Overview of Research on the Globalization of the Consumer Society
subject of global marketing presents a prism for the researcher, glittering
with a multitude of facets having to do with the production, marketing
and consumption of goods and images across cultures. Each section of this
essay examines the phenomenon of global marketing from a different perspective:
the consumption of Western goods by non-Western peoples; the global marketing
of Western goods; the consumption of non-Western goods by the West; and,
the global reproduction of Western-style goods. Underlying the discussion
is a concern with the social and moral ramifications of the spread of
consumer culture. Each section therefore ends with a number of questions
which bring out the ethical dimensions of cross-cultural marketing and
consumption, and the equivocal nature of the perceived effects of this
marketing and consumption in different social settings.
cultural theorists have depicted `the masses' as being manipulated - and
even brainwashed - by consumer culture (cf. Adorno and Horkheimer 1973;
Marcuse 1964). This was held to be particularly true in the case of the
Third World consumer, who was deemed to be at the mercy of the `dream
machine' of Western marketing driven by the engines of Western capitalism.
As a result of this manipulative and relentless promotion, Third World
consumers were said to be coerced to buy goods - jeans, watches, perfumes,
televisions - which had no real meaning for them and played no authentic
role in their culture (Wilks 1994; Tomlinson 1991).
The more recent approach
in the study of consumer culture, put forward by authors such as Miller
(1987), Hannerz (1992) and Willis (1990), among others, has been to stress
the agency of consumers to select and adapt products according to their
own desires, knowledges and interests.1 This is the approach taken by
most of the contributors to Cross-Cultural Consumption as well. According
to this model, although Third World people may seem to be manipulated
into buying consumer goods which are alien to, and destructive of, their
cultures, they are, in fact, actively employing consumer goods to express
and forge their own unique cultural identities. The term `creolization'
was proposed to refer to this `indigenization' of consumer goods.
The present essay recognizes the transformations which global goods and images undergo in local marketplaces, but it is attentive to the conflicts of values which occur when consumer goods are marketed across cultures as well. In other words, the fact that consumers can creatively construct their own identities through the products they consume should not be taken to mean that the diffusion of consumer culture presents no dilemnas for the world's peoples.
Consuming the West
The ethical concern
most commonly raised with respect to the cross-cultural marketing of consumer
goods is that the spread of a single regime of products and values around
the world will work to destroy cultural diversity and end up creating
a globally standardized culture. According to this view, we will one day
live in a world in which everyone has access to and consumes the same
things. No matter where you go in the world, there will be a McDonald's
restaurant, Hollywood movies, Adidas running shoes, and an American Express
office. This vision of a global consumer culture is particularly disturbing
for diverse Third World peoples, some of whom have only recently emerged
from colonial regimes, and now find themselves being apparently `Coca-colonized'
by an influx of consumer goods from the West. In India, for example, fear
that an influx of Western products would herald a return to colonial domination
recently led Hindu fundamentalists to organize a boycott of Coca-Cola
and Pepsi as `the most visible symbols of the multinational invasion of
this country' (Bose 1994).
To some Japanese nativists, their people's best hope of liberating themselves from Western cultural domination and rediscovering their Japanese souls lies in the process of jikkan - "retrospection through actual sensation." Thus the smell of incense at a shrine or the tactile and kinesthetic sensations of sitting on tatami (suwaru) rather than sitting on a chair (koshikakeru) can produce a reconnection with the eternal, authentic Japanese culture and soul (Tobin 1992: 34).
The global marketing
of Western products is criticized not only for spreading Western values
(while enriching Western coffers), but also for spreading what many people
perceive as materialist, decadent values. Junk food, Barbie dolls, designer
jeans, Playboy magazines. Happiness in a dishwasher, social status in
an automobile, beauty in a bottle of hair colour. These are the goods
and values the West is ostensibly offering the rest of the world. These
are the goods and values which, in the minds of many critics of the consumer
society, have already brought the West to a state of moral and social
Criticism of the shallow,
self-serving way of life ostensibly promoted by Western consumer goods
has been worldwide. In Chile, intellectuals claimed that Donald Duck and
other American comic book characters were spreading the materialist and
imperialist ideology of the United States under the guise of harmless
entertainment for children (Dorfman and Mattelart 1975). In Iran, the
government considered banning the import of satellite dishes in order
to preseve Iranian culture from infiltration by `immoral' Western television
shows. `These programs, prepared by international imperialism, are part
of an extensive plot to wipe out our religious and sacred values' declared
an official of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Barber
1995: 207; cf. also Arnould 1989: 251-52).
