Freedom Fries and the “Out-Group”: Consumer Ethnocentrism Part 3

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!

From the oddly hilarious blog "Swayze, Sinise, Selleck: Snacktime"

From the oddly hilarious blog “Swayze, Sinise, Selleck: Snacktime”

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.

The Pseudo Ethical Scrooge and Immunity from Change*

In Western societies such as Australia, UK, or the US, Christmas is a consumer driven festival with a slight veneer of religious significance. One does not need to be a Max Weber or Emile Durkheim to draw this conclusion.

In step with the proliferation of Christmas identities such as Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus), Carol-ers, elves, reindeer, and snowmen etc. a relatively new addition has emerged: the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge. Distinct from the regular Scrooge or Grinch, the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge does not dislike Christmas per se, but what they regard as unethical spending on consumer goods. These Scrooges make statements such as “if everyone in [insert country] didn’t buy gifts for one year and instead gave money to [insert ngo] then we would eradicate [insert catastrophic event] undeniably.”

Despite strong arguments that the eradication of events such as famine or poverty don’t occur through mere donations or redirection of fundings – see here – it is difficult to deny the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge’s point. People do buy a lot of stuff during this period. Some of the stuff is good, some is useful, some is edible and a lot is utter crap. Almost all of it is unnecessary. However, almost all of the stuff that fills our shopping carts (real and virtual) for the other 364 days of the year is unnecessary. This is the point that these Ethical Scrooges neglect, and through this neglect reveal themselves as no more sincere than a ‘peace on earth’ Hallmark card.Unlike the Dickens Scrooge who proclaims ‘a pox on all your houses’* and goes to bed in a cold empty mansion, these Pseudo Ethical Scrooges inform us of the catastrophe to which we all contribute while still participating in the party. Like a vegetarian lecturing on the vice of meat eating, while wolfing down the last pork roll.**

To be clear, I am not talking about activities like the TEAR or Oxfam Gift Catalogues, but the cheap comments made in a falsetto register that use global poverty as a vehicle for self-love. I use cheap and falsetto intentionally. Like the gifts received in the office KrisKringle and drunken attempts to sing ‘O Holy Night’ – these concerns over the Western excess and global poverty are little more than inexpensive, poorly constructed and weak thoughts broadcast through a false register that mimics sincerity.Exhibit A: Starvation Ornaments 

Exhibit B: Popular ‘web-posters’ juxtaposing starving children with Christmas consumerism***

Exhibit C:

The problem is not drawing attention to the excesses of Western consumerism or the suffering of others, but the use of ‘poverty-porn’ as an immunity mechanism that enables rather than prevents further consumption.

The early practice of smallpox inoculation serves as an example of this practice. In order to be protected against small-pox, an individual would have smallpox scabs rubbed into incisions on their body, delivering minimal infection yet immunity from the disease. Similarly, by exposing oneself to the graphic horrors of global poverty in the context of excessive of consumerism, the effect is not a revaluation of values, but protection from such a revaluation, thereby enabling the continuation of consumer practices.

Through ‘poverty-porn’ the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge is able to cleanse their conscience of the guilt associated with excessive consumption, continue with the festivities and avoid the difficult process of revaluing and restructuring their existence for the other 364 days of the year.

To be clear, the conclusion here is not that global poverty or excessive consumption should simply be ignored, or even that the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge is a kill-joy.  Rather the consumer excesses that take place on every other day of the year AND the systemic injustices of global trade, resource distribution and political economy require sustained critical reflection. Critical reflection that doesn’t come through a song or an image.

Giving gifts to friends and family – with or without acknowledging the symbolic significance – is an important cultural practice. To refrain from this practice for the sake of global poverty, could be a noble gesture, but it could also preclude the formation of significant bonds and relations. These bonds not only characterize us as humans, and enrich life, but also provide the conditions for the communal and social change necessary to confront problematic issues like consumerism and poverty.

So I will be giving my family and friends Thomas Pogge and Amartya Sen books for Christmas. Just kidding- you’ll still get your iPads and Steve Jobs biographies.

*I know Scrooge didn’t say this – but Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

**OK, I admit I may have been this person…oops

*** I won’t provide an image because I think these posters are crass but you can see some here