I recently moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, and will be publishing occasional pieces here on Bolivian politics as well as my personal adventures. Here's a piece on corporate images and power in Bolivia. You can check it out with accompanying photos here.
Bolivians like Coca-Cola®. Love Coca-Cola. Feel more strongly about Coca-Cola than I thought possible. And the Coca-Cola Corporation loves them in return. Coca-Cola awnings hang above each of the dozen tiendas that sell cigarettes and empanadas to my neighbors; around the corner, the local restaurant is outfitted with a fleet of their bright red chairs. Every cooler - every. single. cooler. - proudly bears that ever-fresh C-symbol.
Coke is not the only global brand flashing its goods around town. My host brothers wear Hollister® t-shirts to the university and Abercrombie® polos to the discotechs. They smoke Camel® cigarettes in both and would wear Nike® accessories in either. My host parents, unlike their sons, prefer to save money for family items - their sons' computers (Dell®), a microwave (LG®), and most rare in Bolivia, a small washer/dryer unit they bought a few years ago.
I've read my share of articles on globalization and corporate power, both in praise and in critique, and I am all too accustomed to the role of advertising and brand-power in social life. Yet I was genuinely shocked by the sheer penetration of international corporations in to the daily lives of Bolivians and the speed with which patterns of American consumerism are being replicated here. Perhaps that was naïve; corporations like Coke and Dell have every reason to encourage the kinds of purchasing habits that so mark the American economy.
And, indeed, they are quite encouraging. Coke's slogan here is "Toma Lo Bueno." Drink the good stuff. A different translation might read: "Drink the first-class stuff." Or, perhaps, "Drink the first-world stuff." Clothing-line advertisements feature skinny blond American women, who -- if rare in the US -- are completely absent in the population here. The modern supermarkets springing up around the city feature the kinds of family-life advertisement lines one would expect from the 1950's. While the products differ, they're all selling the same thing: A First World Feel.
The power of corporate brands is augmented by the broader influence of American culture as disseminated through television, movies and music. The cliché of the popular Latin American soap opera holds true, but far more popular are FX, TNT and USA. Street stands sell black-market American DVDs for just over a dollar a piece, from badly bootlegged copies of 2012 to The Godfather trilogy. Meanwhile, the Black Eyed Peas are the most popular band in the country. Through these cultural transmissions, an image of the Good American Life has taken hold, evolving as our own society evolves.
I am in no position to pass judgment on the utility for Bolivians of the American lifestyle model. But I can see that Bolivians are moving towards that model as quickly as their resources will allow, propelling economic growth but also creating a culture of image-driven consumption and weakening nascent Bolivian industries in the process.
The popularity of American fashion, as noted, is a good example; American brands have taken deep root here and dominate the youth clothing market. The importation of these brands, meanwhile, has devastated the internal Bolivian textile market. But it's not just young people who are affected by globalization's images. My family spends each Saturday washing their clothing by hand in large outdoor sinks. It turns out that their washer they purchased can't actually hook up to the pipes in the house - and is therefore never used. Meanwhile, a fellow ex-pat's family has a brand-new microwave. They open it twice a day - after lunch, when they store leftovers in it, and right before dinner, when they take the leftovers out and reheat them on the stove. They are decorative appliances. As young Bolivians purchase American name-brand consumer goods to project a certain image, so to do families invest in the images of suburban convenience as seen in those supermarkets and TNT sit-coms.
Again, this is not so different than in America, where lifestyle images drive credit-based consumption and brand obsessions. What is different is that the profits are returning to the United States and other foreign nations, leaving Bolivia no opportunity to develop its own production infrastructure. Furthermore, American corporations are using the power of American culture to boost their profits, exploiting a resource they had no part in creating. Bolivians are and should be free to make their own decisions over spending and consumptions. But if we find American relationships to commodities to be problematic - for cultural, moral, or environmental reasons - the vast spread of our habits should be a source of significant concern.