Overview of Research on the Globalization of the Consumer Society

Constance Classen and David Howes
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Concordia University

The 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.

Traditionally, 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).
Even in the First World country of Japan, there has been widespread concern over the proliferation of Western goods and images and a call for a rejection of the process of Westernization together with a return to a `traditional' Japanese way of life.

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 decay.

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).
Such clashes of cultural values often occur not just with the product, but with the advertising used to promote it. One American advertising campaign which attempted to evoke a sense of masculinity by using an image of a deer became an object of ridicule in Brazil where the deer is a symbol of homosexuality. A soap company which tried to promote its products in the Middle East with an ad depicting soiled clothes to the left of the detergent and clean clothes to the right achieved the opposite from the intended effect due to the fact that Arabic peoples read from right to left (Ricks 1993: 52-3).

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).

Transnational companies 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'.

Cultural differences, 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).

Non-Western marketers 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 peoples.
Non-Western marketers also try to take into account the lifestyles and aesthetic preferences of Westerners in their product design and advertising. When the Walkman was first invented, its Japanese creators thought of providing it with two sets of headphones because, from a traditional Japanese perspective, it seemed `rude' for individuals to retreat into a private world (Barnet and Cavanagh 1994: 49). Yet in the individualized culture promoted by the modern West, consumers are less interested in sharing than in pleasing themselves, and thus the Walkman ended up being sold with only one headphone set (cf. Chambers 1994: 49-53; Barber 1995: 77).

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).

The Western consumption of `cultural difference' occurs not only within the West itself, but also within non-Western countries through the tourist trade. Westerners who travel to Mexico, to Bali or to Kenya, want to see the traditional imagery they have come to associate with these countries. In other words, not just skyscrapers and shopping malls, but native villages, dances, and handicrafts. In order to keep the tourist dollars coming in, such nativist spectacles and products must be produced for travellers, regardless of whether they form part of the contemporary local scene (Little 1991).

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

If stereotypical 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: 58, 111-12).

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 them.

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

Situations where 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).

The manufactured 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: 49).

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 (Todd 1993).

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).

Different economic, 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).