FREE Subscription to our
just enter your email address
View Previous Issues



Boycott links profit margins, policy change

Shirin Vossoughi
Daily Bruin
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.