In 2001, The Observer published an article by Ashley Alsup that advanced a thesis that America, or the U.S., is a brand like any other, and moreover a brand whose equity has declined in appeal and significance. (At the time of writing, Ashley was an American working for a British ad agency BBH. As of now, she lives in Britain and speaks with a British accent – which makes her British in a lot of ways – but works for an American ad agency, namely CP+B.) Since then, I’ve heard other advertising planners also talking about America as a brand.
This observation is ingenious, and the article is well-written and insightful in many a small nuance of argument and example. For a quick blogsec, I will take it up an anthropological alley, though.
Anthropology has long been fascinated with things ethnic and national. Ethnology and ethnography are often used interchangeably with anthropology. (In France, Sweden, Russia and other Slavic countries, ethnology/ethnologie/etnologia are words for sociocultural anthropology. “Anthropology” is more about physical and evolutionary anthropology there.) Among anthropologists ethnicity is seen in two ways: as a contextual construction and as a primordial unity. Constructivists presently vastly outnumber priomordialists.
Constructivists say: Ethnic groups, nations and the phenomenon of ethnicity have so far escaped a logical definition. Anthropologists know that ethnic groups exists, but they cannot put their finger on the objective properties that distinguish an ethnic group from a manufacturing guild, a religious sect, or a biological species. A common language, a geographical territory, shared sentiments, a common history, a distinctive culture, a myth of common origin, all seem to work in some cases but not in others. What seems to be constant is “ethnic consciousness” or an “ethnic identity.”
But then, priomordialists retort, how can we distinguish statements “I am American” from “I am a geek” or “I am Darth Vader”? The same problem of definition recurs. Or, alternatively, how can we understand ethnic violence, which oftentimes takes cosmic proportions, if the only solid fact is subjectiive perception?
Now, America is often used by constructivists as an example of a nation that lacks one of the constituents of a convincing logical definition, namely a myth of common origin. Indeed, America is a country of immigrants, and even American Indians were co-opted into this “nation” as “citizens” in 1924. But Ashley’s article raises a question whether America is a nation at all, or is it, more properly speaking, a brand among nations. Adam Morgan says about brands that they are “something that is created, rather than naturally occurring” (Eating the Big Fish, 1999, 27), but so does Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities) about nations: they are “imagined communities.” Marketing theory can enrich theories of ethnicity through its awareness of the fact that brands are co-created by producers and consumers. Neither constructivists nor primordialists have realized that an ethnic group has its own producers and consumers (or interconnected and ethnicity-specific social roles), rather than stems from the imagination of a unitary but whimsical subject endowed with an ethnic identity or from a stable arrangement of language, culture and geography.
No surprise that democratic nations do not fight with each other (see Democratic peace theory), for they are not nations, they are brands and brands do not wage wars, they compete. But when a brand faces a nation or an ethnic group (sometimes called “a non-democratic state,” such as Hussein’s Iraq), it wakes up, resorts to violence and becomes a nation again. In the course of this metamorphosis, it may lose a bunch of loyal customers. But who cares.
Ethnicity is a matter of definition. True. But ethnicity can be is a matter of substitution, too. An order of objects interferes with an order of people, and vice versa. Ernest Gellner’s late and poorly-known article (“From kinship to ethnicity,” in Constructions Identitaires, Quebec, 1989) on ethnicity as a modern version of primitive or premodern kinship continues to fascinate me as it contains an uncanny and unfinished insight.
That’s why I talk about kinsumption.