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Advertising and Global Culture

By Noreen Janus
From Cultural Survival Vol 7 Issue 2 Pp 28-31 1983

No one can travel to Africa, Asia, or Latin America and not be struck by the Western elements of
urban life. The symbols of transnational culture - automobiles, advertising, supermarkets,
shopping centers, hotels, fast food chains, credit cards, and Hollywood movies - give the, feeling
of being at home. Behind these tangible symbols are a corresponding set of values and attitudes
about time, consumption, work relations, etc. Some believe global culture has resulted from
gradual spontaneous processes that depended solely on technological innovations - increased
international trade, global mass communications, jet travel. Recent studies show that the
processes are anything but spontaneous; that they are the result of tremendous investments of
time, energy and money by transnational corporations.

This "transnational culture" is a direct outcome of the internationalization of production and

accumulation promoted through standardized development models and cultural forms.

The common theme of transnational culture is consumption. Advertising expresses this ideology
of consumption in its most synthetic and visual form.

Advertisers rely on few themes: happiness, youth, success, status, luxury, fashion, and beauty. In
advertising, social contradictions and class differences are masked and workplace conflicts are
not shown. Advertising campaigns suggest that solutions to human problems are to be found in
individual consumption, presented as an ideal outlet for mass energies...a socially acceptable
form of action and participation which can be used to defuse potential political unrest.
"Consumer democracy" is held out to the poor around the world as a substitute for political
democracy. After all, as the advertising executive who transformed the U.S. Pepsi ad campaign
"Join the Pepsi Generation" for use in Brazil as "Join the Pepsi Revolution" explains, most
people have no other means to express their need for social change other than by changing
brands and increasing their consumption.

Transnational advertising is one of the major reasons both for the spread of transnational culture
and the breakdown of traditional cultures. Depicting the racy foreign lifestyles of a blond
jetsetter in French or English, it associates Western products with modernity. That which is
modern is good; that which is traditional is implicitly bad, impeding the march of progress.
Transnational culture strives to eliminate local cultural variations. Barnett and Muller (1974:178)
discuss the social impact of this process:

What are the long range social effects of advertising on people who earn less than $200 a
year? (Peasants, domestic workers, and laborers) learn of the outside world through the
images and slogans of advertising. One message that comes through clearly is that
happiness, achievement, and being white have something to do with one another. In
mestizo countries (sic) such as Mexico and Venezuela where most of the population still
bear strong traces of their Indian origin, billboards depicting the good life for sale
invariably feature blond, blue-eyed American-looking men and women. One effect of
such "white is beautiful" advertising is to reinforce feelings of inferiority which are the
essence of a politically immobilizing colonial mentality...The subtle message of the
global advertiser in poor countries is "Neither you nor what you create are worth very
much, we will sell you a civilization (emphasis added).

But global culture is the incidental outcome of transnational marketing logic more than it is the
result of a conscious strategy to subvert local cultures. It is marketing logic, for example, that
created the "global advertising campaign", one single advertising message used in all countries
where the product is made or distributed. This global campaign is both more efficient and less
expensive for a firm. Thus, before the intensification of violence in rural Guatemala, for
example, farmers gathered around the only television set in their village to watch an
advertisement for Revlon perfume showing a blonde woman strolling down Fifth Avenue in
New York - the same advertisement shown in the U.S. and other countries.

Transnational firms and global advertising agencies are clearly aware of the role of advertising in
the creation of a new consumer culture in Third World countries. A top Israeli advertising
executive says,

Television antennas are gradually taking the place of the tom-tom drums across the vast
stretches of Africa. Catchy jingles are replacing tribal calls in the Andes of Latin
America. Spic-and-span supermarkets stand, on the grounds where colorful wares of an
Oriental Bazaar were once spread throughout Asia. Across vast continents hundreds of
millions of people are awakening to the beat of modern times.

Is the international advertiser fully aware of the magnitude of this slow but gigantic
process? Is he alert to the development of these potential markets? Does he know how to
use and apply the powerful tools of modern advertising to break into these vast areas of
emerging consumers despite the barriers of illiteracy, tribal customs, religious prejudices
and primitive beliefs? How great is the potential, and how promising are the prospects of
the pioneer industrialist, marketer or advertiser who will venture into this vast Terra
Incognita? (Tal 1974).

Increasingly advertising campaigns are aimed at the vast numbers of poor in Third World
countries. As one U.S. advertising executive observes about the Mexican consumer market, even
poor families, when living together and pooling their incomes, can add up to a household income
of more than $10,000 per year. He explains how they can become an important marketing target:

The girls will need extra for cosmetics and clothes, but Jaime needs date money and, of
course, something is going into the bank to send Carlito to the university. Once all day-
to-day expenses have been covered there will come the big decisions that change
lifestyles from month to month.

First will probably be a tv set. Nobody can visit Latin America and not be shocked at the
number of antennas on top of shacks. And once the tv set goes to work the Fernandez
family is like a kid in a candy store. They are the audience that add up to 5W hours of
viewing a day. They are pounded by some 450 commercials a week. They see all the
beautiful people and all the beautiful things. And what they see, they want. (Criswell, 27
October 1975)

Since an important characteristic of transnational culture is the speed and breadth with which it is
transmitted, communications and information systems play an important role, permitting a
message to be distributed globally through television series, news, magazines, comics, and films.
The use of television to spread transnational culture is especially effective with illiterates. Grey
Advertising International undertook a worldwide study of television to determine its usefulness
as an advertising channel and reported that:

Television is undisputedly the key communications development of our era. It has

demonstrated its power to make the world a global village; to educate and inform; to
shape the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of generations growing up with it. In countries
where it operates as an unfettered commercial medium it has proven for many products
the most potent of all consumer marketing weapons as well as a major influence in
establishing corporate images and affecting public opinion on behalf of business. (Grey
Advertising International, 1977)

What do we know about the impact of transnational culture on Third World cultures? Personal
observations are plentiful. Anyone who has heard children singing along with television
commercials and introducing these themes into their daily games begins to see the impact. There
are more extensive analyses as well. Pierre Thizier Seya studied the impact of transnational
advertising on cultures in the Ivory Coast. He notes that transnational firms such as Colgate and
Nestle have helped to replace traditional products - often cheaper and more effective - with
industrialized toothpastes and infant formulas.

