Conservatives absolutely hate it when people boycott businesses over politics, but 67% of liberals think it’s fair game

Protesters chant slogans and hold signs outside the luxury gym Equinox in West Hollywood, California, August 9, 2019, during a protest against the gym and fitness company SoulCycle as well as against President Trump and his benefactor Stephen Ross

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Protesters chant slogans and hold signs outside the luxury gym Equinox in West Hollywood, California, August 9, 2019, during a protest against the gym and fitness company SoulCycle as well as against President Trump and his benefactor Stephen Ross
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ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A new Insider poll found that over two-thirds of liberals think boycotting businesses over their politics is fair game, while conservatives absolutely seethe at the idea.
  • The poll comes after the country’s partisan warfare barreled into an unlikely place: high-end fitness chains.
  • Both SoulCycle and Equinox faced a flood of calls for a boycott over news their billionaire owner Stephen Ross hosted a lavish fundraiser for President Donald Trump.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Even boycotts have become a politically explosive subject.

A new Insider poll found that over two-thirds of liberals think boycotting businesses over their politics is fair game, while conservatives absolutely seethe at the idea.

The poll comes after US partisan warfare barreled into an unlikely place: high-end fitness chains. Both SoulCycle and Equinox faced a flood of calls for a boycott over news their billionaire owner Stephen Ross hosted a lavish fundraiser for President Donald Trump in early August.

Read more: People are threatening to quit Equinox and SoulCycle following a report that the chairman of the trendy fitness brands plans to host a Trump fundraiser

Both SoulCycle and Equinox sought to distance themselves from Ross, saying in a statement he’s only “a passive investor and is not involved in the management of either business.”

In the poll, Insider asked over 1,100 respondents their attitudes about corporate boycotts and whether it was fair to engage in such actions because of the owner’s political behavior.

Results showed 25% of respondents said they strongly agreed and believed it was completely fair. Around 18% agreed and said it was sometimes fair; 24% neither agreed nor disagreed and said it depended on the situation; 10% disagreed and responded it’s usually not fair; 15% strongly disagreed and said it was never fair; 7% said they didn’t know.

Insider gleaned some highlights from the data:

  • Self-identified “very conservative” respondents made up 10% of the sample. Yet 31% of them strongly disagreed with the idea of boycotting businesses over their political beliefs.
  • Moderate conservatives made up nearly 16% of the sample. They also harbored strong sentiments against a boycott as 24% of vehemently disagreed with the notion.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, “very liberal respondents” made up a similar share of the respondents at 12%. 54% of them strongly agreed with boycotting businesses as completely fair.
  • 20% of the sample were self-described moderate liberals – and 42% of them also strongly agreed with boycotts.

It’s possible the partisan divide reflects the tumultuous politics of the era – and the results could be reversed to an extent if a Democratic administration held power in Washington.

When it comes to boycotts, a body of research shows they don’t generally do lasting damage to a company’s profits and only about 25% of them achieve the results desired in the targeted institution.

Yet there are signs this boycott could be different and raise existential issues for both companies. They have cast themselves as welcoming, socially-conscious businesses who cater to a progressive-minded clientele – and that puts SoulCycle and Equinox at risk of an extensive backlash.

Equinox has supported LGBTQ charities, and SoulCycle has courted that community as well.

One study from management professors Mary-Hunter McDonnell and Brayden King chronicled the effects of hundreds of corporate boycotts from 1999 to 2005. They found that companies who market themselves in “pro-social” ways actually are more likely to be targeted by a boycott in any given year.

“Rather than buffering a firm from being targeted, these results suggest that a firm’s pro-social activity may make it more vulnerable to being targeted,” McDonnell and King said in the study, adding it also makes businesses more “shameable” when they stray from their core values. They also noted that companies targeted by boycotts bolstered their prosocial branding as a result – which ironically keeps the boycott cycle going.

As Josh Barro wrote in New York magazine, it is “dangerous” for both brands to be swept up in the hyper-partisan climate, noting that 86 of 91 SoulCycle studios are in precincts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“SoulCycle customers, especially frequent ones,” Barro wrote, “are likely to have personal relationships and attachments to specific instructors and may focus more on the idea that taking their business elsewhere would hurt those individuals, rather than on how it would affect Ross.”

Equinox is in a better position to weather the storm, given its monthly membership gym adopting a business model that relies on people who rarely visit the gym. They also have a fast-moving news cycle working in their favor with public attention rapidly shifting onto other issues.

How Equinox and SoulCycle restore their battered brands remains to be seen, but the risk of a backlash will always persist for both – its up to them whether they take steps to reduce their probability.

SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. Total 1114 respondents collected August 11, 2019, a margin of error plus or minus 3.01 percentage points with a 95% confidence level.