NEW YORK – Though he's one of the most recognized people in the world, the Timex people wanted nothing to do with Usama bin Laden when a video showed him wearing what may have been one of their watches.
Heineken certainly hasn't jumped on reports he favors their beer. And his alleged enthusiasm for Toyota trucks has the car company less than thrilled.
"It's not the best product placement," said Toyota's spokeswoman Tracy Underwood.
Reports of the terrorist mastermind's preference for certain consumer goods have companies cringing. But those firms are counting on the public's good sense to keep them from becoming the pariahs of the free market.
The first and most visible "endorsement" was in bin Laden's video statement soon after the airstrikes against Afghanistan began Oct. 7. From an unnamed mountain hideaway, bin Laden railed against the West and called on Muslims to join his jihad.
But it was hard not to notice the timepiece on his wrist — which resembled a Timex. Having their product on the World's Most Wanted Man's wrist meant Timex took a licking — but the company is still ticking, spokesman Jim Katz said.
"We've looked at the images very carefully and, although we can't conclusively say it isn't a Timex, we don't believe it is," Katz said. "To the untrained eye it might appear to be a Timex. But there are two bulges on either side at the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions, and they're not characteristic of a Timex."
The company hasn't come out with a public statement disavowing a link to the Al Qaeda leader.
At Toyota, they've seen the news footage of Taliban forces riding in shiny new Hilux trucks and Land Cruisers. And true or not, the story going around Afghanistan is that bin Laden himself shelled out the money to buy hundreds of the vehicles for his Taliban buddies.
But while company officials are uncomfortably flattered to know their trucks are holding up in some of the most torturous land in the world, you won't be seeing any commercials with bin Laden and a sleek 2002 model Land Cruiser, Underwood said.
"The terrain is rugged and we understand why they're attracted to them because we have a good reputation for being able to operate well and continuously with our four-wheel vehicles, but yes, it's not a product placement we'd seek out," she said from her office in Torrance, Calif.
At the same time, though, Toyota doesn't feel the need to point out the company doesn't support bin Laden or the militia that sheltered him.
"Toyota isn't trying to market to the Taliban," Underwood said. "We think customers understand that."
Then there's Heineken. A new biography, Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of Terror, by Adam Robinson, reports that when bin Laden was a playboy in Lebanon, his favorite quaff was probably the Dutch brew.
"Most students were not sophisticated enough to try spirits or cocktails. So it seems likely he began with a bottled beer, probably the … Heineken that was favored by students because of its cheapness," Robinson writes.
That doesn't impress Heineken USA vice president of corporate affairs Dan Tiarno.
"Charles Manson's favorite drink [might have been] Budweiser. What difference does that make?" he said. "The beer stands on its own. And we're not interested in having Mr. bin Laden as an aficionado of our beer and are very opposed to any activity he's involved in. We're not targeting the terrorist consumer."
Heineken, like Toyota and Timex, isn't doing anything to aggressively disassociate itself from bin Laden, Tiarno said. And that's probably the wisest move, according to Eric Dezenhall, a Washington, D.C.-based media consultant.
"I think the worst thing these companies could do is over-manage the situation," he said. "The important thing to keep in mind is that consumers are generally level-headed and like to stick to the familiar. They aren't going to stop buying products just because bin Laden did too, once.
"During the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev once wore a cowboy hat. You didn't see Texans start throwing away their cowboy hats," said Dezenhall.
Nevertheless, at least one company has decided to publicly break off its supposed relationship with bin Laden.
When he lived in London in the early 1990s, the terrorist became a fan of the Arsenal soccer team, attending matches at the club's Highbury Stadium, according to Robinson's book.
Well, the next time he's in town, bin Laden should make a point of not attending a Gunners game, a club spokesman told the team's fan club Web site, www.arsenal-mad.co.uk.
"Clearly he wouldn't be welcome at Highbury in the future," the spokesman said.