Grade 6-8, 9-12

To Buy or Not To Buy

Updated: August 16 2019,
Author: Patricia Bonner

While precise numbers are not known, it is believed the number of boycotts has grown markedly in the past fifty years. Consumers seem to be besieged by requests from special interest groups to refrain from buying certain goods and services. In this lesson, students study how boycotts have been used throughout U.S. history to help promote economic, social and political change. After researching current boycott targets, students create promotional flyers providing a glimpse at the goals people today hope to achieve through this consumer market action. Students also consider what economic and non economic factors are likely to influence the effectiveness of a boycott.


Write the word “boycott” on the board. Ask students to jot down what they think the word means. Have a few students share their thoughts with the class. Use these ideas to establish a definition for the term. [A very simple definition of a boycott is an action where consumers refuse to buy from a certain retailer or producer in order to achieve a goal.]

moneyHave students list any current or historic boycotts they have read or heard about. Discuss:

  •   Who is/was the target of the boycott?
  •   What are/were the goals of the boycott?
  •   If the boycott has ended, was it successful?

Project in front of the class the circular flow model illustrating economic interaction in the U.S. between households, business firms and government.

[NOTE: If students have not seen the model before, explain that it shows the ‘big picture’ – how key parts of the macro economy fit together. Households (consumers) and government provide businesses with payments in exchange for goods and services. Business firms and government make payments to households (workers and investors) in exchange for labor and other resources. Governments provide public goods and services to households and businesses in exchange for taxes. Each of the parts depends on and is influenced by the others.]

Referring to the model, discuss:

  1. How do boycott sponsors hope to achieve their goals?
    [Boycotts sponsors are trying to convince consumers to stop buying goods and services which adversely impacts business sales.]
  2. In what other ways can a targeted business be harmed by a boycott?
    [The drop in sales may lead to a decline in profits, there may be lay-offs resulting in the loss of skilled workers, employee morale may drop because people don’t like working for a company that is targeted, hiring new employees becomes difficult because recruits don’t want to get involved with the problem, manager attention is drawn away from other work responsibilities. Even if sales don’t drop, some businesses are concerned that their image will be damaged. On the other hand, some parties may benefit from the boycott–businesses in the same industry who are not boycott targets and businesses who sell goods or services that can be substituted for a good or service that is targeted may experience increased sales.]
  3. Who else might be impacted by a boycott beyond the business target?
    [Consumers voluntarily or through intimidation may have to give up a product and its benefits. As stated previously, employees may experience lay-offs and morale can decline. Investors may experience a decline in returns. Other businesses such as distributors and retailers of the targeted good or service may lose sales when they get caught in the crossfire. Governments may also be impacted.  A decline in sales may  result in a decline in sales taxes collected on the targeted good or service. Unemployment caused by the boycott may mean less income tax collected and higher unemployment benefit payouts.]

Tell students that when consumers boycott a product or business, they are exercising market power. This lesson examines how consumers – past and present – have used this powerful tool to force political, social and economic change.

Print off copies of the circular flow model for your students. As a class, have students modify the circular flow by writing on it to identify some of the groups affected by the boycott. Then, when they are finished, have them speculate as to why the boycott was or was not successful in achieving its aims. In other words, how did the boycott create the desired response or why did the boycott fail.

[NOTE: The discussion of others beyond the business that are impacted by a boycott is an excellent opportunity to discuss externalities – in this case, the positive or negative side effects on third parties not directly involved in the boycott. Employee layoffs, retailer sales losses, and declines in government tax revenue are all examples of third-party costs or negative externalities. Businesses with goods and service not targeted by the boycott may experience an increase in sales – a benefit referred to as a positive externality.]

**This is a teacher guided introduction and will most likely require a sizable amount of guidance regarding answering some of the above questions.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify ways that boycotts have helped force change throughout U.S. history.
  • Assess the implications of boycotts on a targeted business, its workers, and other stakeholders.
  • Analyze the impact economic and non economic factors are likely to have on boycott effectiveness.
  • Create a flyer promoting a current economic boycott that includes reasons for public support.

Resource List


NOTE: Some teachers prefer to print worksheets in advance and distribute versus having students print out their own copies.

Activity 1: Boycotts – An Economic Tool For Change

campaignDivide the class into five groups. Instruct each group to research one of the historical boycotts listed using the web links and worksheet provided. (The answer key to this worksheet can be found here). To make sure that all students participate in this activity, have students within each group count off from 1 to 9 – some students will probably have more than one number. Each student within a group is responsible for recording and reporting on the question(s) corresponding to their number(s).

