The Sense Appeal of Commodities: Melanesian Case Studies

by David Howes
Concordia University

Papua New Guinea in the 1990s appears to be going the way of most societies in the world today. It is fast developing into a Western style consumer society. Port Moresby, the national capital, is a sprawling metropolis with numerous distractions from beer halls to beaches. Clothes and other merchandise from around the world are on display in the windows of the stores in the Waigani shopping district of Port Moresby. A good number of these products are imitation Western goods from China, so their prices are relatively inexpensive. There are department stores in most of the provincial capitals as well, such as Wewak in East Sepik Province or Alotau in Milne Bay, and these emporia serve as more local entrées to the capitalist world of goods.

Men and women from the "grass roots" or "bush," as the hinterlands are called, flock to Port Moresby, or the provincial capitals and other towns, as well as to the mines and plantations, where they work for wages. Due to a pattern of circular migration, these same men and women normally return to their native hamlets after a spell, bringing new consumer values and goods with them. Some return migrants will use their savings to try to break into the import business by opening a tradestore. They typically consist of a one-room shack with sparsely stocked shelves of packaged goods, and a Trukai rice, Benson and Hedges or other brand-name sign outside. Such stores now have an ubiquitous presence in Papua New Guinea. Michael O'Hanlon (1993: 39) describes them as "raw intrusions of commercial morality into a pastoral landscape" -- ideally commercial morality, that is, since many such ventures fail due to the overwhelming demands of kin (wantoks) for material assistance. Mission-run tradestores tend to do better because they are purposely staffed by outsiders.

In addition to the tradestores, travelling vendors visit remote villages with a range of exotic wares: peanut butter, mosquito repellent, laundry detergent, rice (already a staple for many). These vendors will put on skits to convince prospective consumers of the value of their goods. In one such skit, a schoolboy's wails of protest at being subjected to a meal of taro yet again are silenced when his mother produces a bag of Trukai rice; the advantages of the product are extolled (it is the boy's real favourite -- not taro -- has lots of vitamins and will make him grow big), and the youth goes on to boast that he can carry his mother and his father on his biceps, thanks to Trukai turning him into a muscleman. In another skit, an actor mimes disgust at the smell of his own shirt, followed by delight at its scent after it has been washed with detergent to remove any trace of body odor. The general aim of these skits seems to be to induce or accentuate a dissatisfaction with the status quo which can only be relieved by the consumption of the goods for sale. The appeal in most cases is made directly to the audience's senses -- peanut butter tastes good, rice makes you strong, laundry detergent gives your clothes a pleasing smell.

The techniques of the travelling vendors can also be found in the burgeoning domain of mass media advertising. Thus, a recent newspaper ad for Pepsi-Cola shows a row of young, female Papua New Guinean dancers in traditional attire blissfully downing cans and bottles of Pepsi, as though this synchronized act were one more, and perhaps the best, part of their dance. Companies marketing products in Papua New Guinea, in fact, are urged to consider "the natives" as potential consumers. One ad directed at generating more advertising revenue for the newspaper Wantok, displays a man in stereotypical native dress -- grass skirt, feather headdress, bone through the nose -- carrying a brief case bulging with money. The text asserts that: "he SHOPS at major department stores, buys different FOODS, likes SOFT DRINKS, enjoys SMOKING CIGARETTES, has a family to feed and CLOTHE," and so on (Foster 1995: 163). The idea is clearly that members of traditional Papua New Guinean societies should not be presumed to be outside the market economy, they have money to spend and lots of consumer desires to be satisfied.

These mass marketing techniques seem to be aimed at reducing local differences and creating a generic consumer with common tastes. Thus Pepsi is advertised as "The Choice of All Papua New Guineans." While encouraged to participate in a new national identity through sharing common consumer products, Papua New Guineans are also invited to define themselves not as members of communities bound by webs of social relations and cultural traditions, but as autonmous individuals making personal "lifestyle" choices. Therefore, even though Pepsi may be the drink of "All Papua New Guineans", this situation is presented as the result of personal "Choice."

Melanesian Mode of Domestication

At first glance, it appears that traditional Melanesian practices and products are disappearing under a blanket of consumer goods and values, and that the sensory models described elsewhere will soon be replaced by a taste for Pepsi and an ear for stringband music. Yet when one examines the ways in which mainstream consumer goods are actually employed by Papua New Guineans a somewhat different picture emerges, one in which consumers are at times able to incorporate new products into traditional lifestyles. A telling example here is that of Johnson and Johnson's Baby Powder (Liep 1994). While well aware of the conventional uses of baby powder, Papua New Guineans have accorded it particular local uses, ranging from purifying corpses and mourners, to asperging the heads of dancers and singers, to serving as body decor. In one instance from the Trobriand Islands, female mourners, dressed in black and forbidden to bathe, mark the end of their mourning period by being ritually dressed in colourful clothes, rubbed with coconut oil and sprinkled with Johnson's Baby Powder.

