21April2014

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Force-Feeding The Dream - Consumer Advertising and Traditional Culture

A current Peugeot advert depicts an Indian driver in a dusty, impoverished village smashing his wreck of a car - what appears to be an old Morris Oxford - forwards and backwards into walls. The driver then coaxes an elephant to sit on the bonnet, crushing it, before himself setting about the bodywork with an iron bar. Cutting to the same man admiring a picture of a brand new, gleaming Peugeot, the advert reveals that he has all along been attempting to sculpt his dilapidated wreck into a crude facsimile of the sleek, high-tech Western model. Finally, he is shown cruising along with friends in his 'Peugeot', receiving what they imagine are the admiring glances of passers by, 'babes' included.

The character portrayed in the advert cuts a pathetic figure - impoverished, deluded, and desperately aspiring to Western technology and wealth. There is something serene and perfect and real - something Western - about the actual Peugeot; and there is something hopelessly deluded, failed and wretched about the man's Third World imitation.

To be sure, Peugeot's advert is a mere drop in the ocean of ceaseless Western propaganda promoting the idea that West is best. A standard theme of advertising involves showing Third World tribesmen, shamans and monks gawking in awe at Western technology, or comically revealing that despite their appearance they share our obsession with high-tech gadgets: "From Stealth bombers to fast cars - for men who are turned on by machines!" as one necrophilic advert puts it. (Advert for The Power Zone, Discovery Channel, Virgin Radio, March 1, 2000)

Writer Alan Durning describes the underlying philosophy:

"Even if they fail to sell a particular product, they sell consumerism itself by ceaselessly reiterating the idea that there is a product to solve each of life's problems, indeed that existence would be satisfying and complete if only we bought the right things." (Alan Durning, How Much is Enough - The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, Worldwatch Environmental Series, 1992, p.119)

Linguist and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge reports the impact of this propaganda on the traditional people of Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau, among whom she has lived for a quarter of a century:

"In films, the rich, the beautiful, and the brave lead lives filled with excitement and glamour. By contrast, their [the Ladakhis'] own lives seem primitive, silly and inefficient. The one-dimensional view of modern life becomes a slap in the face. They feel stupid and ashamed. They are asked by their parents to choose a way of life that involves getting their hands dirty for very little or no money. Their culture seems absurd compared with the world of the tourists and film heroes." (Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures - Learning From Ladakh, Sierra, 1992, p.97)

Significantly, Norberg-Hodge notes, the dark sides of Western culture - the pollution, unemployment, drugs, environmental degradation, alienation, sham democracy and social breakdown - are kept from traditional peoples. Also unknown to them are the effects of advertising. In an article titled, 'Retail therapy makes you depressed', Ben Summerskill of The Observer writes:

"Despite the highest British income levels ever and a buoyant economy, researchers - who interviewed 1,000 people - found most were profoundly unhappy: 55 per cent said they had felt depressed in the past year." (Summerskill, The Observer, May 6, 2001)

Psychologist Oliver James, explains the role of advertising in the lives of the depressed:

"They were led to believe that anything was possible. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, they still end up working very hard to make somebody else rich. And the advertisements which encouraged them to believe consumption was the root of all happiness have been strongly instrumental in creating discontent with their bodies and personalities." (Summerskill, ibid)

For hundreds of years Western propaganda has worked, sometimes unconsciously but often consciously, to persuade both Western and Third World peoples of the vast superiority of Western corporate-driven high-tech culture over all other 'primitive' cultures, which may be safely consigned to the dustbin of history. Sometimes this conceit is expressed quite candidly. In her article, 'The West really is the best', Polly Toynbee writes:

"In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity. Even if we don't like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter..." (Toynbee, The Observer, March 5, 2000)

Two quotes reveal the reality behind the claim. The first from Woodrow Wilson, writing at the beginning of the last century:

"Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down... Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology, South End Press, 1987, p.14)

If this culture - far better than any other in the history of humanity - is to batter down doors with a clean conscience, a little creative rationalisation is in order. US writer Kirkpatrick Sale explains the trick:

"It is always convenient to regard foreign populations as inferior, more convenient still to regard them as animalistic, or bestial, especially when you have decided to enslave or eliminate them." (Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, Papermac, 1992, p.135)

