Weaponizing Global Consumers: Big Tobacco’s Arab Boycott and the “Jewish Problem”

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As the Arab League’s boycott of Israel escalated in the 1950s, multinational corporations such as the British American Tobacco Company (BAT) had to develop strategies to deal with rising international alliances between states and communities of consumers. BAT and its subsidiaries had to establish public relations departments to deal with what they called “ethnic problems,” to increase sales and to contend with the confused anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric the boycotters employed, as well as the pressure that the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Jewish communities in Britain and the United States exercised. This article argues that the strategies these companies developed during this historical episode—such as employing people from the boycotting community, infiltrating and co-opting its leadership, and sponsoring events and fundraisers for it—combined with the ability to alternate between international subsidiaries, would eventually help them diffuse, manipulate, and circumvent other possible consumer boycotts and public relations crises. Furthermore, the alliances forged during the Arab Boycott—ideological, military, and economic—and the logic of the “multi” would end up forming the operative basis of the increasingly globalized decades to come.