BY ANNE CRUZ

The L train isn’t running and you need to get home. What do you do? Up until a few weeks ago, most people would have responded: you call an Uber. But, now, the answer to “How are you getting home?” is no longer immediately clear: for the last two months, the company that introduced the sharing economy to the mainstream has faced an endless stream of PR nightmares.

First, Uber dropped surge pricing as New York City taxi drivers struck against Trump’s immigration measures, which critics saw as undermining the strike for profit. The company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was named to President Trump’s economic advisory board. Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, published a damning essay detailing the systemic sexual harassment she faced at the company. Kalanick again appeared in headlines when he was seen verbally berating his own Uber driver on camera. With each scandal, a movement for users to #DeleteUber grew.

“I stopped using Uber when the immigration ban first happened because the CEO did not support cab drivers protesting the ban at JFK,” said Kayla Clifford, a 24-year-old drama and psychology student at NYU. “I used Lyft instead.”

Millennials like Clifford — liberal, urban-dwelling, educated— have often been at the forefront of protesting and expressing their political views. They occupied Wall Street, rallied against police brutality, and marched to reject a Trump presidency. Hardly a strictly liberal phenomenon, conservative millennials like Tomi Lahren also aggressively engage in political discourse by sharing viral tirades. However, as the American social climate becomes more polarized, millennials are engaging in a different form of protest in response: the old-fashioned boycott.

While the image of a blue-haired actress deleting a ride-sharing app on her iPhone may seem like a uniquely 21st-century act of defiance, boycotts have long been the ideal tool for organized political action. Using a competitor’s service makes boycotting relatively low-cost, and millennials’ boycott participation reflects the demographic’s already established propensity to buy from companies with values similar to their own. But where boycotts of recent memory differ from their predecessors is in their scope and speed. In speaking to PBS Newshour, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn attributed this newfound efficiency to social media.

“I think the other thing that’s new and different is the emotional energy that social media allows,” Koehn told Newshour. “These are all businesses that have a very big word of mouth component to them. So the ability of these boycotts to affect those aspects of business success, consumer loyalty, word of mouth, brand power, that’s a big deal.”

It is a big deal …  depending on the efficacy of the boycott. The #DeleteUber campaign saw a loss of more than 200,000 users, enough to send the Uber executive leadership scrambling (Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s economic advisory board and issued a public apology; those trying to delete their account were also sent a message that directly addressed allegations of sexual harassment within the company ). But for other businesses that cause political controversy, short term boycotts have little lasting effect on sales. Chick-Fil-A saw boycotts and protests in 2012 over its CEO’s views against the legalization of same-sex marriage, but pro-LGBT boycotts created a backlash from conservatives who purchased copious amounts of chicken sandwiches to defend the company.  Today, the Atlanta-based company is still regarded as one of the most profitable brands in fast-food. Similarly, boycotts against entities like New Balance and “Hamilton” have been unsuccessful — they faded from public memory after a few news cycles. Starbucks, which faces almost annual scrutiny for the design of their holiday cups and received fierce backlash after pledging to hire 10,000 refugees by 2022, has still seen steady increase in stock value over the last two years.

Public outrage may create an initial dip in sales, but companies remain profitable and consumers eventually come back — if they ever had the resolve to abstain at all.

Clifford said she grew frustrated with Lyft’s customer service, and used Uber on a recent weekend. Brandon Lim, a freshman at San Diego State University, recalled boycotting Chick-Fil-A for four years before returning to the chain for its waffle fries. Another student, Melissa Lopez, was appalled by Kalanick’s antics and Uber management’s alleged sexist behavior. But if anything, she said she now uses Uber more, because Uber’s flat fee packages are so cheap and convenient to use.  

“Upsetting as [Fowler’s essay] was, it didn’t make me boycott Uber either,” Lopez said. “I feel like there is a disconnect between the drivers who are completing the actual service for you, and the company that builds the platform. I know my business ultimately enables the company at the top, but it also supports a bunch of well-meaning people [drivers].”

But despite quick recoveries in sales, researchers like Northwestern’s Brayden King argue that boycotts are most impactful not through a drop in sales, but through the bad publicity a protest generates. In his research, King found that companies’ boycott-related losses most directly correlated with mass-media coverage, not the boycott itself.

“Movement efficacy, then, is facilitated by the ability to get damaging information about a target’s image to the broader public, which consequently drives investor fear and loss of capital,” King wrote in his 2011 study of consumer boycotts. “Media attention, in this sense, is a powerfully disruptive force.”  According to King, the consequences of a successful boycott are self-reinforcing. Boycotts lead to news coverage, which leads to loss in stock value or concern from investors; loss in stock or a shuffle in leadership creates more controversy. Counterintuitively, spreading the message of a boycott through cleverly branded hashtags can be more effective than actually abstaining from a brand. Such is the case with Uber, which has seen an exodus of executives within the last few months.

But now, King believes that current over-saturation of boycotts could hurt activists’ cause. Too many boycotts within a short period of time is creating a “boycott fatigue” that makes each individual protest less salient. “We’re just overrun with boycotts at the moment,” he told Fast Company last month.

As for what’s in store for the next few months, chances are that boycott fatigue will continue to weaken the effectiveness of these movements. Campaigns like #GrabYourWallet, #BoycottStarbucks and #BoycottHawaii still receive national coverage, but so many brands are bundled together that it’s hard to keep track of where you can and can’t shop. So while boycotting can be one method of protest, exclusively leaning on one tactic will eventually produce lackluster results.

As University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher said to New York Magazine: “It’s been a long time since we had the progressive movement engage in things like boycotts and sit-ins that have been effective. But I think those kinds of tactics need to be embraced along with peaceful marches.”