In 2003 the US was attempting to gain an international consensus in support of their planned invasion of Iraq. The French government were not so keen and refused to join the “coalition of the willing”. In a mature act of protest, certain American politicians and media personalities called for a boycott of all things French.
An immediate target was the delicious French Fry. Rather than boycotting the culinary delicacy that keeps America running – especially when the sugar hit of Dunkin’ Donuts wears off – some clever politicians proposed a re-branding. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) the chairman of the Committee on House Administration ordered that the three cafeterias in the House office buildings change their menus from listing french-fries and french-toast, to freedom-fries and freedom-toast. Representative democracy at its finest!
According to Ney this was ‘a small, but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France’. A number of private restaurants followed suit and media personalities such as Bill O’Reilly encouraged consumers to boycott French products, particularly wine.
In a study examining the impact of the calls to boycott French wine in the US, Chavis and Leslie estimate that there was a ‘13% [or $112 million] decrease in the volume of French wine sold over the first 6 months after the US war with Iraq’.
These figures suggest that ethnocentric consumers have the potential to significantly reduce sales – at least for a time. As shown through the work of Swaminathan et al. ‘[n]egative information or negative publicity surrounding a brand [or country] can threaten the stability of the consumer-brand relationship and has a higher salience and diagnostic value than positive information’.
The boycott of French products was different to earlier boycotts of Nestlé or Nike, where the boycott directly targets the perpetrator of the perceived wrong. The rejection of French wine served as a proxy for the French government. According to Chavis and Leslie, ‘[f]or consumers supporting the boycott of French wine, the hope was that somehow this may impact the behavior of the French government’.
As absurd as this scenario is it demonstrates the unpredictable political impact of country-of-origin labelling on consumer behavior. French wine and the idea of terroir is ordinarily seen as a mark of quality and something to be marketed, particularly in contrast to the increased interconnection between the food system and global capitalism enables the commercialised food product to be abstracted from the origin and conditions under which it was produced.
The global food systems results in anonymization of food product. The consumer at the point-of-purchase is ignorant of the conditions under which the food came to be in the supermarket. In this situation the consumer is vulnerable to manipulation by marketing and branding that seeks to represent what a consumer expects or imagines are the conditions under which food is produced.
A consumer may expect a food item, whether tinned tomatoes or cream-cheese, to be associated with pastoral scenes of red barns, wandering holstein’s, and perhaps a salt-of-the-earth type farmer leaning on a fence post. However, when the country-of-origin is known, and this knowledge coincides with a specific economic or political climate, this knowledge can have unpredictable effects on a brand, product or market.
Country-of-origin influences consumer purchasing decisions, but in unpredictable ways. Prior to 2003, a “product of France” label would indicate quality and tradition, characteristics beneficial for wine sales. However, for a period after 2003 it became a liability. While empirical research suggests that ‘consumers actually have only modest knowledge of the national origins of brands’, when labelling or political influence emphasise this information, the country-of-origin has the potential to transform a brand or product into a political act.