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Razor Burn: Gillette Ad Stirs Online Uproar

A Gillette ad for men invoking the #MeToo movement is sparking intense online backlash, with accusations that it talks down to men and groups calling for a boycott. But Gillette says it doesn’t mind sparking a discussion. Since it debuted Monday, the Internet-only ad has garnered nearly 19 million views on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter — a level of buzz that any brand would covet.

The two-minute ad from Procter & Gamble’s razor brand shows men and boys engaging in bullying and sexual harassment and encourages men to “say the right thing” and “act the right way.” Taking on bullying, sexual harassment and toxic masculinity is a big task for a razor brand. Many critics took to social media saying it was insulting to men and laden with stereotypes.

The uproar comes as Gillette battles upstarts like Harrys Razors, Dollar Shave Club, and others for millennial dollars. Gillette controlled about 70 percent of the U.S. market a decade ago. Last year, its market share dropped to below 50 percent, according to Euromonitor.

Allen Adamson, co-founder of branding firm Metaforce, called the ad a “hail Mary” pass from the 117-year-old company. But he added that online buzz, whether positive or negative, rarely makes a long-term difference for a marketer since memory fades quickly.

“Getting noticed and getting buzz is no easy task, and they’ve managed to break through,” Adamson said. “Most advertisers advertise, and no one notices because there is so much noise in the marketplace, so just getting noticed Is a big win, especially for low-interest category like a razor.”

On the flip side, it probably won’t sell many razors either, he said.

Advertisers and social issues

Gillette’s ad echoes other attempts by major advertisers to take on social issues. Pepsi pulled an ad in 2017 showing Kendall Jenner giving a cop a Pepsi during a protest and apologized after an outcry that it trivialized “Black Lives Matter” and other protest movements. Nike polarized the nation with an ad featuring ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick who started a wave of protests among NFL players of police brutality, racial inequality and other social issues.

Sales weren’t affected in either of those cases. When controversy does affect sales, it is usually over something more substantive than an ad. Lululemon saw sales tumble in 2013 after a string of PR disasters including manufacturing problems that caused their pricey yoga pants to become see through and fat-shaming comments from their founder. But even that was short lived.

Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR, said that much like Nike’s Kaepernick ad, Gillette likely knew the ad would garner online debate.

“Nike knew what they were getting themselves into,” Torossian said. The ad with Kapernick was “making a lot of noise, and it can’t be a surprise to [Gillette] that this is making a lot of noise.”

Gillette response

P&G, one of the world’s largest advertisers, is known for its anthemic spots that appeal to emotions during the Olympics and other events, often aimed at women, such as the tear-jerking “Thank You Mom” Olympics branding campaign and Always “Like a Girl” 2014 Super Bowl ad.

Pankaj Bhalla, North America brand director on Gillette, says the controversy was not the intended goal of the ad, which is part of a larger campaign that takes a look at redefining Gillette’s longtime tagline “The Best a Man Can Get,” in different ways. Another online ad features one-handed NFL rookie Shaquem Griffin.

While he doesn’t want to lose sales or a boycott over the ad, “we would not discourage conversation or discussion because of that,” he said.

“Our ultimate aim is to groom the next generation of men, and if any of this helps even in a little way we’ll consider that a success,” he said.

Larry Chiagouris, marketing professor at Pace University, is skeptical.

“Treating people with respect, who can argue with that, but they’re kind of late to the party here, that’s the biggest problem,” he said. “It’s gratuitous and self-serving.”

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‘Made in China 2025’ Feels Trade War Pinch

Although it is unclear if the United States and China will be able to meet a 90-day deadline and strike a deal on trade by March 2, the tussle is clearly adding to uncertainty about the future fate of the Chinese government’s strategic plan named “Made in China 2025.”

The plan itself is much like other countries’ goals to move up the industrial value chain. According to Beijing’s plan, China aims to make the country a world leader in 10 key sectors such as robotics, information technology, and artificial intelligence by 2025.

However, what has raised concerns is how China is going about reaching that goal.

Foreign companies and governments have voiced growing concern about the plan and the Chinese policy and practice of forcing companies to hand over technology in exchange for access to the country’s massive economy.

At the same time, analysts believe Beijing has done little to stop Chinese companies from stealing technology through their operations overseas.

Dilute or delay?

