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PUSH, perfecting its boycotting techniques, takes on Revlon

The phone rings. ``Boycott Revlon, Operation PUSH. May I help you?'' answers the well-coiffed receptionist in PUSH's national headquarters in a converted synagogue on Chicago's South Side. In this latest of consumer boycotts, blacks are being asked to dump their Revlon hair relaxers, perms, sprays, and cosmetics into caskets, a dramatic, symbolic ``funeral'' for Revlon Inc., in 45 cities today.

Like other recent boycotts, this is being run out of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), the Chicago-based organization founded 15 years ago by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

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This chapter of the civil rights movement turned ``economic rights movement,'' opened on Oct. 13 when Irving Bottner, president of Revlon professional products division, infuriated many blacks by his comment in a Newsweek article on the competitive ethnic hair-care market.

``In the next couple of years, the black-owned businesses will disappear. They'll all be sold to white companies,'' said Mr. Bottner. He added, ``We are accused of taking business away from black companies, but black consumers buy quality products - too often their black brothers didn't do them any good.''

Bottner's words hit home. Hair-care products are an especially sensitive issue in the black community. Since the 1960s, black-owned companies have dominated the $1 billion-a-year industry, perhaps the only industry to be dominated by black-owned companies, according to PUSH. But in recent years, black companies have been losing black consumer dollars to white-owned companies like Revlon. PUSH estimates that black consumers now spend between $150 million to $200 million on Revlon products.

PUSH has gradually refined the art of boycotting. ``We're getting more sophisticated with our boycotts,'' says Willie T. Barrow, the plucky, female national executive director of PUSH who is the force behind the boycott.

As it did with CBS earlier this year, PUSH has managed to put corporate giant Revlon in the hot seat by demanding that the company divest, hire more blacks for decision-making positions, change marketing strategies, and reinvest profits in the black community.

In New York, Bottner issued an immediate apology and explained that his comments had been taken out of context. Revlon invited Mr. Jackson to negotiate. Two weeks ago, Revlon announced that the company would sell its operation in South Africa within a year, partially as a result of PUSH pressure.

But Revlon's efforts to appease black consumers appear to have backfired. ``Why didn't they just pull out? Selling is a farcification,'' says Ms. Barrow.

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Revlon spokesman Stuart Fischer denies that the company has made a final decision about buyers. ``No details have been worked out on the sale yet,'' he said.

Observers say it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of a boycott of products used in the privacy of home. ``My feeling is that black men and women are buying the same hair-care products they did before, but I could be wrong,'' says Clarence Page, a black editorial writer at the Chicago Tribune. Revlon's Mr. Fischer refused to comment on whether the company is feeling the boycott.

Whatever the effect, no one denies, least of all Revlon, that blacks carry consumer clout in the hair-care industry. And blacks spend five times on hair-care products as whites, according to the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, the professional trade organization representing 21 black-owned hair-care companies.

So it comes as no surprise that the current boycott coincides with PUSH's ``Buy Blacks'' campaign that calls for black consumer dollars to be reinvested in the black community. ``We spend over $200 billion annually and own less than 1 percent,'' explains Barrow. ``We've got to direct these dollars to our own. That's the only way we'll ever build our own economic base.''

Not everyone agrees that Bottner's statement justified a boycott. ``Business is business,'' says editorial writer Page. ``I think there are probably some black owners of smaller companies who wouldn't mind selling out to Revlon if the price is right.''

The timing of the Revlon boycott also leaves Page skeptical about PUSH's motives. ``Jesse [Jackson] and Operation PUSH just need to keep themselves constantly in the news,'' he says. ``This boycott will end right before the mayoral race, which will end when it is time to run for the presidency again.''

The Revlon boycott follows on the heels of a 10-month CBS boycott to force the company to hire more blacks at television stations in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Last August, PUSH called off the CBS boycott after the first blacks were named station manager in Chicago and vice-president in New York. Black news anchors were hired in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

The first black consumer boycott occurred 31 years ago in Montgomery, Ala. ``Boycotts have been the most successful in the civil rights movement,'' says Barrow. ``If it hadn't been for Rosa Parks' feet getting tired and the bus boycott, we'd never have had a capital Public Accommodation Bill [ending segregation]. If not for the Selma, Ala., boycott, we'd never have had the Voting Rights Act.''

Agrees Page: ``There's no doubt boycotts are very useful tools. To me they are one of the nicest things about the free enterprise system.''

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