Equinox and SoulCycle have been caught up in an unexpected wave of anti-Trump outrage this week, ever since it was reported that one of their major shareholders, billionaire real estate developer Stephen A. Ross, was planning to host a fundraiser for the president at his home in the Hamptons. In response to the news, politically minded fitness nuts have been venting their anger on Twitter, vowing to boycott the chains.
This little burst of consumer activism has been a pretty easy target for mockery. After all, it mostly consists of upscale urban professionals dramatically canceling their luxury gym memberships, which is an inherently funny and bougie way to strike a blow for progressivism. Moreover, lots of these online protesters will almost certainly turn around and spend their money on other brands owned by Trump-backing Republicans, or at another company whose business practices don’t particularly align with its customers’ politics.
This backlash to the backlash is too cynical, though. Given that it is, in fact, impossible to be a totally ethical consumer who only patronizes brands that precisely align with one’s political preferences, slightly arbitrary boycotts like the one plaguing Equinox at the moment are one of the best tools regular people have to influence corporate behavior.
In some ways, these protests are a little like a random bag check at the airport. TSA agents don’t physically rummage through every single carry-on that passes through security. But they check some of them, which makes flyers a bit less likely to try to transport something illicit, even if it wouldn’t get picked up on an X-ray (i.e., marijuana they bought in Colorado or California before heading home to New Jersey). It ups the risk of apprehension, and some people adjust their behavior as a result. Not all of them. But some of them.
Viral protests are sort of similar. Lots of companies do absolutely horrible things that violate their customers’ ethical sensibilities. Lots of rich corporate investors give money to Donald Trump. And most of them will probably not see significant blowback as a result, because among other things, human beings can spend only so much time thinking about what kind of spinach or bath tissue they buy. (Bad news: There’s a good chance you’re purchasing toilet paper from the Koch brothers). But once in a while, something triggers a public outrage, the internet gets up in arms, and suddenly somebody starts losing business. It shows the world that there is a potential price to pay if a company’s values don’t mesh with its customers’ in some way. And as a result, corporations may adjust to avoid becoming the next cautionary tale.
And of course, whatever company actually ends up in the protest’s crosshairs will probably make some effort to win back the customers it has ticked off.
Now, one could argue that the wrath directed at Equinox has been a bit much. Early reports suggested that Ross’ empire, Related Companies, was the majority owner of the chain. But according to Dan Primack of Axios, that’s no longer true. Related purchased Equinox—which in turn bought SoulCycle—in 2005. But since then, it has “been diluted via new Equinox share sales and some secondary sales by Related itself,” so that Related now owns only a minority stake in the chains. Meanwhile, SoulCycle has described Ross as a “passive investor,” meaning he has no actual management role. It’s not even clear whether he’s currently receiving any profits or dividends. The connection between your spin membership and Trump’s fundraising seems, in the end, to be a bit attenuated.
But on the other hand, who cares? Ross could stand to profit if Equinox is ever sold or manages to have an IPO. And if LGBTQ customers don’t want to pay $200 or so a month for a gym part-owned by a guy trying to re-elect a president who is hostile to their rights, they shouldn’t. There are lots of places, after all, to go ride a stationary bike. This kind of Twitter activism might seem desultory and silly. But it’s a reasonable way to enforce the social and political norms people claim to hold dear. Don’t mock it, even if you don’t want to bother with it.