In some of these cases baby powder is being used in place of a traditional substance. In the Western Highlands, for example, baby powder provides an alternative to traditional clays for body decoration. Among the Mekeo of Central Province Johnson's Baby Powder is sprinkled over dancers in place of crushed sea shell powder, and is itself now being replaced by Mum 21 deodorant, presumably also in powder form (Liep 1994: 66-67). Thus, new commodities do not necessarily have to support new consumer practices, they may also be incorporated into traditional lifestyles.

Underlying the unconventional uses of baby powder in the Massim region there would appear to be an association with the Massim version of a widespread trickster myth. In this myth, Kasabwaibwaileta (the trickster) fools people by wearing the malodorous, wrinkled, diseased skin of an old man. He later casts off this ugly covering to reveal himself as a youth with smooth, bright, light skin. The smooth, white, bright, fragrant baby bowder seems to possess a similar transformative significance. Applied to corpses it purifies and counters the harshness of death and decay. Applied to mourners it transforms darkness and uncleanliness into brightness and fragrance. The sensory symbolism of baby powder in the Massism is hence in keeping with the traditional sensory model of the region with its emphasis on the "expansion outward" of the individual (Howes 2003). Furthermore, the fact that baby powder is a product created primarily for babies creates an association between baby powder and youthfulness. The ritual use of baby powder implies a symbolic rebirth, as when in the myth Kasabwaibwaileta magically transforms from an old man into a young one, or as when mourners leave the sphere of the dead and return to the world of the living.

These examples of local Melanesian appropriations and transformations -- or "domestications" -- of the meanings and uses of transnational commodities could be multiplied. For example, Rena Lederman records of her experience among the Mendi of the Southern Highlands:

The Mendi we know do not see [consumer] objects in the same way as we see them: their purposes supplied for us ... In our objects, they perceive multiple possibilities for satisfying needs the manufacturers never imagined. ... They use safety pins as earrings in place of blades of grass and combs made out of umbrella spokes instead of bamboo ... women we know reuse the plastic fibres of rice bags, rolling them into twine with which to make traditional netbags (Lederman 1986: 8)

In another telling example, Michael O'Hanlon (1993: 41-2) records how beer has come to symbolize modernity for many, yet is consumed in ways identical to the ritual consumption of pork fat, and carries many of the same symbolic connotations as fat (such as promoting growth and fertility) in the context of the Wahgi Pig Festival. These examples challenge the idea that the bourgeoisie is recreating "a world after its own image" (as Marx and Engels would have it) by calling into question the assumed link between globalization and cultural homogenization (Howes 1996).

Interestingly, money itself has been appropriated by some Papua New Guineans, not just as a neutral medium of exchange, or means of acquiring commodities, but as one more curious new object to be incorporated into local cultural practices and discourses. The national government has taken pains to impress upon its citizens that the national currency has replaced traditional forms of "money," such as shells. "In this country, metal coins and paper notes are replacing things such as shells, clay pots, feathers and pigs, which earlier were used to buy things which men and women needed" (quoted in Foster 1998: 64). As a visual reminder of this transition the bills of Papua New Guinea are illustrated with such traditional wealth objects as shells, pots and pigs -- and the basic unit of currency is called "kina," which means shell money in the Melpa language. Government publications, however, stress that money is not really a material object, like a shell, but is rather a symbol of "the value of the work or goods which people bring into existence by their efforts" (quoted in Foster 1998: 66).

Notwithstanding, money in the form of coins and bills is inescapably material and it is evaluated and employed in terms of its materiality by many Papua New Guinean peoples. Max Nihill reports that the Anganen of the Southern Highlands liken twenty kina notes to pearlshells. The red notes are deemed to ressemble pearlshells which are "invigorated" by being polished with red ochre by Anganen men. By extension they also ressemble vigorous, decorated male bodies. Thus Nihil (1989: 154) writes: "brilliant body decoration, bright red pearlshells, and crisp, pristine 20-kina notes are all of inherent merit and beauty." In effect, therefore, the new bills have taken on the role of objects of aesthetic and cultural value, similar to the shells they were meant to replace.