Yet, unless they result
in the institution of outright bans, such protests are rarely sufficient
to deter the consumption of Western commodities in the non-West. For example,
the fact that Western-style public displays of affection are considered
improper in India, has not prevented Indians from watching such displays
in American movies and television shows broadcast on the cable network
Star TV. The expectation on the part of the global marketers is that this
watching will soon turn to imitating, and, in turn, create a need for
a whole new range of consumer products. A transnational business executive
explains: `When you want to be physically closer to people a lot, then
you tend to want to look better, smell better. So the market [in India]
will grow for cosmetics, perfumes, after-shaves, mouthwashes and so on'
(Dyer 1994). This illustrates how closely allied Western consumer goods
are with Western lifestyles, and the difficulty of receiving the former
while ignoring or rejecting the latter (or vice versa) (Sinha 1991).
Even official bans
on Western consumer goods are often not sufficient to keep such goods
from entering the country. In Iran a ban on American movies led to underground
video clubs springing up all over the country. A widespread prohibition
on imports in India (in order to boost the Indian economy as well as to
appease Indian nationalists) similarly resulted in a thriving black market
in foreign goods (Barnet and Cavanagh 1994: 140-1). Such strong popular
interest in consumer goods reinforces the fears of those who worry that
their cultural and religious identity will be swept away by a flood of
Michael Jackson videos and McDonald's hamburgers if their country's borders
are opened to the global marketers.
One concern, common
to many people both in and out of the West, is that consumer goods and
values will be presented and perceived as so eminently desirable that
they will not only alter or displace traditional cultural and religious
values, but become an object of worship in themselves. In this regard
Roland Barthes has written of the automobile: `Cars today are almost the
exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals ... consumed in image
if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as ... purely
magical object[s]' (quoted in Durning 1992: 81).
Such investment of
Western commodities with religious or magical properties has occurred
in many non-Western countries. In Malaysia, for example, the Temiar people
believe that they encounter spirits in their dreams, who endow them with
sacred power and knowledge in the form of songs. Whereas these spirits
customarily came from natural objects, such as flowers and mountains,
they now increasingly come from consumer goods such as watches and motorcycles
(Roseman 1993). In Mexico, the Tzotzil people have constituted Pepsi-Cola
as a means of communicating with the divine and a symbol of religious
belief. On the third Thursday of every month Tzotzil elders meet to ceremonially
drink Pepsi and Poch - an alcoholic beverage - and thereby enter into
communion with God (Robberson 1994).
Perhaps the most famous
example of the sacralization of commodities is found in the cargo cults
of Melanesia. These cults were based on the belief that following certain
ritual practices would ensure the arrival of an enormous ship or plane-load
of Western goods - iron axes, tinned food, firearms, automobiles - for
the cultists. The ritual practices ranged from wearing Westernized dress
in anticipation of the arrival of the Western goods to performing traditional
dances, and from creating mock stores with stones and leaves for goods
to making mock airplanes and airstrips (Worsley 1970; Burridge 1960).
To some observers
such practices may seem to indicate a disturbing devotion to things Western
- a colonization of the soul by consumer goods. However, the reality is
more complex. The incorporation of certain Western products into local
cults is often an attempt to acquire some of the perceived power of the
West in order to turn it to the advantage of one's own community. In Melanesia,
the objective of many cargo cults was not only to attain consumer goods,
but also to enable the local people to gain ascendancey over the white
colonists. In the Madang district of Papua New Guinea, for example, imported
products were said by cargo cult leaders to, in fact, have been made by
the ancestors of the native inhabitants and then stolen by whites. According
to this belief, imported goods were more native than foreign and consequently
more the property of indigenous people than whites. Ultimately, it was
believed, the ancestors would arrive in a ship bringing the goods directly,
and the corrupt Westerners would be driven away (Worsley 1970: 115-16).
The example above, like many of the examples presented in the various chapters of this book, demonstrates that, while Western consumer goods are indeed spreading across the globe, there is nonetheless a significant amount of variation in the ways in which these goods are received by different peoples. When non-Western peoples consume Western goods, therefore, they do not necessarily `swallow them whole', symbolic values and all, but rather `season' them according to their own tastes and customs. Yet might it not be the case, as some nationalists and nativists fear, that instances of syncretism between local cultures and global goods are just steps on the route to homogenization? Can modern consumer goods ultimately belong anywhere but in a consumer society?
