George Pitcher: What’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander

The latest BA ad demonstrates that the US is a nation of hypocrisy. In the case of US business, what they expect isn’t always what they give, says George Pitcher

The latest TV ad for British Airways has a typical American businessman taking a telephone call from a potential British supplier in his office in – strangely enough – some high-rise, Manhattan-style block.

He quickly retrieves his caller’s e-mailed presentation from his secretary and condescendingly admires its colours and pull-outs. After assuring his caller that he’ll get back to him, he greets some British visitors with a competitive presentation by saying “let’s get down to business” – implying the deal is as good as done.

From this we are meant to infer that it is better to fly to the US to make a presentation in person than to use modern telecommunications. The message is that there is no replacement for human contact in the sales process and poor old “Tim” – with his e-mailed presentation – has been hopelessly outflanked by the egregious “David”, a key member of staff, who has just spent the best part of two days (the ad features a Jumbo, not Concorde) crossing the Atlantic.

I’m afraid I infer no such thing and that all the BA ad conveys to me is how crass and stupid American business people can be. The character in the commercial is clearly more easily impressed by a Brit in a crinkled suit with a lap-top than by the prospect of making a judgment on a business proposition on its merits.

If, however, he has already done the sensible thing and invited his favoured supplier to his office to talk detail, then he is wasting the time of the chap on the phone. And, anyway, if that were the case, the central message of the ad – that there is a competitive advantage to presenting in person – wouldn’t make sense.

The fact is that we are being told that the US, which brings us “the global village”, and which pushed the modern telecommunications technology revolution to unprecedented levels of hype and over-valuation, actually requires its world suppliers to travel thousands of miles to suck up to it.

Can this really be true? Can the people of the most powerful nation on earth – who were so horribly enmeshed in the worst machinations of foreign affairs last September – still be so introverted and self-regarding that the world’s favourite airline’s main message is that we all have to travel to it in order to better serve it?

I’m afraid so. For the very same airline, along with its US counterpart American Airlines (American), has this week pulled out of negotiations in Washington aimed at agreeing a new bi-lateral air treaty, blaming the unreasonable and one-sided conditions set by US competition regulators for approving the BA/American alliance.

The result is that any prospect of an “open skies” policy, in which restriction of landing slots at Heathrow are relaxed in exchange for access to the American network – which incidentally would provide the conveniences of competitive choice to “David” and his globetrotting pals – is as remote as ever.

BA describes a US government proposal, by which BA/American would surrender over 220 landing slots at Heathrow without anything like a commensurate deal in the US, as a “protectionist grab”.

Perhaps BA executives should have flown to Washington to discuss this matter. Perhaps they did. And perhaps such a policy of human interaction doesn’t work as dreamily as it does in its ads.

In any event, I imagine that BA will be sticking to e-mail communications with anti-trust regulators in the US for the immediate future. And that the US will continue to protect its own commercial interests, without much concern for those it does business with abroad.

There is danger in the expression of these views – although I would call them self-evident truths. To be critical of the US in the wake of September 11 is a dreadful heresy in most political quarters – never mind that some of us were expressing these views well before the terrorist attacks, and never mind that we don’t condone mass murder of innocent Americans as a solution.

On the other hand why should we go cap in hand to the US, like BA’s “David”, only to find ourselves treated as a colonial dependency by an American government that equates world interests with its own.

We’ve been here before, of course. The US anti-trust authorities support the European Union competition commissioner Mario Monti when he examines the implications of Microsoft bundling software applications into its Windows XP operating system.

That’s because it suits powerful vested interests back home to shackle Microsoft. But, when the same European Commissioner blocks General Electric’s near-&£30bn merger with similar systems group Honeywells, the US Justice Department shouts that the EC “punishes efficiency” and “punishes success”.

Microsoft, by contrast, presumably has no interest in efficiency and success and consequently deserves to be punished. Or so many powerful people in Congress with interests in the computer industries must believe.

Anyway, the trouble with BA’s commercial is that it encourages us to go and do business with Americans who have no interest in doing business with us, as BA itself has just discovered.

For every Cuban Camp X-Ray circumstance, when Americans seem amazed that their allies should object to them doing exactly as they like in their own interests, there are dozens of examples in the business world.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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