Articles for the five historical boycotts:

  1. Colonial America’s protest of the 1765 Stamp Act
  3. The Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott
  4. The United Farm Workers Boycott of Table Grapes
  5. The Tuna Boycott

To help students visualize negative and positive externalities of the boycott, you may want to provide each group with a print copy of The Circular Flow Model. Encourage them to illustrate on the model how third parties might be affected.

When student groups have finished recording answers on the boycott they were assigned, have them share their information with the class. As each group reports, direct students to record information on the other boycotts in the empty sections of their worksheets.

Activity 2: Boycott Targets Today

At any point in time, a multitude of businesses are boycott targets. Several Internet sites have been developed to help spread the word on and generate support for these consumer actions. Have students use these sites to find a boycott that they might support or would like to know more about.

  1. – Boycotts requested by unions to support workers nationally and internationally.
  2. – Boycotts affecting consumers in the United Kingdom—but most of the campaigns also affect U.S. consumers.
  3. Co-op America – News and updates on current boycotts from Co-op America.

Have students submit their choice to you for approval. Then have them create a flyer promoting the boycott. Elements of their public relations piece should include:

  • The boycott target including any specific goods or services that consumers are encouraged not to buy
  • The boycott sponsor and the sponsor’s reasons for the boycott
  • Any other information that is necessary to understand the boycott


After the flyers have been organized and posted on the bulletin board, ask students:protest

  1. What do you think the ballot box on the bulletin board represents?
    [Consumers use their dollars to vote in the marketplace. In the U.S., boycotts are used to express opinions and influence behavior]
  2. Do you see any trends in terms of boycott targets, strategies or goals?
    [Responses will vary. You will probably discover that few boycotts have focused on consumer prices and employee wages. Treatment of workers and non economic goals have been more common on recent years.]

While working on their flyers, students are asked to consider these additional questions in a THINK ABOUT IT section. Discuss:

  1. What boycotts would you support by refusing to buy the good or service? Why or why not?
  2. There are number of other ways that individuals can lend support to a boycott campaign. Which of these would you be willing to do? Why or why not?
  • Picket, distribute leaflets or otherwise participate in a public protest demonstration
  • Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper
  • Refuse to work for a business that is targeted
  • Refuse to invest in a business that is targeted

Tell students that not all boycotts are successful. In 1984, the United Farm Workers launched a third table grape boycott that lasted 16 years before it was called off. The boycott is credited with eliminating five of the most toxic chemicals plaguing farm workers and their families but low pay, poor working conditions and mistreatment on the job continued.

NOTE: For more information, on the this strike, see UFW Ends Table Grape Boycott – But The Struggle Continues .

Write each of the items below on the board then discuss how each of the factors might influence the effectiveness of a boycott. As students respond, place a “+” or “-“ next to each to indicate whether the impact is positive or negative.

  •  Public support for the cause [Consumer agreement on the value of a cause increases the chance of success.]
  •  Media attention [The media helps spread news and generate public support.]
  •  Availability of market substitutes for the targeted products. [Switching brands of coffee is easier than switching to tea or hot chocolate]
  •  Easily identified products or brands (e.g. being able to distinguish products made by a specific business or handled by union workers) [In order for consumers to support a campaign, they must be able to easily identify products that are being boycotted. Brand names and labels help. Farm products can be a challenge.]
  •  Willingness and ability of the target to change [There are occasions when change is beyond the power of the boycott target.]
  •  Reasonableness of boycotter’s demands. [Again, there are occasions when change is beyond the power of the boycott target.]

Just as the goals of consumer boycotts can stretch far beyond economic issues, a successful boycott campaign depends on the right combination of economic and non economic factors being in place. From an economic perspective, the availability of substitute products that are acceptable to consumers and the potential for a decline in sales and profits play a role. But the support of the media and the general public are also key. Agreement on the value of the boycott’s goals and the attention given the cause increase the chance of boycott success. Of course, the willingness and ability of a target to change also comes into play.

Extension Activity

Have students:

  1. Interview a friend or family member, asking:
    • Have you ever participated in a boycott – refusing to buy a good or service?
    • What was the purpose of the boycott?
    • Do you think the boycott was effective? Why or why not?
  2. Select products they buy and research the records of the companies who produce them. The Internet makes it possible to quickly gather information on a company’s record concerning the treatment of workers, the environment and other social issues. Two web sites that will help students in their research are:
  3. Discuss how economic sanctions on nations are similar and different from consumer boycotts. The CATO Institute offers a very helpful web site that illustrates the lack of success of trade sanctions over the years. Visit them at website.


Three rubrics are provided for assessment during this lesson to evaluate:

  1. Student participation in discussion throughout the lesson.
  2. Contribution of the student to group work in Activity 1.
  3. Content, design and other features of the boycott promotional flyer in Activity 2.