Selling to the `Other'
We have seen that a major critique of global marketing is that, by selling the same goods in essentially the same way all over the world, transnational corporations ignore and eradicate cultural difference. What, however, are the attitudes of the people directing this global marketing of goods? Are they insistent on blanketing the world with Western goods and advertising images - with complete disregard for cultural difference? This would certainly appear to be the case from many of the statements made by transnational executives (cf. Magrath 1992: 130-58; Filman 1992a, 1992b). The director of an international advertising agency (one of whose clients happens to be the Bayer pharmaceutical company) puts it this way:
"A lie has been perpetuated for years and years... The lie is that people are different. Yes there are differences among cultures, but a headache is a headache." And aspirin is aspirin (Barnet and Cavanagh 1994: 169)
The rationale expressed
here is that people are basically the same (or have the same headaches)
everywhere, and that products designed to satisfy North American `needs'
will also satisfy the `needs' of people in Bolivia or Hong Kong.2 To take
this rationale further, there is nothing inherently American about McDonald's
restaurantsorHollywood movies, they are just good responses to what are
fundamentally universal desires.
A more subtle approach,
but one which produces similar effects, is to hold that, yes, cultural
differences exist, but the power (symbolic, technological, aesthetic,
etc.) of Western products is so great that it can overcome any local differences.
As a Harvard business professor states: `the products and methods of the
industrialized world play a single tune for all the world and all the
world eagerly dances to it' (Levitt 1983: 92). Thus, even if sunglasses,
to take a random example, are of little use to rain forest dwellers in
Malaysia, the prestigious connotations of the product, enhanced by advertising,
would make them desirable possessions.
A third view is that,
as foreign products, imported goods should not be expected to conform
to local values, and may even violate them with impunity. For example,
in an African society, such as that of the Ndembu of Zambia, the colours
red and white might be strongly associated with blood and milk (cf. Turner
1967). These colours would therefore seem inappropriate for marketing
a soft drink. Yet a red and white Coca-Cola can might be deemed by members
to stand so far outside tribal experience, that its colours are not intepreted
according to the local system of classification, but assume new symbolic
values in relation to the product with which they are associated, and
the transcendent system of which it is an expression.
These three points
of view have all been partially borne out in practice. Certain First World
goods, such as televisions and cars, would seem to be so attractive in
themselves as to have an almost universal appeal, cutting across cultural
difference. Other goods, such as Western clothing, may not be immediately
alluring, but are so invested with symbolic authority and attraction that
they appeal to many Third World people in spite of cultural difference.
Finally, due to their foreign nature, many imported goods are not expected
by local peoples to conform to local lifestyles. In Japan, for example,
Western products often have better sales when advertised with Western
models in Western settings than with Japanese models in Japanese settings,
where they may seem out of place and inappropriate (O'Barr 1993: 174-87).
Given these scenarios,
there would seem to be no pressing need for Western marketers to take
into account the cultural values of the non-Western peoples to whom they
sell their products. In fact, there would even seem to be compelling reasons
why marketers should not attempt to respond to these values for, in many
cases, the commercial appeal of Western products has been shown to be
predicated on their associations with a Western lifestyle.
Yet, if imported products
can sometimes impose their own cultural logic on the markets they enter,
there are nonetheless plenty of instances where imported products are
not able to override local sensibilities. For example, a camellia-scented
perfume popular in the United States failed to attract buyers in Latin
America because camellias are associated with funerals in Latin America
(Ricks 1993: 46).
As making money is
more important to transnationals than imposing cultural uniformity, companies
which sell their goods across cultures must therefore sometimes take local
sensibilites and customs into account. Transnationals are consequently
increasingly abandoning or modifying the three views described above in
favour of a fourth approach: tailoring global products and advertisements
to local markets (cf. Piirto 1991: 142-53; J. James 1993: 54-8). For example,
while Impulse fragrance was promoted with a theme of sexual attraction
in most countries, in the Middle East, where it is considered immoral
for women to overtly attract members of the opposite sex, it was redesigned
and promoted as a perfumed deodorant (Hogan 1989: 29-30). Even the world-famous
name of Coca-Cola was changed for the Chinese market when it was found
to literally mean `Bite the Wax Tadpole' in Chinese (Berkowitz 1994).
which do try to present themselves as `cultural insiders' to their global
clients, however, have to make sure they get it right. United Airlines
advertised flights to Asia by boasting `We Know the Orient', but then
mismatched pictures of Eastern currencies and the names of Eastern countries
(Berkowitz 1994). An advertisement by a shoe company depicted Japanese
women performing footbinding, a practice which was exclusive to China
(Solomon 1994: 485).
