The car-maker's plan to close its Coventry plant has sparked a high-visibility protest, reports Kate Hilpern

The new Peugeot 207 is nothing if not striking. At under £9,000 for the three-door 1.4 8v Petrol Urban model, it's not a bad price either. With the success of the 206 - which this one succeeds but does not replace - it looks as though PSA Peugeot Citroën is on to a good thing.

Or is it? On the very day of the 207's launch earlier this month, unions launched a £1m campaign to encourage drivers to boycott Peugeots and Citroëns across the UK. The move is in protest at Peugeot's closure of its Ryton plant in Coventry, where 2,300 people are to be made redundant when production is moved to France and Slovakia. Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) have already taken out two full-page advertisements in national newspapers, with more to come, as well as 150 posters to be displayed on billboards close to Peugeot dealerships.

Featuring the St George cross and the slogan "think of England", the campaign is designed to play upon heightened patriotic feeling during England's World Cup efforts. "The feedback so far suggests we've struck a chord with the population," says Amicus spokesman Richard O'Brien. "That's good news considering we've only just dipped our toe in the water. Our big national launch is in July."

A recent poll by What Car? magazine indicates that his confidence is not in vain. "We asked our readers if they would boycott car makers who sack UK workers and it was split down the middle, with 40 per cent saying yes and the same number saying no," says Steve Fowler, group editor of What Car?.

What he's not so sure about, however, is that they will put their money where their mouth is. "The thing about these polls is that it's all very well people saying they'll boycott a car. But the bottom line is that if it's a good car that makes sense financially and is one they really like, the chances are that they'll buy it."

Given that he believes Peugeot produces "one of the best super-minis currently available", he thinks that boycotters may be doing little more than "cutting off their noses to spite their faces". In any case, he adds, how will they know what vehicle to purchase instead? "I don't think most people realise which cars are British-built and which ones aren't. I don't think a lot of people realise that the Nissan Micra is a British-built car, for example."

Ruth Rosselson from Ethical Consumer magazine agrees that this issue may cause even the most principled car buyers to scratch their heads. "The boycott is a legitimate response to moving so many jobs out of the country. But when someone boycotts a company, they need a viable alternative," she says.

Peugeot has always promoted its "Frenchness", points out psychologist Dr David Lewis. "I imagine that many consumers would be amazed to know that it manufactures in this country at all," he says.

Not only is he unconvinced that the boycott will work, but he also believes the unions know they're on to a loser. Their researchers know enough about consumer behaviour to realise that, while there are some very ethical consumers, the majority of consumers aren't very ethical, he says.

"Consider the fact that people go on buying clothes that are stitched together by five-year-olds in Indonesia," he says. "I think the unions see this as a PR stunt, a way of highlighting the issue, but they're well aware it won't stop people actually buying the cars."

A similar campaign was recently launched in Italy by shoe manufacturers, who urged consumers to buy European rather than from companies that produce shoes in China, says marketing psychologist Paul Buckley. "That didn't work for the same reason I don't think this one will - that ultimately people buy products for the benefit they give them. With cars, that benefit tends to come from price, value and the image they want to project about themselves - not where the car is produced."

What's more, he says, if a car buyer is going to think about an ethical purchase, they'll be more likely to consider environmental issues than job loss issues - and research shows that even that principle wanes when people realise the expense involved in going green.

Tom Johnson of Auto Express magazine is more optimistic. "It's possible that the campaign for a boycott could work and I think this will be an interesting test. If it does, who's to say it won't be tried again?" he says. "It's not as if there aren't good competitors to Peugeots and Citroëns, like the Renault Clio, Vauxhall Corsa and Ford Fiesta."

But O'Brien insists that we're beyond the testing stage. "When BMW pulled out of the Midlands in 2000, there were demonstrations outside local BMW garages," he says. "A big anti-BMW feeling built up in and around Birmingham, which the local papers picked up on, and it still resonates today."

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