BY HENRY ABBOTT
Over the last 15 years, there’s a good chance that the milk carton a child in China might have seen on the breakfast table would have an NBA logo on it. As I learned from a story I wrote a decade ago, NBA China has made tremendous money selling its brand to products. A well-connected banker, Joe Ravitch, who wrote an early draft of the NBA’s China business plan, bragged that all kinds of deep-pocketed businesses pay the NBA a lot to put the NBA’s logo on everything from paper products to cereal:
David Stern will tell you he sold it way too cheap because you can't possibly calculate the value of that. The NBA logo is on a billion milk cartons in China. It's on tissue boxes. It's on a mobile phone. People license it for consumer products because it seems such a cool, healthy brand.
Though I grew up in Oregon, my family is from England, and we sometimes ate the English cereal Weetabix. There’s a cool little logo on each box: a symbolic coat of arms with the message, “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Allegedly, it means she likes that for breakfast, too. Marmalade never did much for me, but knowing that the Windsors and the Abbotts had the same jar of Fortnum & Mason did add a little something.
Imagine you were shopping for a high-end horse exercising machine. (Actually, that’s hard to imagine. But just in case, she recommended the Claydon.) The Queen had a dignity surplus—plenty to spare for Claydons and Weetabix. In fact, there are more than 800 companies with her royal endorsement, including, amazingly, seven or eight different pest control companies.
There are other levels of this game.
In 1952, six months after Elizabeth became Queen, the Iranian parliament elected Mohammed Mossadegh as Iran’s prime minister. He made a wave of reforms, including an effort to nationalize one of the most lucrative businesses on the planet—what was originally called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. In Mossadegh’s view, the proceeds of oil under Iranian soil should go to Iranians, a move that would cut out the English and Americans.
In response, British and American intelligence (regular TrueHoop readers will remember Allen Dulles who appears here, again) stoked a project, called Operation Ajax, to secretly overthrow the whole Iranian government. It was led on the ground by Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit, who evidently used part of a safe full of cash to pay instigators to whip up street protests. After some setbacks, Roosevelt succeeded. By the end of 1953, Iran had new leadership; by 1954, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had a new name: British Petroleum, or BP.
The problem with coups is that the resulting governments don’t always seem legitimate. The leader installed by the CIA, the son of the former strongman Shah, had shortcomings that would have cost him a democratic election. As a new student in Switzerland, the story goes, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi demanded that other students stand when he passed—until some American kid beat him up. When the going got politically tough in the early 1950s, he fled to Rome and partied. His twin sister publicly criticized his inability to make decisions. The wikipedia entry on the Shah notes he had an “insatiable appetite for sex” and would get depressed if he went too long between orgasms.
People have lost elections for far less. Still, Pahlavi had a pedigree that made sense to at least some Iranians—and he would play ball with the British and the Americans when it came to oil. And if he didn’t seem legitimate, the UK could help. One thing London could offer the new government in Tehran was, essentially, a souped-up version of the royal seal of approval.
In 1959, at the Queen’s invitation, the Shah visited London. In full view of the assembled cameras, they picked him up from the train station in a carriage pulled by six white horses. It was like putting the biggest royal logo of all time on his forehead. He arrived at the palace in a royal procession. There were lavish gifts and speeches by Britons dripping with wigs, robes, and upper-crust accents.
Two years later, the Shah hosted the Queen in Iran. He may have been vulnerable to corruption, installed as an illegitimate leader at the behest of foreign intelligence agents. But when the Queen descended the steps of a BOAC airliner on a Tehran tarmac—in matching sunflower yellow dress and hat, a fur draped over her left forearm—the man greeting her in ornate military garb appeared unquestionably legitimate.
As we’ve written about plenty at TrueHoop, giant riches often come with messy, or legally questionable, tactics.
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