An area where global
marketers frequently come to cross-cultural grief is that of slogans,
idiomatic expressions which often translate poorly from English to other
languages. For example, a Taiwanese translation of the Pepsi-Cola slogan
`Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation' turned out to mean `Pepsi will
bring your ancestors back from the dead'. Similarly, the Coors slogan
`Get Loose With Coors' came out in Spanish as `Get the runs with Coors'
(Solomon 1994: 480). Such errors point to the problems which can arise
when marketers are not sufficently knowledgeable about and in tune with
their target markets. It is not therefore simply a case of the West `playing
a single tune for all the world to dance to'.
of course, also occur within the West, and can influence the marketing
and reception of products in different regions. For instance, a citronella-scented
laundry detergent which sold well in Europe had poor sales in North America
where the scent of citronella is associated with mosquito repellent (Classen,
Howes, and Synnott, 1994: 194-95). Even within one country, there may
be a variety of ethnic groups with different cultural and consumer profiles
(Peñaloza 1994; García Canclini 1995). For this reason,
American marketing texts, for example, now contain sections on how to
sucessfully market goods to the African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic-American
populations (Rossman 1994; Solomon 1994).
Even when marketers appear to be sensitive to cultural difference, however, the issue of `Coca-colonization' remains. Does it really make a difference to the globalization of consumer culture if marketers emphasize the family in ads directed towards family-oriented Latin Americans or if Coca-Cola is sold under a different name in China? Is it not just an illusion of cultural difference that is preserved (or created)?
Consuming the `Other'
The West not only
sells goods to the rest of the world, it also consumes goods - Japanese
cars, Mexican food - from the rest of the world. Global marketing would
seem to entail, therefore, not only a `Westernization' of the world, but
also a certain `Japanization' or `Mexicanization' of the West. This state
of affairs is a matter of some concern to Westerners, who fear a loss
of cultural integrity (and hegemony) and worry about importing more goods
than they export. The trade imbalance between Japan and the United States
(which currently favours the former), for example, has been a source of
significant political and social anxiety in the United States. In response
to this tense situation, as well as to the rising costs of labour in Asia,
hundreds of Japanese companies have located their factories in Mexico
close to the American border. When the goods these factories produce enter
the United States they count as Mexican, rather than Japanese, thus apparently
lessening the number of Japanese exports sold in America. This state of
affairs has led American members of Congress to call the Mexican/U.S.
border a `Japanese Trojan horse', spilling out an army of Japanese goods
to conquer the American economy (Barnet and Cavanagh 1994: 64).
who sell to the West usually try to take Western sensitivities and values
into consideration. When imported goods are not immediately identifiable
as foreign, as is the case with cars or tape recorders, for instance,
their manufacturers will sometimes try to disguise or downplay their foreign
origins. Brand names, for example, will often be Westernized, such as
the Japan-based Panasonic or the Korea-based Gold Star. The Japanese electronics
giant Sony so successfully disguised its Japanese origins with its choice
of company name that `a high percentage of [American] retailers who carried
Sony products claimed that they had never sold anything made in Japan
and never would' (Barnet and Cavanagh 1994: 59-60). One Sony creation,
the Walkman, is an interesting case of a Japanized English neologism becoming
naturalized in the rest of the world.
Advertising will usually
be employed to make the foreign product appear reassuringly Western. Therefore,
while Western cars may be advertised in Japan with Western actors, Japanese
cars are not advertised in the West with Japanese actors, but in `typical'
Western settings. This situation has to do both with a distrust of foreignness
in the West and the lack of `a prestige-value' associated with non-Western
As an example of the
difficulty that non-Westerners sometimes have in fathoming Western likes
and dislikes, a recent issue of China Trade News advised Chinese marketers
that: `Elephants are taboo to the British. When exporting goods to Britain
make sure you do not put any pictures of elephants on the good's trademarks
or its packaging'. Marketers were similarly told to avoid the number thirteen,
deemed unlucky in the West (Anon. 1995).
In general, the only time when the foreign nature of an imported product is emphasized in the West by its marketers (whether these be Western or non-Western) is when part of its appeal to Westerners lies in its exotic nature. Examples of this are Colombian coffee, Middle Eastern carpets, or African folk art. In such cases stereotypical imagery of otherness is usually employed to promote the products, such as an illustration of a Colombian coffee picker in traditional clothing leading a donkey, or of a Middle Eastern man with billowing pants and turned-up shoes flying a magic carpet. The broad smiles on the faces of these product mascots indicate that `the natives are friendly' to Westerners - in other words, that the product's foreignness is appealing rather than threatening. As Carol Hendrickson points out in her chapter in Cross-Cultural Consumption on the marketing of Guatemalan handicrafts in the United States, the traditionalist settings and descriptions employed in the ads for such products - `handmade in a tiny town high above the Guatemalan rainforests' - play both on a Western appetite for exotica, and on a Western nostalgia for a pre-industrial way of life, widely perceived by Westerners as still existing in most of the Third World. At the same time, the evident Western desire to perceive Third World peoples as `primitive' indicates an interest on the part of the West in locating Third World peoples in a subordinate position (cf. Bhabha 1983).
