The Myth of the Ugly American
May 31, 2006
This is the second in a series of podcasts with Keith Reinhard about how the world sees America, how anti-Americanism is starting to affect American businesses, and whether the myth of the ugly american is based on reality.
Download the MP3 (14 min, 4.8 MB)
The following is a transcript of Mr. Reinhard's remarks in the podcast.
How has the perception of America, and American business, changed in the past 20 years?
Well, 20 years ago we were still selling a slice of the American lifestyle: buy an American brand; participate vicariously in the American experience. Now that idea has been turned on its head.
You know, in marketing, we always go into a market and say, "Does country of origin add value to the product or does it subtract from the product?" In most categories now today, [America] subtracts from the product. I think Levis might be an exception.
So now we have resistance to American brands. For example, 37% of British Intelligentsia says that the cultural identify of America "makes me avoid American brands." Okay, that is the Intelligentsia. But if you go to the people in the street, 18% of the general population in the G8 countries say, "I try to avoid buying American brands."
Throughout the world we do affinity tests. Affinity towards American lifestyle is dropping and we can trace exact correlations to affinity, brand ranking to American brands.
So what is it like for a business man out there who is representing an American brand? It is very much more difficult now, because first of all he might even have to pretend he is Canadian so he doesn't get harassed and embarrassed, but most important he's got to be very, very culturally sensitive and see how he can match his brand to the cultural sensitivities of the local population.
Are American companies starting to see this anti-American brand affect their bottom lines?
The only business in America that has admitted that this is affecting bottom line directly is the travel and tourism business. And they are doing that through their industry organization. No individual company is willing to admit that this is directly affecting their bottom line. And we understand that because Wall Street would be all over them. Wall Street would kill them if they said, "Anti-Americanism is hurting my bottom line." But the travel and tourism industry has said this resentment against our country is directly affecting tourism into the United States, which is still considerably below pre 9/11 levels. And the economic impact to our country is considerable.
We now have 6% of the world's international travel. In 2000 we had 7 and a half percent. One share point equals 7.6 million travelers and tourists, $12.3 billion of revenue, 153,000 jobs. That is one share point. And even more important to the mission of Business for Diplomatic Action, is the fact that when people actually get through our bullies at the border, or actually get their Visa, once they get into the United States they have a much better impression of us than they got from their local media or from hearsay.
For example, French citizens who have visited the United States give us a 52% favorability rating. French citizens who haven't: 17%. And this is true across all countries, and even the Arab and Muslims states, although the numbers are lower in terms of base. If they are visiting they go back and say, "You know, it was much better than I read about or than I thought." So it is very important to the travel and tourism business that we fix the image and also do something about our Visa procedures and the bully tactics that so many people experience at our borders.
Other companies are in agreement that this is a problem. And it just stands to reason that anti-Americanism is bad for business eventually. Some are willing to say it is affecting their costs in terms of security. Some are willing to say that our recruiting is getting a little harder in some of these countries. Maybe people aren't quite as anxious to work for an American firm, or one that is identified as being an American firm. But no CEO has yet said, "This anti-Americanism is really hurting my bottom line." And we would understand why they wouldn't say that.
You've talked a little bit about how businesses are concerned about anti-Americanism, how does this translate to the average person? How does the fact that businesses are feeling the sting of anti-American sentiments around the world affect the average American?
Well, obviously if trends continue it is going to affect their jobs. If people decide, "I don't want any more American brands. I want European or Asian brands," that certainly would reflect directly on American jobs. I'm not sure what the employment situation is at Mattel, but Barbie is one of the brands now avoided in the G8 countries, at least according to the research we had. And one of the reasons is that all through the Middle East there is a new doll called Fulla, who is created and marketed by a Syrian company. She comes complete with Muslim dress and a prayer mat and has now extended her equity into bicycles and chewing gum and everything else. And so now, in the Middle East toy stores, you can't find Barbie. Well, that has got to affect somebody somewhere in the United States. And the same obviously would be true in the automotive industry. If people start preferring Japanese or Korean or German cars that has a direct impact.
But I think more concerning to me as a parent and grandparent is the prospect of a rogue nation where Americans are not welcomed in the world as travelers, as scholars, as workers. Where American brands are not welcomed in the world. This will have profound effect if we don't reverse these trends. I think the average American ought to be concerned about that.
And as an American traveler in the world, have you experienced any of this anti-Americanism first hand?
Well, you know, after three or four glasses of wine, my hosts in various countries, and they have been careful to say, "Well, you, Mr. Reinhardt, of course, are not guilty of all these transgressions, but let me tell you about whatever." And they go on about any number of situations. The American businessman who sits down in a German restaurant with his German counterpart who is dressed nicely in suite and tie and business dress. And the American is slouched over in his blue blazer, his open shirt, his blue jeans and sneakers lecturing the German counterpart on every aspect of business on how to raise children, on how he is raising his children, and doing it in a voice that the entire restaurant can hear. Those stories are told over and over.
The German executive who said, "You know, we like K-Mart, but we don't like getting up every morning and singing the company song. That is not a part of our culture." The more obvious things: the American tendency to eat fast, work fast, not take time for any pleasantries is mentioned a lot. The fact that Americans won't listen. The fact that we don't have time to even learn a few words of their language, to at least acknowledge that there is another language.
Believe it or not, some Americans judge the intelligence of their international partners based on their fluency in English, which has nothing to do with their intelligence, but that is a part of our ignorance and self-absorption. The fact that we don't know anything about their sports stars, their celebrities. Instead we'd rather talk about the "World" Series, which only involves the United States. Our "World" Championship basketball teams, and have no appreciation for their sports, their culture. We probably don't know the name of their prime minister. We sometimes confuse Austria with Australia. I mean, believe it or not that happens.
So yes, they are always careful to say, "Well, you Mr. Reinhardt have been careful to learn a little bit about our culture, but these are the stories we hear." And now, of course, we hear about American policy. And it is not just Iraq. In Germany, for example, it is Iraq, Kyoto, Abu Ghraib and now Katrina.
A representative of the German Government told me that the German Government met before the U.S. Government after Katrina and that they had organized a shipment of search dogs and some food and medical supplies, which according to this official were rebuffed because once again, we go it alone.
So you hear that, and then of course when you get into foreign policy, there is of course a great deal of disagreement. And some people, even though they realize that their small, individual action will have no real effect, still say [I'll do my part.] For example, a man in Belgium will not let his children go to any birthday parties where Coca-Cola or any American product is served. [And he says] I know that this doesn't matter to the American company really, but I so disagree with American foreign policy, and I know that those companies pay taxes to a government whose policies I disagree with, so this is my little way of saying, "I object."