Paul Holmes 12 Mar 2003 // 12:00AM GMT
In war, the most obvious targets are enemy military installations, infrastructure, and manufacturing plants. But in today’s world, consumer products and services become targets too, creating new challenges for public relations professionals as their companies are called to account for the actions of governments over which they have little control.
For quintessentially American companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, there is nothing new about this phenomenon. In Europe, they are regarded as emblems of American cultural imperialism, while for many in the developing world they symbolize an exploitative system that takes without giving anything back.
But with military conflict in Iraq seemingly inevitable, anti-American protests are likely to turn even more vehement, while in this country activists are now calling for a boycott of French and German goods in retaliation for the reluctance of those countries to support the Bush administration’s plans for an invasion of Iraq.
The protests raise interesting questions for public relations professionals, and perhaps a no-win situation: companies can hardly be expected to repudiate their own government’s position on such a controversial topic; nor should they be placed in a position where they have to justify that position. For most, the best solution will likely to be to keep their heads down and weather the storm.
That may be increasingly difficult as the level of invective intensifies, to the extent that the French ambassador recently wrote to The New York Times observing that the upcoming conflict appeared to be between the U.S. and France rather than the U.S. and Iraq.
It’s easy to see how he got that impression. The New York Post recently ran a front-page photograph superimposing the heads of weasels onto the bodies of the French and German representatives to the United Nations; 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney claimed that the French “owe us the independence they flaunt at the U.N.”; and iconoclast Christopher Hitchens used the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to deride French president Jacques Chirac as “a balding Joan of Arc in drag.”
According to constitutional attorney Mark Smith, a frequent guest on the Fox News talkshow Hannity & Colmes, “It’s real simple. Americans should give their money to our friends. They should withhold their money from people who side with our enemy. Right now the French are basically siding, not with the Iraqi people, but with Saddam Hussein.”
On the Internet, meanwhile, the website www.francestinks.com urges “loyal American patriots” to “re-enact the famous Boston Tea Party symbolic act of rebellion in a modern way to meet the current crisis.” On March 4 at midnight, activists across the country should flush their French products down the toilet, the website says. (A sister site, www.germanystinks.com, suggests a similar action targeting German products.)
Politicians have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has suggested punishing France for its refusal to bow down to American power by imposing trade sanctions on wine and water imports. He wants to impose new health standards on French mineral water and slap warning labels on French wine that has been treated with bovine blood. An Internet e-mail campaign raises the specter of mad cow disease in connection with the bull’s blood issue, although France banned the practice four years ago.
Trade sanctions against French and German goods would put the United States in violation of international trade agreements, and House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas (R-Cal.), has said he won’t support them. “There are folks who make rash statements. Those won’t be translated into policy,” he told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute.
Those remarks suggest that the new wave of Francophobia is more about posturing than real policy shift. But that won’t ease the discomfort of those companies that see their products vilified in print as protests increase.
There’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence that many Americans are angry, although much of that evidence comes from right-wing radio talk shows, whose hosts share stories like the one about a restaurant owner in North Carolina who generated some cheap publicity recently when he changed the name of his French fries to “freedom fries.”
(Jay Leno had earlier joked that President Bush, furious with Chirac, had called on the American people to boycott French fries. It’s far from clear whether the restaurateur in this story failed to get the joke or simply saw the opportunity for a clever stunt.)
There’s also statistical support for the suggestion that anti-French feeling is on the rise. According to Gallup, Americans hold a far less favorable opinion of France today than they did two or three years ago. In February 2001, 77 percent said they held a favorable opinion of the French; today, that number is down to 59 percent.
Today, the U.S. and France do almost $50 billion in trade annually, with the U.S. running an $11 billion deficit. The largest imports are not consumer goods but aircraft and equipment ($5.73 billion) and engines and motors ($3.15 billion), followed by arts and antiques ($2.2 billion), alcoholic beverages ($1.48 billion) and medicines ($1.25 billion).