This Western consumption
of otherness, whether inside or outside the West, does not take place
without affecting the `others' whose products and supposed lifestyles
are being consumed. The simplistic and traditionalist imagery of `otherness'
used in product promotions and travel ads hinders the inhabitants of the
countries concerned in asserting an identity as modern, industrially-developed
or developing peoples with complex lifestyles. Furthermore, perceiving
their exoticized image in the mirror of the West, non-Westerners sometimes
exoticize themselves, in turn. This can have two contrasting effects.
The first is to try and de-exoticize oneself by becoming more Western
- wearing Western clothing, living in Western-style houses, and so on.
The second is to internalize the West's exotic image of oneself. For example,
it has been suggested in Japan that the `samurai bravado' admired by the
Japanese `not only does not represent an authentic Japanese sensibility
but is an occidentally inspired burlesque of what it means to be Japanese'
(Tobin 1992: 31).
While Western consumers
often manifest a desire for `authenticity' when consuming the products
and images of other cultures, it is authenticity from a Western, and not
an indigenous, perspective. As will be recalled from Mary Crain's chapter
on native identity in Ecuador, native women working in an international
hotel in Quito are required by the management to wear a mélange
of traditional clothing calculated to appeal to tourists as `authentic
native costume'. Another example concerns the production of wood sculptures
for the tourist trade in Africa. As tourists to Africa are often only
interested in buying wood sculptures that are black in colour (in keeping
with their association of Africa with `blackness') local wood carvers
find themselves having to rub black shoe polish into their light-coloured
carvings in order to make them saleable (Graburn 1976; cf. also Jules-Rosette
1990). A further example is that of the recreation of `authentic' African
or Amazonian tribal villages complete with natives in grass skirts solely
for the purpose of satisfying foreign sightseers.
What kinds of social and psychological disjunctions might occur when imagery and products which supposedly convey the `essence' of a culture are created not in response to local traditions and values, but to the wishes of Western consumers? Will it not be the case, as seems to have occurred with the cult of the samurai in Japan, that local peoples will come to think of the Westernized version of their culture as authentic? How does the West reconcile its desire for exotic, pre-industrial `otherness' with its marketing drive to globalize consumer culture?
Finally, when Japanese exports to the United States exceed American exports to Japan, is not the spectre of Western consumer imperialism an out-dated myth?
Recreating the West
representations of otherness abound in the West, stereotypical representations
of the West are even more abundant, both inside and outside of the West.
Many of these representations originate in the West and are disseminated
by, among other things, advertising, movies, and televison shows. The
United States, for example, uses the popular image of the American cowboy
to push products, while Great Britain promotes itself to tourists with
pictures of quaint thatched cottages. One can argue that these kinds of
representations are not as potentially misleading as the images of otherness
found in the West, for most of the world knows that the United States
is not just a land of cowboys and that Britain is not just a land of thatched
cottages. Furthermore, representations of the West - while hardly true
portraits of Western life with all its complexities - show a variety of
lifestyles, urban life as well as life on the range, apartment buildings
as well as cottages.
In the late twentieth-century,
people in non-Western countries are increasingly producing their own representations
of the West for purposes of product promotion. Entrepreneurs around the
world have learned that `Westernness' or `Americanness' is a highly valuable
selling feature, and have been quick to capitalize on this feature in
their production and packaging of commodities. Classen has noted how in
Argentina domestic products will sometimes be given English or pseudo-English
names in order to give them an `American' prestige-value. The same occurs
with even greater frequency in Japan, where one finds products such as
`American Cola', `Class' cigarettes, and `Creap' powdered milk (Tobin
1992: 1-38).4 These are the products of peoples who have consumed the
imagery of the West, and are now regurgitating, or recreating, it in their
own way. From a Western, English-speaking perspective, such representations
may appear inauthentic - `Class' is too broad a term for a brand name,
`Creap' is not a real English word (and not a very enticing made-up English
word, either). Yet from a local perspective, all that matters is that
these names and products convey the intended image to their intended market.