Pushback from abroad has already impacted the implementation of Made in China 2025, said Anna Holzman, a junior research associate with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute of China Studies (MERICS).

“The tough stance followed by actions taken by the United States has notably increased the sense of urgency amongst Chinese policymakers to speed-up the development of domestic capabilities,” she said.

Aside from the trade deficit, forced technology transfers are a key reason why President Donald Trump launched the trade war. It is also the main component of ongoing negotiations between the world’s two biggest economies.

During last week’s talks, China said the two sides made progress on addressing the issue of technology transfers as well as other structural problems.

But the trade dispute, rising investment restrictions on its companies in western countries, and declines in its own industrial economy have some arguing that Beijing may be forced to either dilute or delay the plan.

Over the past few months, officials have stopped mentioning the plan. Beijing recently ordered Chinese companies not to force foreign firms based in China to surrender their technologies. And for the first time in years, the Made in China 2025 plan did not figure in the list of development priorities outlined by the central government for 2019.

Great leap forward

The move by officials to downplay and stop mentioning the plan and other recent measures to open up China’s economy are positive signals, said Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

“But they are going to need to be backed up by a much more broad, clear, transparent, change in policies that everyone can see, that are across the board, if you really want to convince the United States and others that China is taking a great leap forward in economic liberalization,” he said.

But while Washington waits for China to change its tune, it is unlikely to shift its increasingly tough stance on technology that has already impacted major Chinese tech firms such as Huawei and ZTE.  A growing number of countries have taken steps to ban Huawei from participating in the build of fifth-generation networks or 5G.

“Technology issues will continue to be there. President [Donald] Trump has a very confrontational position against Huawei as well as ZTE. So this will continue,” Lourdes Casanova, director at Cornell’s Emerging Markets Institute, said while referring to two major Chinese technology companies.

Last week, Poland arrested a Huawei employee on spying charges. Polish authorities say there is no connection between the arrest and the company, but at the same time, they have taken steps to urge the EU and NATO to jointly ban Huawei products.

The arrest of the Huawei employee in Poland follows the detention of the company’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada.

Chinese investments slump

Chinese companies often pour money into investments in the U.S. to acquire new technologies and learn new ways of doing business. But now, stepped up scrutiny of investments imposed by Washington and the deterioration of U.S.-China trade relations has led to a sharp decline.

Last year, according to data compiled by the research firm Rhodium Group, Chinese investments in the U.S. hit a seven-year low of $4.8 billion, a steep drop of 84 percent from $29 billion in 2017.

And 2019 is likely to be equally dismal.

“Washington is moving to implement tougher screening of venture capital and other high-tech acquisitions; and the dark cloud over U.S.-China relations is unlikely to disappear, although a major deal between China and the U.S. could help revitalize investor appetite in sectors with low national security sensitivities,” said New York-based Rhodium Group.

Digging in

However, some analysts believe that Western restrictions and criticisms has made the 2025 program a lot more important for China than in the past. Instead it has pushed Beijing to step up its pursuit of technological leadership and self-sufficiency.

China is merely reducing the propaganda around the 2025 program and talking less about it, said Xiaoyu Pu, author of a recent book, “Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order.”

“Regardless of any re-branding exercises and concessions made by the Chinese government to appease Western minds, efficient policy implementation in industries and technologies listed under the Made in China 2025 scheme remains a top priority,” Pu said.

 

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France’s Macron Launches ‘Grand Debate’ Following Protests

French President Emmanuel Macron is formally launching a “grand debate” to try to appease the yellow vest movement following weeks of anti-government protests.

Macron heads Tuesday to Grand Bourgtheroulde, a small town in Normandy, where he is to meet about 600 mayors and local officials.

 

Despite a high security presence, a ban on traffic and restricted access to the town, dozens of yellow vests protesters gathered outside the town to express their discontent.

 

“We are being prevented from accessing the village,” said protester Florence Clement. “I was crossing the road with my yellow vest but I was asked to remove it because it’s forbidden.”

 

Macron started his journey with a stop in the small town of Gasny to attend a local officials’ meeting, where some expressed their concerns over the loss of purchasing power of retirees and civil servants.

Macron addressed this week a “letter to the French” to encourage people to express their views on a series of economic and political matters during a three-month “grand debate.”

 

The consultation will take place through local meetings and on the internet. The debate will focus on taxes, public services, climate change and democracy.