The most obvious targets for protestors are wine and cheese—easily identifiable as French products. But many of us consumer goods from France without even knowing it: Universal Music Group, which counts country star Shania Twain among its artists, is owned by the French company Vivendil; Maybelline lipstick is licensed by French cosmetics giant L’Oreal; Wild Turkey is sold by Pernod Ricard; and Donna Karan’s designs are now marketed by French parent company LVMH.
German products include Flintstones vitamins, which are manufactured by Bayer—although a boycott of the pharmaceutical company would surely be confused further by the fact that it came to America’s aid in 2001, supplying the anthrax drug Cipro to government workers and others at a greatly reduced cost. Perhaps it would be easier to boycott Chrysler cars, although much of the manufacturing is done in this country.
Some American companies, meanwhile, might want to start running patriotic ads, since some consumers are likely to mistake Le Natures water (actually from Pennsylvania) or Rondele cheese (Wisconsin) for French products.
American companies are likely to face increasing pressure to sever their ties with French partners and suppliers, too. Jim Saxton, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, called on Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other U.S. aviation companies to boycott the Paris Air Show because of the French support for continued inspections in Iraq.
The show is held at Le Bourget airport, where Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927 after the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, and the American companies will be there. A U.S. boycott “would leave the playing field to our European competitors,” says Joel Johnson, vice president for international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association.
For Boeing, a grand patriotic gesture would be expensive, but for ordinary consumers, symbolism comes cheap.
“We are already starting to see some minor protests,” says Andy Levine, president of New York’s Development Counsellors International, which specializes in economic development and tourism PR. “The Palm Beach Post reported on Friday a restaurant that had poured all of its French and German wine into the street—and placed the empty bottles on their bar as a sign of patriotism. There is a real danger of escalation.”
French cheese seller Marc Refabert told Reuters recently that some of his American customers have canceled orders of Camembert and other French goods. And there are rumors that some Wall Street investors refused to participate in a bond sale for French electrical switch maker Legrand for political reasons.
German businessmen appear to be taking the threat of a boycott more seriously than the French. German exporters warned last week that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s diplomatic rift with the United States could mean a 10 percent drop in German exports to the United States and shave 0.33 percentage points off the country’s economic growth this year. Anton Boerner, head of the German Federation of Wholesale and Foreign Trade (BGA) is concerned because “there are signs within both the Democrat and Republic parties that they are thinking about ‘punishing’ German and French products.”
Still, individual German companies say they have seen no dramatic impact yet. “Our business in the United States continues to develop very positively,” said Eckard Wannieck, spokesman for carmaker BMW. “This could be something to do with the fact we have a factory there. But on the consumer side, for our customers, this does not play a role.”
Similarly, directors of French drinks group Pernod Ricard, which markets Seagram’s gin, Jameson whiskey, Glenlivet and Wild Turkey, said at a press briefing on their 2002 sales that they did not believe their products were in danger of a U.S. consumer boycott.
Others seem to think the French defiance could boost their sales—at least in some markets. “This is the left coast here,” Karen Miller, the general manager of the De Choix Specialty Food Co., told the Contra Costa Times. “Nobody here supports Bush. If anything, demand is going to increase.”
The French Government Tourist Office, meanwhile, says it is still too early to tell whether the current political disagreement will affect tourism. There was an 18 percent drop in American visitors to France last year, but the tourist office attributes that to the after-effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks and general concern about travel because of the potential conflict in the Gulf.
Public relations practitioners are split on the potential threat. While Levine worries about escalation, others suspect there will be more talk than action.
“Other than symbolic, made-for-TV protests, I don’t think French corporations will face boycotts initially of goods for the positions their countries take in the United Nations,” says Reed Byrum, a counselor at GCI Group and president of the Public Relations Society of America. He says German companies may be more vulnerable, because they have provided batch processors and other technologies that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. “The worst thing the French can be accused of is acting like the French,” he says.
Byrum counsels companies to prepare positioning statements, but to lay low until protests get much more specific.Levine, on the other hand, thinks there are some thing large national trade groups can do to get out in front of the issue.
He suggests bylined articles by the key French-American or German-American business leaders stressing that it is ridiculous to punish an entire country based upon the views and actions of its political leaders.”
