Blog: Dave LeggettAmerican car brands and US policy on Iraq

Dave Leggett | 22 June 2004

It's a little like the searing riposte that comes to mind when the blazing row is long finished. If only you could have used it in the heat of the moment instead of what you actually said. I’m talking about answers to questions from the floor given after presentations in formal conference settings. You have to think quick and get to the point. Afterwards you think about what you said and, inevitably, how you could have improved on it. Last week at Ford’s Automotive Strategy meeting, I was asked whether or not I thought that US policy in Iraq would adversely affect sales of US-brand cars in global markets – at least that was the gist of the question.

I said – I think - that I thought the effect would be quite minimal because there are a host of other more important and fundamental factors that govern the car purchase decision. It’s a fair enough answer, but there are a couple of things I could have added. One is that US-based car companies dilute, if that’s the right word, their perceived ‘Americanness’ around the world by having local manufacturing facilities. If the car you buy was built at a factory around the corner where your brother works on the assembly line, it probably won’t be viewed as an in your face symbol of corporate America.

Secondly, and more importantly, many of the world’s great consumer brands – Nike, Coca-cola, Levi’s, McDonald’s, Walt Disney etc - are American and there’s no sign that global enthusiasm for them has suffered because of American policy in Iraq or anywhere else. Sure, demonstrators on anti-WTO marches may smash a McDonald’s window in, say, London, because it serves as a convenient symbol of corporate America, but I wonder how many of the marchers either wear Levi’s, Nike training shoes and eat at McDonald’s or visit Starbucks occasionally? A pretty high percentage I would think.

As far as Iraq is concerned, of course there is plenty of political opposition to US (and British) policy around the world. And that is amply voiced by governments. Opinion polls around the world suggest that the war is unpopular to varying degrees (even in Britain, it’s a 50-50 split on the question of whether British military involvement in Iraq is justified). But there’s a certain ambivalence too in much of the world. Yes, the US Mid-East policy – including policy with respect to Israel and the Palestinians – appears to be a little off the global consensus position, as espoused at the UN.

But, and it’s an important but, there’s widespread admiration around the world for America, it’s people, American achievements and the American way of life. What is perhaps unfortunate for the US administration is that the global groundswell of sympathy for the US that rose up after 9/11 seems to have been eroded as the war in Iraq has played out in its increasingly messy way, with somewhat confused justification from the politicians (Officially: WMD, part of the war on terrorism or removing a bad man from power? Unofficially: secure future oil reserves; better geopolitical strategic stance; send a message to Arab governments and neighbouring Iran - don't mess with us. Take your pick, but the reason(s) for occupying Iraq aren't exactly crystal clear).

The ambivalence felt in many parts of the world towards America in a general sense was nicely summed up by the title of a book that I believe was a best-seller in India just a few years ago: ‘Go home America, and take me with you!’

I can’t see many people deciding not to have a Ford because they disagree with President Bush over Iraq. It’s also hard to imagine many public sector fleet sales (sometimes, admittedly, driven by a political element that impacts procurement policy) being affected much either, but it could be a small factor in some places. But if Ford has the right product at the right price, the buyers will come.

On reflection, maybe that 'full' answer is a little long-winded with plenty of potential for digression and going off at a tangent...


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