links profit margins, policy change
14 May, 2002
Kamal Hamdan enjoys smoking Marlboro cigarettes. But lately, every
time the Lebanese economist goes to light up, people are giving
him a hard time: "What, still smoking American cigarettes?"
The boycott of American products is picking up in many Arab countries
people are switching to the French brand of cigarettes, while
McDonald's and Burger Kings stand empty at lunchtime. Students are
protesting with sit-in demonstrations at the local Starbucks' and
are "deleting anything that relates to America," according
to one Saudi fast food mogul.
Images of angry anti-Americanism from the so-called "Arab
World" have come in tandem with recent news of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict. Yet amid all depictions of flag-burning and violent demonstrations,
a new movement has sprung up. The plan is to boycott American products
to force changes in American policy. Such a direct action with its
roots in the masses debunks the dominant notion that non-Westerners
critical of U.S. policy are either fundamentalists or can be easily
bought with a taste of American pop culture. Individuals are making
the reasoned decision to not buy American products as a way of empowering
the millions whose voices have gone hoarse from cries for action
against U.S. support for Israeli occupation.
In a globalized world where corporations exceedingly hold more
sway than national governments, the recent boycott represents a
new form of social protest that confronts power where it really
lies in the hands of CEOs fearful of any threat to their
corporate profits. Sales at American fast-food outlets in Arab countries
are down 20 to 30 percent. In one month alone, U.S. companies lost
$200 million in Arab markets.
As news of the boycott spreads through e-mail, cell phones and
by word of mouth, the movement represents a protest that soldiers
and tanks cannot disperse, a voice that political repression cannot
quiet. It lies in the decisions made daily by individuals who understand
that money is the only driving force that has the ability to speak
truth to corporate America.
The reaction from corporate America? Massive advertising campaigns
to persuade locals against the boycott. Yet, as Marc Lynch of the
Middle East Research and Information project reports in Jordan,
people are not so stupid as to be seduced by better ads. "Jordanians
reject the 'civilizational' explanation for hostility toward the
U.S. and insist that the hostility emanates from American policies,
not American culture."
It would be much better for the Bush administration if the reverse
were true. Middle Easterners painted as fanatics on a quest against
American culture are easier to discount than millions of people
with legitimate claims against specific U.S. policies.
Meanwhile, some companies, like Kelloggs and Hershey, have their
fingers crossed hoping that the U.S. will change its Mid-East stance
before old consumer habits are broken. And it is a fear they must
take seriously. What if the common view that American products are
automatically superior and of better quality is replaced with political
stigma and social pressure to buy non-American? What if such a backlash
spreads to other regions screwed over by or in opposition to U.S.
policy? For corporate America, the prospects are dim. And President
Bush's decision to turn to advertising queen Charlotte Beers to
help spread American values in "hostile" regions reveals
only one thing: that commercial and political hegemony are inextricably
linked. But as the boycott reflects, so is resistance to both.
Indeed, the spreading boycotts in places like Asia, Africa and
Europe reminds us that the "Arab world" is not another
world, but rather an equal part of an international community increasingly
fed up with U.S. isolationism and obstructionism. Closer to home,
students and community members are also organizing around divesting
UC funds from companies which do business with Israel.
But consumer boycotts are only one piece of a much larger puzzle.
If American companies push for policy changes for fear of losing
profits, that's one thing. But if we Americans join others to seek
peaceful solutions to conflicts because of moral responsibility
toward the human community, that's quite another.