What in the World—Week of March 7

EA pulls Russian teams from NHL, FIFA titles
In a move that’s more symbolic than punitive, video game company Electronic Arts announced this week that it is pulling all Russian teams from its FIFA and NHL titles. According to The Wall Street Journal, EA will pull the Russian national soccer team and all of the country’s club teams from its FIFA title, while the Russian and Belarusian teams will be pulled from its NHL 22 game in the coming weeks. FIFA is among the most popular gaming titles in history, with more than 325 million copies sold worldwide as of December 2020. In a statement, EA also announced that it is stopping sales of its game and content, including virtual currency bundles, in both Russia and Belarus for the duration of the conflict. “We continue to be shocked at the conflict that is unfolding in Ukraine, and join so many voices around the world in calling for peace and an end to the invasion,” said the statement.

Brands staying in Russia face backlash
While the past week has seen a steady stream of big brands announcing they were pulling out of Russia, a number of big food and QSR brands are conspicuous for making no such claims and staying relatively quiet on the matter. Some have posted calls for peace and made pledges to donate to Ukrainian relief efforts while continuing to operate in the country. For some it’s because their businesses are being operated by franchisees. “Starbucks, Papa John’s and Yum Brands chains including KFC and Pizza Hut are mostly run by franchisees, who often have close ties to Russian banks or investors,” reported The New York Times. However McDonald’s runs most of its 847 locations in Russia, a market that accounts for 9% of its total revenues, said the Times. Boycott Pepsi and Coca Cola hashtags have started showing up in social media, and Ukrainian supermarket chains have stopped selling Coca Cola. Meanwhile, the BBC points out that in retaliation for Western sanctions, Moscow has banned the sale of Russian assets. “[F]irms that, in recent years, have been encouraged to establish a presence in Russia, to make breakfast cereals or detergents, are “locked in” with local businesses, staff and supply chains.”

TikTok pulls out, and Apple makes Crimea Ukrainian again
On Sunday, TikTok and Netflix became the latest global media giants to pull out of Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, and a new law that threatens prison for anyone publishing what the government considers “false” information. Traditional media operations like CNN and BBC have all pulled out of the country, and the large social players moved with surprising speed to both stop advertising by or for the country, and block disinformation on their platforms. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that TikTok’s decision is notable because it is owned by Chinese-based ByteDance. Meanwhile the social players have also demonstrated their support for Ukraine by taking actions such as turning off functions that show where the most activity is in the country. Google and Apple both turned off live traffic information, and Wikimedia said it would ignore a Russian demand to change content about the invasion. Apple, which has halted all product sales in Russia, also started showing Crimea as part of Ukraine to all Apple Maps users outside of Russia. “Previously, Apple’s apps tried to sidestep the issue by refusing to record Crimea as part of any country when accessed in most places,” said Mashable, although it did start showing Crimea as part of Russia for Russian users in 2019.

Ad experts working to counter Russian propaganda
Advertising has emerged as a key weapon in informing Russians about their country’s actions in Ukraine. Groups and individuals are using their expertise in programmatic advertising to deliver messages to Russians who have largely been kept in the dark about the invasion because of a statewide crackdown on non-partisan news operations. According to The New York Times, a British digital strategist named Rob Blackie has been using automated technology to deliver ads designed to slip past the Russian government’s filters. Ads bearing innocuous headlines such as “What is known about the situation in Ukraine at the moment” had been viewed two million times as of midday Friday, and directed people to independent news sources. Elsewhere, a Business Insider story talks about Ukrainian digital ad expert Nickolas Redeka delivering targeted ads countering Kremlin propaganda to Russian and Belarussian websites and social platforms. Redeka is being supported by more than 50 volunteers from various advertising companies, helping deliver ads containing information about how many Russian soldiers, artillery and tanks have been lost in battle since the war started. Other ads urge Russian mothers to check on their sons, informing them they are being used to fight a war, not what the Russian government describes as a “special military operation.”

Is this the end of ‘capitalistic democracy’ in Russia?
Western brands’ decision to pull out of Russia en masse represents what the Financial Times describes as an unravelling of “capitalistic democracy.” According to the Times, the exodus by western brands in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is as sudden as their entry into the country more than three decades ago to meet the population’s desire for western fast food, soft drinks and jeans. Vladislav Zubok, a professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics, told the Times that the companies’ retreat marks the end of an era that began with the opening of the first Russian McDonald’s in 1990. Their withdrawal, said Zubok, will be “calamitous,” although he said the accompanying “cultural decline” won’t be as significant as what accompanied their entry into the market. “[W]e will all switch electronics to Xiaomi [and] we’ll all be driving Ladas,” one Russian woman told the Times. While Russia is generally a small market for most western brands, some regarded the nation of 144 million as a “promising source” of emerging growth, said the Times.

David Brown