If new products, and even the money with which they are purchased, can be accomodated within traditional sensory and symbolic orders, these new products also seem to be showing a tendency to occupy the more postively-valued positions of those orders. Thus consumer goods are often presented and seen as being neater and cleaner than traditional goods. One of the desirable qualities of Johnson's baby powder is that it comes in a smooth, neat container, seemingly free of any of the mess and fuss of production. Similarly, PK chewing gum is promoted as a clean, fresh alternative to the widespread practice of chewing and spitting "messy, unhealthy" betel nut. In one government-sponsored ad, a picture of smiling boys chewing PK is juxtaposed with an image of the cancerous mouth which allegedly results from chewing betel nut (see Foster 1996/97: 10 and 1992: 37-43). From this perspective, where traditional goods disgust by being disorderly, crude and subject to decay, modern commodities please by being self-contained, smooth and clean: forever fresh and new. One sees here again the image of the trickster throwing off his old, diseased skin to reveal a shining, clean new self underneath; and now the old skin represents old, messy, decaying traditional goods and the new self all the attractive, pristine products that shine on the shelves of the tradestores.

Paper and coin currencies are themselves promoted as neater and cleaner than the old forms of wealth. Unlike a pig, money is said to be easy to exchange at a store "for a radio set or a guitar"; and, as a booklet produced by the Reserve Bank of Australia further explains: "Money does not decay or go bad like such things as taro, sugar and tobacco. ... Even when notes become soiled and worn, they can always be exchanged at a bank for clean fresh ones" (quoted in Foster 1996/97: 65). By this very comparison, of course, money seems to become one more, if eminently superior, material good in lieu of an abstract medium of exchange.

The processes by which consumer products are incorporated into New Guinean societies draws attention to the fact that the introduction of such products does not necessarily mean that a Western-style consumer culture will supplant local traditions, and that a visualist emphasis on display will supplant local sensory orders. Rather, the new products may appeal to the extent to which they can fit into or complement existing sensory and social beliefs and practices. Instead of consumer culture replacing traditional ways of life, traditional ways of life may subsume consumer culture. Thus baby powder may not imply a whole new regime of baby care so much as it suggests an alternative means of ritual purification, and money need not be conceptualized as an abstract symbol of wealth but rather as a cleaner, more portable pig.

However, if consumer products do indeed come to seem more generally pleasing and desirable than local products, then a dependence on a market economy is produced which will inevitably alter the traditional links between sensory relations and social relations in New Guinea. A bag purchased in a store may apparently have all of the desired sensory attributes of a bilum and more. For example, one bilum-maker interviewed by MacKenzie (1991: 133) was proud at having woven a bag so neatly that people thought it had been made by a machine. Still it will not bring with it crucial traces of and ties to the person who produced it.


While Wolfgang Haug is undoubtedly correct to insist that consumer capitalism is bent on seducing the senses of the consumer through its advertising techniques and packaging of products, he is mistaken to assume that the consumer will be passive in her or his response. It is not just "traditional" Papua New Guineans who in their "ignorance" invent new uses for consumer products based on their sensory characteristics - for example, using baby powder to purify the dead or lipstick to paint facial designs. Western consumers may also make creative uses of products in ways never imagined by their manufacturers or by Marx. Thus the drink Kool-Aid, an icon of the mid-twentieth century middle-class family, is used as a flamboyant hair dye by youths intent on challenging the staid norms of that era. In the case of Kool-Aid, and numeros other cases like it, certain "appealing" sensory attributes of commodities are creatively appropriated by consumers to elicit a new set of symbolic meanings. For example, the bright colors of Kool-aid drinks which are meant to signify tastiness and an endearing childish delight in gaudy hues instead signify social rebellion, aesthetic freedom and faddish trendiness when they appear on the heads of yound men and women. As in Papua New Guinea, Western consumers may appropriate commodities for their own ends and even use them to challenge the system that produced them (though ultimately perhaps supporting it).

This paper was presented at the 2002 meetings of the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association in Toronto, Canada. It was part of a session entitled "The Socialness of Things", organized by Stephen Riggins.

For a fuller version of this argument, and the references, please see David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003), chapter 8.

i) The sales terchniques of the travelling vendors are documented in the 1996 film Advertising Missionaries, directed by Chris Hilton and Gauthier Flauder (Aspire Films).

ii) Imported suitcases are now sometimes preferred to bilums because they are "ratproof, mothproof and locakable" MacKenzie 1991: 151).