It’s not easy being the primary symbol of rampant US capitalism abroad. McDonalds is the first point of attack for angry locals.

When French farmer Jose Bové dismantled a McDonalds to protest against industrial food culture and US agricultural policies, he was hailed as a local hero synonymous with Asterix the Gaul, the indomitable French cartoon character with a gigantic moustache who defies imperial Rome.

Faced with a little local image problem, McDonalds, in an attempt to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of the French, has retired Ronald McDonald as the company’s public face and replaced him with Asterix the Gaul.

This is known as ‘glocalization’ – adapting global products for a local market. McDonalds quoting the dictum, ‘Think global, act local,’ now sells rice meals in Hong Kong, veggie burgers in India, and bacon butties in Britain.

Homogenous global culture may be increasingly unpopular, but such cynical glocalization has its own dangers. In 2000, facing a mass Saudi boycott of US food products over American support for Israel, McDonalds, which has 45 restaurants in Saudi Arabia, launched what one might term an ‘intifada-burger’ initiative. During Ramadan, it announced, it would donate 26 cents from each meal to Palestinian children’s hospitals. This appeal to local sentiment backfired spectacularly when US supporters of Israel learned McDonalds was supporting ‘the Palestinians’ and began a boycott of their own.

In the current climate US brands are counting the costs in millions of a Middle Eastern boycott of their products. Across the Middle East, branches of McDonalds are empty.

Meanwhile in Egypt products such as Yasser Arafat Potato Chips, featuring a cartoon of the Palestinian leader with his chequered head-dress, are flying off the shelves. In Bahrain Zamzam Cola, named after a holy spring in Mecca, is replacing Coke as the drink of choice.

What will McDonalds do next to market to the Muslim world? Happy McSaddam theme meals? Afghan Mcfood drops? McDonalds ads in the breaks between Osama bin Laden slots on Al-Jazeera? And what if their more patriotic US customers find out?

_Seriously_ is, for once, rather enjoying the contradictions of global capitalism.

New Internationalist issue 349 magazine cover This article is from the September 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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