Americans ignore boycott bluster

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Despite bellicose calls to boycott French and German products, American consumers don't seem inclined to change their wine, cheese and automotive purchases simply to protest European resistance to U.S. action in Iraq.

Coming mostly from a handful of Washington lawmakers, talk-show hosts and Internet activists, the selective cries are met by an apathetic public largely uninterested in jumping into the tiff with the French and Germans.

"Nothing has been more unsuccessful than the history of consumer boycotts," said James Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. "Our yearning for stuff usually trumps our knowledge of where the stuff comes from or the level of our passion."

too early

Even though talk of a boycott bubbled in the fall and a Gallup Poll shows France's and Germany's "favorable" ratings among Americans have sunk, it is too early to tell whether personal sanctions have taken hold. Information Resources Inc., for example, said volume of Beck's-this country's No. 1 German beer brand-was off double-digits for the four weeks ending Jan. 26, while No. 2 St. Pauli Girl saw double-digit gains.

That's not to say marketers aren't taking notice. Though few will talk about the subject, Jacques Thebault, president of Sopexa USA, a French-government backed agency that handles marketing and promotions for French wines, has been monitoring the situation and has received a few e-mails on the issue. He said that while sales have not been affected, "we take this issue very, very seriously."

A spokeswoman for the Robert Mondavi family of wines said U.S. wine marketers aren't anxious for an anti-French backlash that "might work the other way around" should Europeans abandon U.S. wines in retaliation.

"The German industry is worried about voices in the U.S. thinking about business restrictions," said Michael Rogowski, president of the Federation of German Industry. "It would be disastrous if because of political strain the tight business connections would be hurt" between Germany and the U.S.

A spokeswoman for Dannon Co., a unit of French-owned Groupe Danone, said the company is looking at potential risks of any boycott but stressed Dannon has a headquarters in the U.S. and said any efforts against the Tarrytown, N.Y., company would hurt American workers.

Observers agree French and German exporters probably are safe because few Americans know where their groceries come from, but "you could bet if there were an Iraqi import other than oil, we'd probably be seeing boycotts of those," said Robert Thompson, professor of media-popular culture, Syracuse University.

business as usual

He said the only way a moratorium could really harm Germany or France is if the current split were protracted-though that is questionable. "We are doing business with all kinds of countries that we'd rather not be doing business with because we desperately need the products."

One Pennsylvania lawmaker wants to bar state liquor stores from selling French wine and spirits, and U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is considering a plan targeting French mineral water and selected wines.

Even so, boycotts likely would have little effect on luxury goods because people enthusiastic about shunning Camembert and luxury Bosch dishwashers don't buy them in the first place, said Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners marketing strategy firm.

contributing: alice z. cuneo, stephanie thompson, and dagmar mussey

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