Cultural imperialism is a view of advertising as seen from the Marxist left that addresses the impact of a more powerful capitalist culture on a less powerful, peasant culture. The concept gained momentum in academia in the 1960s, likely as part of the larger protest movement against U.S. intervention in Vietnam. But its roots lie in the traditional critique of capitalism set forth by both Communist and non-Communist intellectuals of the left since the 1920s.
Herbert Schiller, a respected U.S. media and social critic, defined cultural imperialism in 1976 as "the sum of processes by which a society is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes even bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating center of the system."
While that definition identifies a power struggle between cultures, other definitions have an even more ominous tone and place the blame squarely on the West. In 1977, Jeremy Tunstall, author of "The Media Are American: Anglo-American Media in the World," asserted that "authentic, traditional and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States."
Four assumptions are common in most writings about cultural imperialism, each an updated version of the classic leftist view of transnational class conflict, but with the term "indigenous peoples" substituted for the more traditional phrase "workers of the world."
The first assumption is that the media are at the center of cultural imperialism. The second is that the process is carried out by the "invasion" of an indigenous culture by an outside one. Third, capitalism itself rather than any particular nation-state is the "imperialist power" because it spreads a culture of consumerism. And fourth, cultural imperialism presses a "modern" vision of society that includes urbanism, mass communication and a technical-scientific-rational ideology.
Among the media products seen to promote cultural imperialism, global advertising plays an essential role. The fear that long-established cultural values may be eroded by commerce and advertising is not limited to the poor and underdeveloped regions of the world. France, one of the cultural centers of Western civilization, is just as concerned for its own cultural future as are Third World countries.
Opportunities for international advertising exist because population growth and potential for product consumption is often greater in less developed markets than in more developed ones. As a result, manufacturers and distributors in developed countries have begun to selectively target consumers in developing markets. Some argue that this is done without proper regard for the values of the target culture.
Pros and cons of global advertising
Advocates of global advertising believe that allowing consumers in developing nations the opportunity to receive greater education about the availability of goods and services, along with more information to enable comparisons, helps prepare them for a higher standard of living. Messages promote social good through increased savings, reduced illiteracy, lower birth rates and improved nutrition.
Critics say that international advertisers attempt to recreate Western-style consumer cultures among populations that are vulnerable because of poverty, illiteracy, lack of experience with consumer goods and lack of exposure to media messages. Further, less developed countries seldom have legal systems that protect consumers.
Alarmed by these prospects, some countries have raised barriers comparable to protectionist trade tariffs, except that the measures are designed to protect local culture rather than local industry. Latin American countries limit foreign investment in ad agencies to 19%; India set the limit at 40%. In Peru, 100% of ad content must be locally produced in order to ensure that local values are projected. In Malaysia, all TV and radio spots are screened by a government censor board that provides guidelines for protecting the Malaysian national language, religion, culture and tradition.
While these restrictions can be helpful in protecting indigenous cultures, most critics believe that more countries need to take action and make a much stronger effort. Such countries could follow the example set by France, perhaps the country most committed to preserving indigenous culture.
When advertising is recognized as only one form of media product capable of imperialism, the sum total of cultural imperialism becomes even more significant.