Maybe the Academie Francaise isn't as bizarrely chauvinistic and xenophobic and paranoid as it has always looked from a distance. Maybe American popular culture is a disease, a virulent and deadly disease that contaminates, corrupts and, yes, infects, every exposed membrane of other societies.
Sure, on the one hand, we have bestowed jazz upon the world, and rock 'n' roll, hamburgers, the Marx Brothers and blue jeans-all gratefully assimilated by an admiring community of nations. On the other hand, the same community of nations has more or less uncritically latched on to America's everything else: Jerry Lewis; David Hasselhoff; and even Garfield (no relation), the damn cat.
Advertising, of course, is right in the thick of the phenomenon. Indeed, as campaigns increasingly are compelled by misguided notions of efficiency-and the self-interest of large multinational agencies-to cross borders, it is advertising that will make the problem worse.
The most recent evidence: an eight-country Honda campaign from Pubblimarket-Idea 2/Alliance, Milan, which, to sell Japanese cars to Europeans, employs The Addams Family.
"We'd like a family car," the family announces as it enters a Honda dealership, and from there the ads turn on the ghoulish Addams' typically contrary reactions to all the marvelous features of the Civic five-door.
The practicality: "Horrible."
The 21 kilometer per liter gas mileage: "Monstrous."
The double-wishbone suspension for great handling: "Depressing."
Finally, the family looks at the camera and advises: "Don't buy it!"
Oh, the premise is sound enough. Indeed, up to a point it is a refreshing and arch twist to tell consumers the opposite of what they expect to hear. But how much more refreshing the twist would have been had it not resorted to lookalikes of American film adaptations of American TV adaptations of American cartoon characters to make the point. Is Europe so bereft of iconography and culture that finding a common denominator among eight countries leads, by default, to Hollywood?
Sadly, multinational advertisers are rapidly painting themselves into a corner, so that increasingly the answer to that question is yes.
Just as it was probably inevitable that English would fulfill the forlorn promise of Esperanto and become a genuinely international language, the economics of the entertainment industry largely dictate Hollywood's dominion over the movie screens and TV programming of the world. Thus, the search for the elusive commonalities of culture that goes with creating multinational campaigns leads again and again to American celebrities, American characters, American imagery.
Sometimes, of course, the practice pays great dividends. Witness the global Michael Jackson campaign for Pepsi. He successfully represented youthful energy and excitement everywhere in the world-at least, until his sleeping habits with little boys came to light, whereupon we were a sobering example of why else it's risky to put all your advertising eggs in one global basket.
But never mind one-in-a-million celebrity scandals. If the cost of crossing borders is the indiscriminate Americanizing-and associated deculturation-of every consumer society, it is a price far too large to pay.
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Advertising Age International welcomes submissions for Global Ad Review, particularly breaking TV campaigns. Please send 3/4-inch NTSC-format videotapes or 1/2-inch videotapes in any format to Bob Garfield, Ad Age International, 814 National Press Building, Washington, D.C. 20045-1801.