In working to undermine and exploit Third World cultures, Western social engineers quickly learned that manipulation, not force, achieves the best and most permanent results. As late as 1963, applied anthropologist, Ward Goodenough, described the strategies pursued by Western powers in 'developing' the Third World:

"The problem that faces development agents, then, is to find ways of stimulating in others a desire for change in such a way that the desire is theirs independent of further prompting from outside. Restated, the problem is one of creating in another a sufficient dissatisfaction with his present condition of self so that he wants to change it. This calls for some kind of experience that leads him to reappraise his self-image and re-evaluate his self-esteem." (Quoted, John Bodley, Victims of Progress, Mayfield Publishing, 1982, pp.111-112)

It is interesting to compare the Peugeot advert with anthropologist John Bodley's description of the tactics recommended by "development agents" in the 1970s. Traditional peoples, they declared, "must be shocked into the realisation that they are living in abnormal, inhuman conditions as psychological preparation for modernisation". (Bodley, p.111)

In the 19th century, it was understood that the best way to encourage an individual to "re-evaluate his self-esteem" was through the generation of needs and wants. In 1840, Haitian Governor Charles Metcalfe indicated what was required of the people of Haiti:

"To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what were once luxuries, gradually came... to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the negroes had to go through." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501 - The Conquest Continues, Verso, 1993, p.227).

To be sure, the same lessons continue to be applied today by modern advertisers: teenage spots mean you have a "pizza face" and had better buy acne lotion; failing to possess the latest and smallest mobile phone means you are a gauche idiot; having a brand new Peugeot means you are 'living the dream'. Luxuries can become necessities, with the proper education of desire.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the preferred methods of eroding cultural self-esteem included the brainwashing of children. A standard example is provided by this excerpt from a French reader designed in 1919 for use by French West African school children:

"It is an advantage for a native to work for a white man, because the Whites are better educated, more advanced in civilisation than the natives... You who are intelligent and industrious, my children, always help the Whites in their task. That is a duty." (Quoted, Bodley, p.114)

Ruthless separation of children from parents was a given. In the US, Bodley writes, "boarding schools were considered one of the best means of destroying Indian culture because here even very young children could be almost permanently separated from the influences of their parents". (Bodley, p.115)

In the 21st century a ceaseless tidal wave of Western media, advertising and cinematic productions continues to wash over traditional societies, eroding whatever sense of self-respect and pride may have survived. Cleverly targeting the youngest members of society, these images promote the 'new', 'modern', 'cool' way of life.

The effect is to 'gut' sublimely sophisticated cultures and traditions evolved over millennia, replacing them with a Western "monoculture" centred around the gormless glitz that serves commercial interests at the expense of social and ecological needs. The problem for many Third World people is that they are sold the dream of cars, mobile phones and laptops, but the dream is all they get. The foundations of their world view and culture are torn from them, leaving only the mirage of Western-style happiness. Many leave rural communities for an urban, consumer dream, only to find themselves isolated and alone in dilapidated shantytowns, working vast stretches in Hobbesian factories for a pittance, lost between two worlds.

Unrestrained and unlimited greed of the type epitomised by global capitalism, is a kind of giant eraser - it erases inconvenient facts, inconvenient values, inconvenient species, inconvenient peoples, and inconvenient cultures. It is done bloodlessly, very often, by the erased executive, sitting in his or her bland suit with a mind full of 'performance targets' and a heart empty of human feeling. It is this emptiness of heart that is behind the 10 million square mile cloud of toxic pollution over Asia, the biblical floods in Central Europe, and the horrors that are approaching on every side. If we and they do not fill this empty space, it will be the death of them and it will be the death of us.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Gareth Foden, Manager of Marketing Programmes Peugeot UK, and ask him to withdraw the advert depicting an individual attempting to sculpt his wreck of a car into a Peugeot. Ask Peugeot if they believe such images promote respect for non-Western cultures and ways of life other than those revolving around a high-tech, high consumption Western life-style. Write via Susan Butler, Mr. Foden's Assistant:

Email: susan.butler@peugeot.com

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