Western views on the matter are as irrelevant to local marketers as the
views of Asians or Latin Americans on their inauthentic representation
in Western media are to Western marketers.5
The production of
`Western' imagery, therefore, is no longer exclusively in the hands of
the West. It is true that in many cases the factories producing Western
products in Indonesia or Mexico belong to or are contracted by Western
companies. For example, the American sports shoe company, Nike, contracts
out virtually all of its actual production to Asian factories (Clifford
1992).6 However, while Western consumer culture is still on the march
around the world, it is not being driven solely by Western interests.
The very success of the West in promoting its consumer products and consumer
culture has spawned a world of local variations.
In the broadest sense,
such products as Japanese cars and watches might be regarded as foreign
imitations of originally Western products. What has been `copied', and
developed, however, is the technology and general concept, rather than
any particular Western model. Many `imitation goods' produced outside
the West, nonetheless, do closely copy actual Western products. In Middle
Eastern markets, for example, one can find `Tibe' and `Tipe' boxes of
detergent on the shelf, alongside their Western protoype, `Tide'. In Japan,
`Chamel' and `Canal' imitation perfumes compete with Chanel (Fenby 1983:
While imitation products
sometimes only approximate the brand name of the models they copy, they
often simply duplicate it. Fake Levi's jeans, Citizen watches, Johnnie
Walker Scotch and Raleigh bicycles, among many other products, can be
found all over the world, but particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Classen makes reference in her chapter, for example, to the prevalence
of imitation goods in the marketplaces of Bolivia. The Third World, indeed,
displays a postmodern proliferation of consumer `simulacra', which can
blur the border between real and fake.
In the 1960s, a merchant
in Mexico City named Fernando Pelletier, opened a shop called `Cartier'
and started selling precise imitations of goods - watches, leather goods,
pens - produced by the French company of the same name, at discount prices.
When it discovered that its goods were being counterfeited, the original
Cartier company decided to open up its own shop in Mexico. The Mexican
Cartier, in response, sent a letter to the President of Mexico denouncing
the French Cartier's lack of respect for Mexican industry and government,
and suggesting that the French products were fakes. This letter was printed
in major Mexican newspapers and soon became the subject of angry editorials
against the French invaders. The French Cartier also ran into problems
when it tried to register its trademark designs in Mexico, for it found
that Pelletier had already registered them and thus had prior rights in
Eventually, in 1981,
Pelletier - by then a millionaire - made the mistake of travelling to
France where he was arrested for counterfeiting. In exchange for his release
and the right to become one of Cartier's authorized agents in Mexico,
Pelletier agreed to stop using the Cartier name for his own products.
However, the end of this one counterfeiting operaton has not prevented
fake Cartier products from continuing to be produced in the millions around
the world (Fenby 1983: 60-9).
The example of Cartier illustrates how difficult it can be for companies to stop their goods from being counterfeited. As Jonathan Fenby notes in Piracy and the Public, the inhabitants of the Third World countries where many counterfeit products are made `do not necessarily see things in the same way as Western holders of copyrights and trademarks' (1983: 5). Counterfeiting goods can be an important source of revenue and employment in developing nations. Furthermore, counterfeiting may seem like the only option when Third World countries find that their own local products cannot compete in consumer appeal with prestigious Western goods. Fenby writes:
If people want jeans that look like Levis and local workshops can turn out a reasonable imitation, why spend much-needed hard currency on importing the real thing? The only sufferer is a distant firm with a famous name which can easily be dismissed as a rich multinational that does not need the money and is probably exploiting Third World markets in any case (1983: 5).
Even Westerners might
sympathize with this point of view, until they are told that their own
livelihoods and even lives could be placed at risk by Third World counterfeiters
- for example, that such counterfeiting leads to loss of employment in
the West, and that cars used in the West might have fake, substandard,
parts coming from Nigeria or Taiwan.
While the imitation
goods made by counterfeiters are sometimes of high quality - for example,
Korean copies of Apple and IBM computers - more often they have the look
of the original without the quality. Product counterfeiters know that
it is the image that attracts buyers in consumer culture - the classic
shape of the Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle or the alligator in the Lacoste
trademark - and it is the image that they therefore concentrate on replicating.
This has led to a number of potentially hazardous products entering the
marketplace, from poor-quality imitations of car parts to fake medicines.
Such products have the `look' of the real thing, but their lack of substance
makes them harmful to First World and Third World consumers alike.
Although in the West
`cheap imitations' are usually thought of as coming from the East, products
are counterfeited on a large scale within the West itself, and sometimes
end up being sold to the Third World. Singapore, for example, was sold
fake aircraft parts by a British firm. Kenya was sold a fake brandname
fungicide by a European company, resulting in a significant loss of the
country's coffee crop (Fenby 1983:4).7 Moreover, many brand-name products
from the East, such as Seiko watches or Nissan car parts, are also the
target of counterfeiters. What matters is not the origin of the product,
but what will sell.
