Americans Punished French-Sounding (But American) Brands During the Iraq War Argument With France

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WASHINGTON - MARCH 12:  A cashier put a "freedom sticker" on top of a box of "Freedom Fries" at a cafeteria in the U.S. Capitol building on Capitol Hill March 12, 2003 in Washington, DC. With the French opposition of U.S. President Bush's policy on Iraq, the House Administration Committee ordered to change the names of French Fries and French Toast to "Freedom Fries" and "Freedom Toast" in all the cafeterias of the House of Representatives.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Back in 2003, the U.S. got in a spat with France over whether or not to invade Iraq that famously “escalated” to the point that the House renamed the French fries and French toast in its cafeteria “Freedom” fries and “Freedom” toast. Sonal Pandya and Rajkumar Venkatesan of the University of Virginia were curious how much the anti-French sentiments swirling around at the time, which included calls for boycotts from major commentators like Bill O’Reilly, affected everyday Americans. Did consumers punish French products for France’s refusal to back the war?

It turns out to not be a straightforward question to answer, because consumers, perhaps unsurprisingly, aren’t great at understanding the national origin of the stuff they’re buying. “Survey and experimental evidence,” the authors write in their findings, published in The Review of Economics and Statistics, “shows consumers systematically misidentify the national origin of products because they infer nationality from marketing cues, rather than searching for country of origin labels.” So when marketers try to class up a product’s name with some French-sounding language — TRESemmé shampoo and Raison D’Être beer, for example — the trick works.

Around 2003, though, it worked a little too well: By analyzing supermarket checkout data covering more than 8,600 products, and having Amazon Mechanical Turk workers rate how much various product names reminded them of France, Pandya and Venkatesan found that there really was a hit to American French-sounding products — one that they say they can’t account for except as part of the circa-2003 spike in enthusiasm for bashing all things French (or, well, French-sounding).

Take that, American companies with product names that sound as though they come from the language of a country that disagreed with the U.S. on a foreign-policy issue!