While most people at Hile Design were just starting to fulfill New Year’s resolutions and sincerely regretting that extra slice of pie over Christmas, I was boarding a plane, on my way to a land of Bollywood, chicken masala and blue skinned gods. As part of a Spring Arbor University requirement, I needed to spend a month in another country in order to graduate. So, I chose India.
I spent three weeks bouncing from city to city, tasting food far too spicy for my American tongue and keeping a look out for elephants (alas, I saw none). Starting in Mumbai, my group traveled to Hyderabad, Calcutta and ended our stay in Delhi.
We were required to keep a journal to record our experience, and in the first page, I described India in one word: Thick. India is thick with people, thick with smells and noise and pollution, thick with poverty and thick with luxury, thick with tradition and color and religious deities; India is thick with markets and vendors and food and traffic and non-profits trying to make a dent in the thickness, but most of all, India is thick with media and advertising.
The minute I stepped out of the airport into the humid Mumbai streets, I was struck by how much print advertising dominated the aesthetic culture. If there was wall space, whether domestic residencies, retail stores, corporate offices or broken down structures (of which there was a lot), there was a poster or banner advertising some brand of food or technology. Typically in America, a sign advertising something like Coca-Cola on a building is usually a signifier that whatever business occupies the space probably sells the product. But, in India that wasn’t the case. It seemed that as long as the public could see the building, it was free for the advertising taking.
Amid all the mangoes, saris and bangles, I expected to see a reflection of the society I was in when I looked at the posters and billboards. Unfortunately, just about every ad I saw had a very pale looking model dressed in western clothes and selling either a western product or its Indian equivalent. Nowhere in the television commercials did I see a dark-skinned woman in her sari holding up a packet of curry spices to the tune of a Bollywood song. Nowhere in the print promotions did I see a man in his kurta sitting down for a meal in his brightly colored apartment and eat with his hands and some chapatti bread. As far as marketing goes, India may be stationed in the East but certainly has its eyes to the West.
This Eastern idolization of the West isn’t anything new; skin lightening and eyelid lifting has been a trend in Asia for some time. However, I find it fascinating that it has gone beyond personal appearance to entire cultures embodying this movement to become “more American” through its media and advertising. That raises the question of the power of marketing and if it really is the global identifier for a society. I wonder how many cultures outside of the US associate Americans with the golden arches of McDonalds or the seductive women of Victoria’s Secret. I also wonder how many Americans look at the ads and have the same feeling I got in India, where what they see around them and what they see on the billboards don’t match up.
So, as I sit at my desk in my kurta and crave a mango lassi, I’ll leave you all with the question that has been on my mind of late: is media and advertising a reflection of the culture, maybe the best parts of the culture, or is it creating some sort of ideal that the culture is trying to achieve? Does it matter?