Brands go on world tour

Liz Farrelly thought to escape the consumerism of Christmas by disappearing to the developing world, but she discovered that multinational brands are everywhere

I missed Christmas. Missed it last year too. My aversion to commercial exploitation makes me take a holiday, somewhere very hot. This year I travelled the length of Central America from Belize to Panama, and although I definitely wasn’t thinking about work, I couldn’t help wondering, in awe, at the power of the logo.

“Plastered” was the only way to describe it. We may complain about the homogenisation of the High Street with its proliferation of injection-moulded facias, but that is child’s play in comparison to the saturation level of coverage across what is still a developing part of the world.

A battle is being fought for hearts and minds. Where you can’t buy pure water you can choose between Coke and Pepsi. Where shops stock only the most basic foodstuffs such as rice, beans and cornflour, under a lone star of Texaco you’ll find a petrol station, the exact replica of one on the M6, packed with Cadbury’s and Pot Noodles. And in the middle of a Guatemalan cactus desert the rugged face of Marlboro man reminds you where real cowboys come from.

For graphic design trainspotters it’s heaven. Not only are logos and ads naively reinterpreted and hand-painted, but they pop up in the most incongruous locations. In Central America every available surface is press-ganged into the service of promotion. Signs nailed to palm trees or painted on roadside boulders aim to distract the motorist. Buses and trucks are moving billboards. Counter tops, tables and chairs, roofs, walls and entire buildings carry the regalia of leading brands. Men, women and children wear promotional T-shirts and baseball caps. I even saw a self-inflicted tattoo of the Nike tick complete with the “Just do it” epitaph.

But unlike the massive variety of products which are pushed at us in the West, the range of covetable luxuries is restricted, and therefore the message is intensified. There’s no question about it. You’ve got to drink Coke, drive a Toyota pick-up and wear Nikes. In a remote Mayan Indian village in southern Belize, which was without running water, TV or paved roads, a 12-year-old boy gleefully pointed to a (fake) logo on a pair of socks and said, “Oh, Nikes. They’re so cool. I’m going to have a pair”. That’s powerful… and he also wanted an Apple Mac.

OK, why shouldn’t he get what he wants? Well, for a start, what’s available in the shops and markets falls way short of expectations, with more low-quality fakery on sale than the real McCoy. And walking into a “legitimate stockist” was like stepping on to the set of Back to the Future. Central America is where outmoded consumer durables go to die, or feed a willing new market. Appliances which don’t conform to upgraded safety standards in the West – including refrigerators with dangerous locking door mechanisms – are either shipped south or the machine tools and parts are sold to local agents for assembly far from the jurisdiction of consumer protection agencies.

Manufacturers who should know better seem to be taking a leaf from the marketing manual written by tobacco companies. Sales and profits may be down in the West, but it’s boom time in the developing world. Billboards of gorgeous blondes imply that fags are positively life-enhancing, and low prices ensure that even the humblest members of society can share in the dream. The few TV ads I saw shared one formula – images of attractive, wealthy, ecstatically happy individuals selling anything from pensions to toilet paper. In comparison, Western advertising looks like hyper-refined propaganda.

Witnessing the power of multinational corporations to create artificial needs and indoctrinate aspirations in a part of the world which is in real need is a sobering experience. But on a purely selfish level, it made me realise that even though we consider ourselves to be worldly-wise, we’re far from immune. It may have seemed strange to me that a 12-year-old Mayan Indian is obsessed with trainers, but is that any more weird than a 30-something journalist’s own label habit?

On a journey of more than 2000 kilometres, I came across only one substance resistant to foreign competition and bullshit advertising. Beer. Every country in Central America proudly boasts at least two home-grown varieties which enjoy nationwide loyalty. A useful lesson in use- value versus artificial stimulation, learnt from one of life’s little necessities?

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