 

The French leader, whose popularity ratings hit record lows at the end of last year, hopes the process will help quell anger over his economic policies.

About 84,000 people turned out last weekend for the ninth round of anti-government demonstrations across France, according to the French Interior Ministry.

 

The yellow vest movement, prompted in November by a tax hike on diesel fuel, has expanded to encompass demands for wider changes to France’s economy to help struggling workers. Protesters have denounced Macron’s pro-business policies as favoring the rich.

 

The movement is named for the fluorescent garments French motorists are required to keep in vehicles.

 

 

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China Reports Record Trade Surplus with US, Amid Signs of Slowing Economy

China’s trade surplus with the United States rose dramatically in 2018, despite a tit-for-tat tariff war with the U.S. that has roiled global markets.

The surplus stood at a record-high $323.3 billion, compared to $275.8 billion recorded the year before. 

Data released Monday by China’s customs bureau shows the country’s exports to the U.S. grew more than 11 percent in 2018. Imports from the United States rose only slightly (0.7 percent). 

But the data also revealed that exports slowed by 3.5 percent last month, as the administration of President Donald Trump imposed a series of stiff tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods to force Beijing to buy more American goods and to resolve issues involving technology, intellectual property and cyber theft issues.

The data also revealed mixed news about the strength of the world’s second-biggest economy – while China’s global trade surplus was $352 billion for 2018, its global exports dropped 4.4 percent in December compared to a year earlier, while imports plunged 7.6 percent, suggesting softening demand both at home and abroad.

Figures released by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers show that car sales fell in 2018 – the first time in 20 years for a decline.

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Detroit Auto Show, and Industry, Prepare for Transition

The auto industry gathered in Detroit on Sunday, on the eve of the last winter edition of North America’s premiere auto show, as carmakers grapple with a contracting market and uncertainty in the year ahead.

Concerns over the health of the global economy and a US-China trade war loomed over the North American International Auto Show, as it prepared to open Monday with the first five days dedicated to the media and industry insiders. The show opens to the general public on January 19.

While a number of major announcements were expected — including an anticipated strategic alliance between Ford and Volkswagen — there will be fewer automakers and new car unveilings, making it more subdued. 

“This is a transition year for the Detroit show,” said analyst Michelle Krebs of Autotrader. “It’s kind of emblematic of where the industry is. We’re in a transition in the industry.”

After a 10-year boom, analysts expect North American auto sales to contract in 2019, as consumers face pressures and carmakers grapple with multiple uncertainties. 

Rising interest rates and car prices have squeezed car buyers, and fewer of them are able to afford increasingly pricey, technology-heavy cars. 

Kelley Blue Book predicted the average new-car price was up about three percent in 2018 to more than $36,000.

  • Tariffs cause uncertainty –

Meanwhile, tariffs on imported steel and aluminum products and a potentially intensifying trade dispute between the Donald Trump administration and Beijing has automakers spooked, analysts said.

“Tariffs already had an impact in 2018,” said Cox Automotive chief analyst Jonathan Smoke, adding that 47 percent of the vehicles sold in the US in 2018 were imported. 

“We believe about two percent of today’s prices are because of the tariffs that were already implemented.”

The US is considering additional tariffs of 25 percent. Should it announce such a move by the February 17 deadline, it could have a substantial impact on the industry and stock markets, Smoke said. 

“We believe that they are likely to move forward with some form of that tariff, because it becomes then a lever for them to force… further negotiations.”

Should tariffs raise car prices further, analysts said it could substantially depress the new car market. Consumers would flock to relatively cheaper used cars, which are in ample supply. 

A growing number of lightly-used, tech-heavy vehicles leased during the sales boom of the last few years are being returned to dealerships.

The auto dealers association, which organizes the show, also was contending with the uncertainty of the show’s very relevance. Almost all German carmakers abandoned the show this year, as more and more important announcements are made at other gatherings. 

Next year, the Detroit show will move from January, when it has been held for some 40 years, to June.

  • Goodbye winter – 

Organizers hope the summer weather will allow for outdoor events that allow attendees to try out the new cars and technologies on display.

“It’s run out of gas now,” said Krebs. “June could be a rebirth for the show.”

Among the few notable unveilings this year will be from Ford, which is expected to display a redesigned Explorer SUV and a more powerful version of its iconic Mustang sports car under the name Shelby GT500. 