It is nonetheless true that most of the originals of the products counterfeited or imitated come from the West, and that a vast amount of this counterfeiting goes on outside the West. The `West' is therefore not only being marketed around the world, but is continually being recreated around the world, from local perspectives. Given this situation, are Third World countries which replicate Western products and imagery ad infinitum taking over the colonial role of the West and colonizing themselves? Should First World trademark holders be able to monopolize the global market with their products just because they have the money and resources to design and promote them?8 Can a line be drawn between `harmless' imitations and `dangerous' fakes? Why should the production of fake Cartier watches or fake Levi jeans be more of an issue than the production of fake Hopi kachina dolls or fake Andean textile designs?
Dying of Consumption
imported products are successfully incorporated into local lifestyles
often seem to provide a `happy solution' to the problem of maintaining
cultural diversity in the face of global marketing. Rather than let consumer
goods colonize them, local peoples instead `colonize' consumer goods,
imposing their own systems of values and practices on them and maintaining
their cultural integrity. Yet the merging of consumer products and values
with local traditions does not always have happy results for the communities
concerned. In India, for example, expensive consumer goods such as televisions
and motorcycles are increasingly demanded as part of a bride's dowry by
grooms avid to acquire the enticing products of Western culture. There
have been many hundreds of cases of women being killed - often by being
set on fire - by their husbands or in-laws when their families failed
to produce the desired goods. The presumption is that the men can then
remarry and receive another dowry elsewhere. Feeling themselves unable
to cope with the growing economic burden of providing dowry's for their
daughters, some parents practice female infanticide. (Bordewich 1986;
Kronholz 1986). In India, consequently, the materialist values of consumer
culture have had deadly results when combined with the traditional practice
of the dowry.
In the Colombian Amazon, the Barasana Indians believe that consumer goods are infused with ewa, `an irresistibly attractive and potent force which leads [the Barasana] to act in an uncontrolled manner and do things against their better judgement' (Hugh-Jones 1992: 46). One thing which the Barasana do against their better judgement in order to obtain such goods is to grow coca for the cocaine industry. A Barasana man comments:
To begin with the old people all said "don't work coca, working coca is bad". But those guns and all those other things, they have such ewa that everybody - the shamans, the elders, even my old uncle Christo - they're all working coca now. There's no way to avoid it. These White people are really bad but we want their goods so much that we have to act as if we liked them (Hugh-Jones 1992: 47).
goods which the Barasana desire - guns, fishing hooks, cooking pots -
are often those which they find eminently useful in their forest environment.
Yet as a result of their self-professed irresistible desire for consumer
goods, many Barasana end up in a situation of perpetual debt to their
`white' bosses, obliged to provide them with a constant flow of coca leaves,
rubber, wood, gold, and other valuable forest products (Hugh-Jones 1992:
The compulsion to
obtain consumer goods whatever the cost, manifest in the dowry deaths
of India or in the debt peonage of the Barasana, is certainly not unknown
in the West where children have been killed in schoolyards for their brand-name
running shoes. Yet in Culture and Consumption, Grant McCracken asserts
that `[the] goods that are so often identified as the unhappy, destructive
preoccupation of a materialist society are in fact one of the chief instruments
of its survival, one of the ways in which its order is created and maintained'
(1988: ix). To declare that consumer goods are essential to the structure
of modern, First World society may be to make a valid point, but this
should not be allowed to negate the serious difficulties that many people
have both with consumerism and with the social structure it upholds.9
If the West, the home of the consumer society, is not by any means comfortable
with consumerism and its social effects, why should it be thought that
non-Western peoples, for whom consumerism is a more recent phenomenon,
will be able to come to comfortable terms with it (cf. Sherry 1987)?
Even when imported
goods do appear to be harmoniously integrated into non-Western societies,
they can be producing a number of troubling effects within those societies.
Jean Comaroff, in her chapter in Cross-Cultural Consumption, described
how Africans were able to take elements of Western dress and give them
their own meanings and uses in colonial Africa. Yet the widespread availability
of imported clothing in Africa has hindered the development of local textile
industries, which find their products cannot compete with the imports.
