Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!
In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.
These first two for apples and ginger ale fall into the first category:
But this ad presents the “Esquimaux” as “dull” and Grape Nuts as civilized:
Building on Potter’s collection, Adrienne at Native Appropriations posted some more contemporary uses of the Eskimo.
Eskimo Joe’s (Stillwater, OK) uses an image of an Eskimo looking downright ridiculous and very much like his dog:
Any child of the ’80s probably remembers the Lisa Frank Eskimo girl (which Adrienne points out looks decidely anglo):
And this ad seems to suggest that even decapitated walruses speak better English than Eskimos:
Here’s another example of the childlike Eskimo, tweeted to us by @Matthew_Kneale:
All of these ads turn Eskimos into (cute but inferior) childlike figures or (deficient and inferior) backwards adults, or some combination of the two. For a population with essentially no contact with the Inuit or the Yupik, the idea that they are real human beings can become lost. When real members of a group are invisible, imaginary representatives can be demonized or romanticized as we see fit.
There are several interesting things going on here. One is the exoticization of the “whopper virgins.” The taste tests were conducted in Thailand, Romania, and Greenland. We’re clearly supposed to find it charmingly cute that they’re unfamiliar with hamburgers. They don’t even know how to eat them! We get to see people taking their “first bite of a hamburger,” and wonder at their unfamiliarity with how to pick one up and eat it. This short video about the Thailand taste tests illustrates this with the dramatic voiceover about people who have “never even seen a burger. Who don’t even have a word for burger.”
There’s also a certain level of ethnocentrism here; note the comment that these are people who “really live outside of things.” That all depends on what you mean by “things,” which here seems to be defined by exposure to TV and hamburgers. The implicit understanding, of course, is that these are people who live in a backward, “traditional” culture, which is fascinating to outsiders but, ultimately, very bizarre. However, I am sure that if asked these people would feel they live “inside of” many things, just not the things considered important to this marketing team.
You might also use this to talk about the pervasiveness of advertising. As the video makes clear, they went to Thailand, Romania, and Greenland in hopes of finding people who hadn’t been exposed to Burger King or McDonald’s advertising, since it would be “impossible” to find such people in the U.S.
I also think the documentary element to the video is fascinating. I’m assuming the teams did travel to these areas, and the video claims they are all “real people,” not actors (who are, apparently, imaginary). But I have a suspicion that some elements were staged. Of course the taste-tests were staged, but I notice that almost everyone in the videos is wearing “traditional” clothing. I might be wrong, but it doesn’t strike me as the type of clothing people would wear every day–they seem like pretty fancy clothes that you’d wear for special occasions, but maybe I’m wrong. If anybody knows more about how people in these areas usually dress, let me know. Of course, it’s entirely possible that people dressed up in their fancier clothes entirely on their own because they wanted to look nice when being filmed. But I wonder if they were encouraged to dress in clothing that would make them seem more exotic, rather than showing up in a t-shirt (which is, by now, fairly universal, though I’m certain there are still groups who have not adopted t-shirts).
The second half of the video, where the Burger Team goes to villages in each country and makes them Whoppers, is also interesting in the way it portrays the team as philanthropists giving these communities a unique cultural experience. I mean, I guess they are, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of romanticizing “traditional” groups and implying that they should be shielded from “modern” innovations because it would ruin their culture. And it doesn’t seem like the marketing team is really trying to build brand loyalty, since it’s unlikely they’re going to be opening stores in any of these areas (although they do make sure to wrap the burgers in Burger King wrappers). It does, on the other hand, make the video seem more like a documentary and less obviously like a commercial, which adds to its effectiveness as a viral ad. I dunno. Maybe this is just an example of a corporation doing something nice, and I can’t get over my general distrust of marketers.
Another interesting angle you might bring up in discussion is the spread of fast-food culture and standardized, relatively cheap production processes in general, often referred to as “McDonaldization.” There’s also an entire book on the subject of McDonald’s in Asia, called Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (edited by James L. Watson). I sometimes assign the chapter “McDonald’s in Hong Kong: Consumerism, Dietary Change, and the Rise of a Children’s Culture” in my intro classes to talk about cultural change; it’s fascinating how McDonald’s is to some degree undermining parental authority by appealing directly to children and empowering them to demand their favorite meals.
Laura sent us a link to a story about criticism of the campaign, found here.
And just an aside here: What’s the difference between a “village” and a “small town”? The word village seems to bring up certain assumptions about both quaintness and backwardness (and cultural isolation). I grew up in a town of slightly less than 300 people. Nobody ever called it a village. Is it a village if you don’t have paved roads, and a small town if you do? I’m just askin’.
Robin B. sent us this link to this fashion spread contrasting the austere, icy, and disappearing scenery of Greenland with exceedingly expensive consumer goods. Robin points to the irony: The culture of consumption represented in these images is, in fact, contributing to global conditions that are melting the ice cap of Greenland and, thus, destroying the very environment that the images feature.
About Sociological Images
Sociological Images encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry. Read more…