SUVs and trucks will once again be the highlight, a symptom of North American consumers’ shift away from sedans and small cars. Trucks and SUVs made up a majority of new purchases in the US last year. 

“The SUVs have become cars with SUV bodies sitting on top of them,” said Karl Brauer of Kelly Blue Book. 

Detroit’s big three automakers have been ending production of almost all of their sedans and small cars, succumbing to the pressure of falling demand.

To hedge against the threat of a global economic downturn, GM has announced plans to close underutilized US plants that made smaller, less profitable vehicles. 

Ford planned similar cost-cutting moves in Europe.

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Saudi Energy Minister Concerned About Oil Price Volatility

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister said Sunday that major oil producers need to do better to narrow swings in prices that dip below $60 a barrel and rise above $86.

“I think what we need to do is narrow the range… of volatility,” Khalid al-Falih said.

 

“We need to do better and the more producers that work with us, the better we’re able” to do so, he told the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi.

 

Cautious not to set a price target or range, he explained there are consequences when oil prices dip too low or rise too high.

 

Last month, OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, and other major oil producers agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels a day to reduce oversupply and boost prices for the first six months of 2019.

 

Oil producers are under pressure to reduce production following a sharp fall in oil prices in recent months because major producers — including the United States — are pumping oil at high rates.

 

Brent crude, the international standard, traded at $60.48 a barrel in London on Friday. Benchmark U.S. crude stood at $51.59 a barrel in New York.

 

Analysts say the kingdom needs oil between $75 and $80 a barrel to balance its budget, with spending for this year to reach a record high of $295 billion.

 

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the forum, al-Falih said that despite continued concerns over the volatility in price seen in the fourth quarter of 2018, he is hopeful it can be brought under control.

 

“I think early signs this year are positive,” he said.

 

Last week, Saudi Arabia announced it has 268.5 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, a figure 2.2 billion barrels higher than previously known. The kingdom’s Energy Ministry also revised upward the country’s gas reserves by around 10 percent, to 325.1 trillion standard cubic feet as of the end of 2017.

 

The kingdom’s oil reserves are among the cheapest in the world to recover at around $4 per barrel.

 

Al-Falih said the revision, conducted as an independent audit by consultants DeGolyer and MacNaughton, points to why the kingdom believes state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco “is indeed the world’s most valuable company.”

 

He said plans for an initial public offering of shares in Aramco in 2021 remain on track.

 

 

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Zimbabwe Promises New Currency as Dollar Shortage Bites

Zimbabwe will introduce a new currency in the next 12 months, the finance minister said, as a shortage of U.S. dollars has plunged the financial system into disarray and forced businesses to close.

In the past two months, the southern African nation has suffered acute shortages of imported goods, including fuel whose price was increased by 150 percent Saturday.

Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency in 2009 after it was wrecked by hyperinflation and adopted the greenback and other currencies, such as sterling and the South African rand.

But there is not enough hard currency in the country to back up the $10 billion of electronic funds trapped in local bank accounts, prompting demands from businesses and civil servants for cash that can be deposited and used to make payments.

​Two weeks of reserves

Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube told a townhall meeting Friday a new local currency would be introduced in less than 12 months.

“On the issue of raising enough foreign currency to introduce the new currency, we are on our way already, give us months, not years,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s foreign reserves now provide less than two weeks cover for imports, central bank data show. The government has previously said it would only consider launching a new currency if it had at least six months of reserves.

Bad memories of Zimbabwean dollar

Locals are haunted by memories of the Zimbabwean dollar, which became worthless as inflation spiraled to reach 500 billion percent in 2008, the highest rate in the world for a country not at war, wiping out pensions and savings.

A surrogate bond note currency introduced in 2016 to stem dollar shortages has also collapsed in value.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa is under pressure to revive the economy but dollar shortages are undermining efforts to win back foreign investors sidelined under his predecessor Robert Mugabe.

Mnangagwa told reporters Saturday that the price of petrol had increased to $3.31 per liter from $1.32 since midnight but there would be no increase for foreign embassies and tourists paying in cash U.S. dollars.

Locals can pay via local debit cards, mobile phone payments and a surrogate bond note currency.

With less than $400 million in actual cash in Zimbabwe, according to central bank figures, fuel shortages have worsened and companies are struggling to import raw materials and equipment, forcing them to buy greenback notes on the black market at a premium of up to 370 percent.

