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 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? (emphasis added).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lipstick.
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?
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Since 1972 Cultural Survival has been advocating for Indigenous Peoples' rights and supporting Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures and political resilience.
To read about Cultural Survival’s work around the world, click here. To read more articles on the subject use our Search function and explore 40 years of information on Indigenous issues.
For ways to take action to help Indigenous communities, click here.
We take on governments and multinational corporations—and they always have more resources than we do—but with the help of people like you, we do win. Your contribution is crucial to that effort. Click here to do your part.