Q and Q in the Boston Globe on 16 March
Last week, in protest of France's opposition to US policy toward Iraq, the US House of Representatives took the word ''French'' off its cafeteria menus, making french fries ''freedom fries.'' More serious actions may follow. At Brandeis University's Graduate School of International Economics and Finance, international marketing professor Shih-Fen Chen thinks a war with Iraq could trigger boycotts of US products overseas, even though boycotts hurt both sides. The Internet and instant communications make boycotts easier than ever to mobilize in a global economy. Chen talked with Globe reporter Chris Reidy.
What American products are most likely to be affected? Nike? Levi's? McDonald's?
Whatever brands carry strong American flavors could be bashed. In most of the world, American products enjoy a competitive advantage because of America's national image. A war will create a hostile environment that could cost American companies billions of dollars.
In today's economy, isn't the quality of a product its big selling point, not its country of origin?
Many foreigners are buying an American product to have an American experience. They want to drink our beer and soft drinks. They watch our movies and listen to our music. But a war could tarnish America's image as a land of social justice and human rights. I can imagine some people in Pakistan will stop drinking Coke as their way of saying, "Yankee go home."
Will people who've been drinking Coke for years suddenly stop because of US foreign policy?
You don't need large numbers. If only 5 percent of the people in a country are part of a boycott, that can hurt a US company. And remember: Local politicians will be trying to score political points with a boycott. Local companies will try to use them to gain a competitive advantage.
Boycotts don't seem to work well here. Are they more effective overseas?
In Asia, short-term boycotts are not unusual. Whenever the Japanese prime minister visits a shrine to honor soldiers killed in World War II (the shrine includes some accused of war crimes), there can be boycotts of Japanese products in Korea, China, or Taiwan.The US is an individualistic society. People have their own vote; they make their own choices. And there is less likely to be effective collective action like a boycott. But many Asian countries have a more collective culture. In these societies, there are more social sanctions against the public consumption of a boycotted product. The same is true in the Middle East and Pakistan.
You said most boycotts are short-lived. Could this be different?
If, and when, the first shot is fired, you're going to see strong anti-Americanism around the globe. In such a short period so many people have turned against us. It's America against the rest of the world. I've never seen anything like this. It couldn't have happened 10 years ago before CNN and the Internet. The Internet makes it easier to organize a boycott. And CNN means images are everywhere. If a bomb lands in the wrong place, a hospital or an orphanage, that picture will be seen around the world right away. Big brands have to hope for a quick war.
What would you advise US corporations with mega brands?
Keep a low profile. Don't launch a big advertising campaign. Don't launch a new product. And downplay the American cultural aspect of your product. McDonald's ads should tell people the food tastes good, not that it's American.