The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries has warned some of its members could stop operating at the end of the month because of the dollar crunch.

Cooking oil and soap maker Olivine Industries said Saturday it had suspended production and put workers on indefinite leave because it owed foreign suppliers $11 million.

A local associate of global brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev said this week it would invest more than $120 million of dividends and fees trapped in Zimbabwe into the central bank’s savings bonds.

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SpaceX Reportedly to Lay Off About 10 Percent of Workforce 

Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX will reduce its workforce by about 10 percent of the company’s more than 6,000 employees, it said on Friday.

The company said it will “part ways” with some of its manpower, citing “extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead.”

“To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space based

Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company. Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations,” a spokesman said in an email.

In June, Elon Musk fired at least seven people in the senior management team leading a SpaceX satellite launch project, Reuters reported in November. The firings were related to disagreements over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites.

SpaceX’s Starlink program is competing with OneWeb and Canada’s Telesat to be the first to market with a new satellite-based internet service.

The management shakeup involved Musk bringing in new managers from SpaceX headquarters in California to replace a number of the managers he fired in Seattle.

Last month, SpaceX launched its first U.S. national security space mission, when a SpaceX rocket carrying a U.S. military navigation satellite blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that SpaceX was raising $500 million, taking its valuation to $30.5 billion.

The Hawthorne, California-based company had earlier outlined plans for a trip to Mars in 2022, to be followed by a manned mission to the red planet by 2024.

Another Elon Musk company, electric car maker Tesla Inc , said in June it was cutting 9 percent of its workforce by removing several thousand jobs across the company in cost reduction measures.

 

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Uganda Not Worried China Will Seize Assets Over Rising Debt

Uganda’s growing debt is sustainable, and the country is not at risk of losing state assets to China, the country’s finance minister, Matia Kasaija, said this week.

Uganda’s auditor-general warned in a report released this month that public debt from June 2017 to 2018 had increased from $9.1 billion to $11.1 billion.

The report — without naming China — warned that conditions placed on major loans were a threat to Uganda’s sovereign assets. 

It said that in some loans, Uganda had agreed to waive sovereignty over properties if it defaults on the debt — a possibility that Kasaija rejected.

“China taking over assets? … in Uganda, I have told you, as long as some of us are still in charge, unless there is really a catastrophe, and which I don’t see at all, that will make this economy going behind. So, … I’m not worried about China taking assets. They can do it elsewhere, I don’t know. But here, I don’t think it will come,” he said.

China is one of Uganda’s biggest country-lenders, with about $3 billion in development projects through state-owned banks.

China’s Exim Bank has funded about 85 percent of two major Ugandan power projects — Karuma and Isimba dams. It also financed and built Kampala’s $476 million Entebbe Express Highway to the airport, which cuts driving time by more than half. China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation, France’s Total, and Britain’s Tullow Oil co-own Uganda’s western oil fields, set to be tapped by 2021.

Economist Fred Muhumuza says China’s foot in Uganda’s oil could be one way it decides to take back what is owed. 

“They might determine the price, as part of recovering their loan,” he said. “By having a foot in there they will say fine, we are going to pay you for oil. But instead of giving you $60 a barrel, you owe us. We’ll give you $55. The $5 you are paying the old debt. But we are reaching a level where you don’t see this oil being an answer to the current debt problem.”

China’s reach

Uganda’s worries about China seizing national assets are not the first in Africa.

A leaked December report in Kenya showed China was promised parts of Mombasa Port as collateral for financing a $3 billion railway it built from the port to Nairobi. Both Chinese and Kenyan officials have denied that the port’s ownership is at risk.

Reports in September that China was taking over Zambia’s state power company over unpaid debt rippled across Africa, despite government denials.

But the fear of a Chinese takeover of a sovereign state’s assets over debt is not completely without merit. Struggling to pay back loans to state-owned Chinese firms, Sri Lanka in 2017 handed over a strategic port.

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Despite Volatility in Retail Stocks, US Officials Predict Continued Growth

Despite the U.S. stock market recovery, Macy’s and American Airlines’ revised revenue forecasts for 2018 have sent their stock prices spiraling. Other retail stocks fell, too, including J.C. Penney, Nordstrom and Kohl’s. The reports come amid news of another iconic department store, Sears, fighting for survival. But U.S. trade and financial officials say the U.S. economy is on solid ground and will continue to grow for years to come. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.