By consuming Coca-Cola, Nestle products, Marlboro, Maggi, Colgate or Revlon,

Ivorians are not only fulfilling unnecessary needs but also progressively relinquishing
their authentic world outlook in favor of the transnational way of life. (Seya 1982:17)

Advertising of skin-lightening products persuades the African women to be ashamed of their

own color and try to be white.

In trying to be as white as possible, that is to say, in becoming ashamed of their

traditional being, the Ivorians are at the same time relinquishing one of the most powerful
weapons at their disposal for safeguarding their dignity as human beings: their racial
identify. And advertising is not neutral in such a state of affairs. (Seya 1982:18)

He also mentions that advertising is helping to change the Ivorian attitude toward aging, making
women fear looking older and undermining the traditional respect for elders.

The consumption of soft drinks and hard liquor points to another social change. Traditionally
drinks are consumed only in social settings, as evidenced by the large pot where they are stored.
Yet, the advertising of Coca-Cola and Heinekens portrays drinking as an individual act rather
than a collective one.
A study carried out in Venezuela explores the relationship between television content and
children's attitudes. Santoro (1975) analyzed a week of television programming and interviewed
900 sixth grade children. The children were asked to invent a story by drawing the characters in a
television screen and then to describe what they had drawn. The imaginary scenes were primarily
stories about violence, crime, physical force, and competition, and the large majority of them
depicted destructive actions motivated by greed. The "good" characters were primarily from the
U.S., white, rich, of varied professions and English surnames. The "bad" characters were mostly
from other countries including China and Germany, of black color, poor, workers or office
personnel, and with English or Spanish surnames. Santoro concluded that these stereotypes held
by children were largely the same ones to be found in typical Venezuelan television and
advertising contents.

In another study carried out in Mexico by the National Consumers Institute in 1981, more than
900 sixth grade children were quizzed on the contents of their textbooks and the contents of
commercial television.

They knew more about television personalities than about national heroes and recognized more
trademarks for snacks, soft drinks, chewing gum and so on than national symbols such as the
flag, a map of the country, the major party's symbol, etc. They knew much more about soap
operas and action series than they did about episodes of Mexican history. The researchers
concluded that advertising and the television medium are far more effective teachers than the
public school system. If children are learning about consumption, soap operas and transnational
symbols, their parents must be also.

In another research project, seven-year-old Mexican children from different economic

backgrounds were interviewed to determine the role of the mass media - primarily television - as
sources of information, the relationship established between children and television, and the
degree to which the children have internalized transnational consumption patterns. (Janus 1982)

Children were shown pictures of the same man in three different settings family, nature, and
luxury possessions and asked to choose which of these three was the happiest. The question was
meant to show the degree to which the children accept the fundamental assumption of
advertising: consumption brings happiness. While slightly more than half of the children chose
the family scene, poorer children were significantly more likely to associate the luxury
possessions with happiness than the rich children.

In the same study, children were shown a series of industrial products along with the traditional
products they had replaced: Tang and fresh orange juice. Wonder bread and traditional rolls,
Nescafe and coffee beans. The question was designed to determine the degree to which these
children actually thought of the industrialized product as the principal form of the food. Again,
poor children more often answered that Nescafe is coffee, and Tang is orange juice.

Perhaps the most interesting result of the study concerns the ability of children to analyze
consumption in terms of class. They were shown different categories of consumer products such
as cigarettes and television sets, and asked which a rich person could buy and which a poor
person could buy. Virtually every child showed an acute awareness of the different access to
these products by class. They knew very well that a rich person could buy any or all of the
products whereas the poor could buy only the cigarettes, the Coca-Cola, the snackfoods, and the

These results, while very tentative, suggest that the impact of transnational culture is greater
among the poor - the very people who cannot afford to buy the lifestyle it represents. The poor
are more likely to associate consumption with happiness and feel that industrialized products are
better than the locally made ones. But at the same time they are painfully aware that only the rich
have access to the lifestyle portrayed.

This leads us to the most important questions. What political impact does the spread of
transnational culture have on the poor for whom luxury lifestyles are not possible? How do they
deal with the daily contradictions that this awareness implies? How much will they accept and
how much will they reject? How can they maintain their own identities in the face of
transnational culture?

Barnett, R. and R. Muller
1974 Global Reach. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Criswell, R.
1975 Keeping up with the Fernandez. Advertising Age. October 27.
Grey Advertising International
1977 Survey of International Television. Grey Matter.
Instituto Naconal del Consumidor (INCO)
1981 La Television y los Ninos: Conocimiento de la “Realidad Televisiva” vs. Conocimiento
de la “Realidad Nacional.” Mexico City: INCO.
Janus, N.
1982 Spiderman Drinks Tang: Television and Transnational Culture in Mexican Children.
Mexcio: Instituto Latinoamericano de Estudios Transnacionales (ILET).
Santoro, E.
1975 La Television Venezolana y La Formacion de Estereotipos en el Nino. Caracas:
Universidad Central de Venezuela.
Seya, P.T.
1982 Advertising as an Ideological Aparatus of Transnational Capitalism in the Ivory Coast.
Mimeographed Copy.