, Smith, & John, 2004; Sen, Gurhan-Canli, & Morwitz, 2001) and only acknowledged peripherally the role of moral emotional expression as a driver of boycott participation (Haidt, 2001; Kozinets & Handelman, 1998). The purpose of this research is to reevaluate existing boycott participation models because modern boycotts and related acts of consumer retaliation (i.e., Occupy Wall Street movement) have become increasingly symbolic, prosocial, and emotional in nature.

A symbolic boycott is a moral expression of consumer disapproval and disassociation (Smith, 1990). Symbolic boycotts highlight social injustices and use moral pressure against a targeted brand. The act of withholding consumption has also become a prosocial action like charitable giving or volunteering. For example, Global Exchange’s slave chocolate boycott and PETA’s fur boycott are closely associated with prosocial and altruistic causes. Therefore, consumers participate in symbolic boycotts to vent emotionally and take a moral stance on their purchase and consumption, especially when a company’s egregious actions harm the powerless or disenfranchised (Friedman, 1999).

Boycott participation is conceptualized as a consumer coping model (Duhachek, 2005). Results from two studies support that moral emotions and cost-benefit factors independently contribute to consumer boycott intention and that each factor is premised on an initial perceived moral violation. In Study 1, the theoretical relationship between perceived moral violation, boycott intention, and boycott behavior was established in an experimental shopping simulation using student subjects (N = 201). Moral emotions were found to significantly mediate the effect of perceived moral violation on boycott intentions. In Study 2, experimental results exploring the practical application of AEB model with a real world consumer panel (N = 709) indicated that the key to diffusing consumer boycott intention is counter-message tactics aimed at reducing overall perceived moral violation.

Path analysis using the data from both studies provided additional insight into the structure of the proposed model. Comparisons between the hypothesized model and a set of alternatives supported the proposition that boycott intention may be structurally conceptualized as consumer coping (Duhachek, 2005; Duhachek & Iacobucci, 2005). Other-condemning and self-conscious moral emotions, along with perceived boycott benefit (ability to make a difference and self-enhancement), contributed to boycott intentions whereas cost perceptions played a lesser role in predicting boycott intention. The results of a path analysis also indicated that two individual difference variables were determinants of perceived moral violation: humanitarian-egalitarian orientation (Katz & Hass, 1988) and negative attitude toward big businesses (Webster, 1975). Our findings support the idea that consumers initially feel an innate sense of wrongness before grappling with a company’s egregious act on a more cognitive level, consistent with Haidt’s (2001) assertions that the emotional tail potentially wags the rational dog.

References available upon request


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