That hasn’t stopped citizens in other countries targeting U.S. products. And while American companies have not sought to capitalize on anti-French feelings explicitly, at least one French product is overtly anti-American. Mecca Cola, launched in an attempt to capitalize on anti-American sentiments among Muslim customers, “is a protest against American foreign policy, against the Zionist occupation of Palestine and it supports the Palestinian people,” says the brand’s founder Tawfik Mathlouthi. “Cola is a symbol of American capitalism, so we wanted to use it to send a clear message to the U.S. government.”
Mathlouthi says 10 percent of the company’s profits are being donated to Palestinian charities.
Elsewhere, high-profile American products are constantly under fire.
Abdulaziz Husseini, the coordinator of an anti-American boycott in Egypt, said the movement began spontaneously but has since been organized under the umbrella of the Syrian-based Arab Boycott Bureau, created by the Arab League in 1951 to boycott Israeli products. “We are calling on people to hold on to the idea of not cooperating, not aiding, and not normalizing with Israel,” Husseini said. “And we’re also sending a message to the American administration and to corporate America that their policy goes against Arab security and Arab hopes for the future.”
Reports say two of the six McDonald’s franchises in Jordan have closed for lack of business—one in the capital, Amman, and one near a Palestinian refugee camp. And in Morocco, a government official recently estimated that sales of Coca-Cola could fall by half in the country’s north, where Islamic groups are strongest. And in Saudi Arabia, prices have been cut up to 50 percent on some U.S. imports, and ads for U.S. fast food outlets point out they are owned and managed by Arabs.
Coca-Cola executives say the boycott hurts local workers and local suppliers. “We have a bottling partner in the Palestinian Authority area that employs about 320 people. So we are one of the largest employers in the Palestinian Authority area,” says Steve LeRoy, Coke’s communications director for central Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East.
One victim of apparent mistaken identity is Procter & Gamble, which markets a detergent called Ariel—it has the same formulation as Tide—outside the United States. Ariel is being boycotted not because it is American, but because it shares a name with one of the most unpopular men in the Arab world: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The name derives from the Shakespearian character Ariel, who appears in The Tempest and whose name is associated with “fresh air,” according to P&G.
There have even been rumors that Sharon owns the brand. Indeed, rumors abound: Pepsi, one boycott claims, is an acronym for “Pay Every Penny to Save Israel.” Pepsi was created more than half a century before the state of Israel came into existence. (Let’s hope the Moslems never hear the one about P&G donating a portion of its profits to Satanism.)
“We conducted an education campaign working with the local media to help them understand P&G’s long commitment to and interest in the local country,” P&G spokesowman Jeannie Tharrington told reporters recently. “P&G representatives did broadcast and print interviews. We even did some television advertising.”
And Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Ebeid recently visited company’s facility in that country in an effort to underscore the company’s importance to the Egyptian economy. He was photographed holding a box of the detergent.
Meanwhile, those sympathetic to the Palestinian plight are bringing the protests to the U.S., where a growing movement seeks to punish companies that do business with Israel.
Over the past year, students and faculty at a growing number of universities have joined a movement to pressure schools into selling their holdings in companies that do business in Israel—a tactic employed to oppose apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. The campaign prompted Harvard University president Lawrence Summers to warn of an “upturn in anti-Semitism” on campus.
But others see a clear parallel between the disenfranchisement of blacks in South Africa and the persecution of Palestinians in Israel. According to University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle, , who served as an unpaid legal adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks in the early 90s, “It is clear to me we have an apartheid practice being inflicted on the Palestinians. If the situation is the same as it was in South Africa, the remedy should be the same as well.”
Students for Justice in Palestine says its goal is to put pressure on all companies in which the University of California system has invested that do substantial business—transactions worth $5 million or more annually—in Israel. Almost every Fortune 500 company falls into that category—even those that do extensive business in Arab countries.
No company wants to be dragged into the middle of a political conflict, particularly one that stirs so many passions, and most will choose to lay as low as possible. But professional communicators need to monitor the issue, and be sensitive to the way their companies are perceived in international markets.