This is especially the case when second-hand clothing from the West is
bought in bulk by Western entrepreneurs (often from charity organizations,
such as Goodwill) and shipped to Africa where it is sold at bargain prices
The availability of consumer goods may also have disastrous consequences for local and global environments by dramatically increasing levels of garbage production and pollution. Alan Durning writes in his study of the impact of consumerism on the environment:
The consumer society's exploitation of resources threatens to exhaust, poison, or unalterably disfigure forests, soils, water, and air. We, its members, are responsible for a disproportionate share of all the global environmental challenges facing humanity (1992: 23).
The environment simply
cannot support a whole world of people with the consumer habits of the
First World. Yet who should be excluded from the consumer society?
Certain consumer products
put public health directly at risk. An obvious culprit here is the cigarette,
aggressively marketed by multinationals around the globe. Another widely
criticized product is baby formula (Van Esterik 1989). Baby formula is
usually marketed as a healthy and modern (First World) alternative to
breast milk. As used in the Third World, however, such formula is often
neither healthy nor convenient. Lacking information and resources, Third
World women sometimes mix the formula with contaminated water or fail
to refrigerate it, resulting in the growth of potentially deadly bacteria.
Another problem arises when nursing mothers start using baby formula,
sometimes after having received free samples, and then discover that they
cannot afford to continue using the product but are likewise unable to
return to nursing as their own flow of milk has stopped. The misuse of
baby formula in developing countries has resulted in the deaths of untold
numbers of infants.
The situations described
above are deeply disturbing. While it is evident that the exportation
of Western consumer goods and values have been instrumental in bringing
about these situations, it is not clear what, if anything, the West can
now do to prevent them. To stem the spread of consumer goods from the
First World to the Third would be to deny the agency of Third World peoples
and to deprive them of the goods most people in the First World would
on no account like to do without themselves. In response to the number
of infant deaths caused by the improper use of milk formula, the World
Health Organization recommended a ban on the advertising and marketing
of breastmilk substitutes in the Third World. This recommended ban has
been attacked, however, as an example of First World paternalism towards,
and deprivation of, the Third World (Finkle 1994).
political and cultural pressures, both from within and without, in turn,
work to hinder Third World peoples from controlling the spread of consumerism
in their countries themselves - if they are so inclined. So closely are
the products and values of the consumer society tied to First World status,
in fact, that any country which tries to avoid becoming `consumerized',
risks being completely marginalized from the global centres of power,
as was the case in Indonesia for a time (Anderson 1984: 153-88).
Just as the marketing of consumer goods is now global in scope, so are the problems such marketing may create. Is the World Health Organization justified in calling for a ban on milk formula in the Third World when cigarettes - with their well-documented carcinogenic effects - are not banned in the First World? Can the Third World be expected to control the environmental damage caused by consumer goods in its countries, when the First World has been damaging the environment for decades with its own cars, refrigeraters, and throwaway products? Is there a `dark side' to consumerism which will inevitably surface regardless of the particular cultural context? Have consumer goods become simply too attractive for anyone in the world to resist?
[This essay is excerpted from Constance Classen and David Howes, "Epilogue: The Dynamics and Ethics of Cross-Cultural Consumption" in David Howes (ed.), Cross-Cultural Consumption (London and New York: Routledge, 1996). Please see the bibliography of the book for references cited in this essay.]
1. Mica Nava discusses this shift in the theoretical models used to analyze consumer culture in Changing Cultures (1992: 162-99). See further Tomlinson (1990).
2. On the classification of headaches among the Ainu of Japan, whose complex system of classification gives the lie to the claim `a headache is a headache', see Ohnuki-Tierney (1977).
3. Aside from their inherent attractiveness, of course, televisions and cars often have a potent symbolic appeal. In Sri Lanka, for example, prosperous fishermen in remote villages buy televisions although they have no electricity, and add garages to their houses although they have no roads. It is as signs of status and modernity that these possessions are valued by the fishermen, rather than for their practical use (Gell 1986: 114).
4. A study of the use of English in Japan can be found in Stanlaw (1992).
5. In this regard it is informative to read Homi Bhabha (1984) on the unease occasioned in `imperialist' nations when colonial peoples `mimic' the discourse of their colonizers.
6. Interestingly, the fact that many `American' products, such as Nike and Levis, are manufactured in Mexico does not seem to effect attributions of their country of origin: they remain American products in the minds of Mexicans (Peñaloza 1994: 45). On product-country images generally see Popadopoulos and Heslop (1993).
7. The batches of expired Western medicines which sometimes end up in Third World markets also constitute fakes of a kind.
8. For a probing discussion of the copyright issue as it relates to world musics see Music Grooves (Keil and Feld 1994).
9. Jeremiads on luxury, and ambivalence toward consumer goods antedate consumer society itself, but reached new levels of virulence with its inception (cf. Appleby 1994).