America’s popularity potion

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Does the ideal of the American product truly exist, despite the floundering automobile industry, once the ubiquitous shining star of enterprising pioneers? It sure still does, albeit in a transmuted state.

Every time an adolescent kid in Mexico enjoys an indigenous rock band, its style and tempo have derived from its counterpart in the U.S.

When McDonald’s sets up operations in India, its offerings morph into items that suit the local palate.

Michael Jackson’s CDs have spawned inspired dance choreography responses from that behemoth Indian film industry called Bollywood.

The U.S. has unwittingly set the tone for a sort of corporate sponsorship of items that go abroad. It sends more than the Nike, Planet Hollywood, and Disney brands overseas. Its more enduring exports are the blueprints of its values of innovation, do-it-yourself ethics, hard work, and individualism. (1).

Still, the figures to show that the U.S. hasn’t made cheap consumer goods in thirty years exist. The Commerce Department puts the 2004 import bill for consumer goods–shoes, clothes, toys, TVs, cookware, camping gear etc. at $373.2 billion. The most “cheap consumer goods” are imported into the U.S. from Asia, which accounted for two-thirds of the U.S. manufacturing trade deficit in 2004. (2)

The most recent figures released by the government show that the U.S. trade deficit (more imports than exports) for December 2006 hit a record high $61.2 billion. The total U.S. trade deficit in goods now tops $800 billion, roughly 7 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The deficit with China rose to $230 billion, the largest in history between two nations. (3)

Nevertheless it’s more than physical “American made” products that grab and hold the attention of worldwide consumers. It’s the essence of America’s intangible “exports” that are grabbing the international stage.

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The Tectonic Shift

The ideologies of independence and individualism have shifted to countries such as India, where earlier, bowing to traditional and parental authority reigned supreme.

Young, twenty-something women employed at IT companies in Bangalore and Hyderabad now chum together and rent a flat, take in the glittering night life, shop for jeans costing several hundreds of rupees a pop. And there’s more. They choose their own mates, if they decide to marry at all. Parents, when questioned about this new trend, sigh and say resignedly, “Children are imitating Western lifestyles here nowadays. That’s their choice.”

Is this a good or bad thing? More importantly, should we categorize these shifts as neatly as all that? Can we?

The English language has the viral expandability of the fungus. The U.S. borrowed it from the British and has passed it on. The English spoken in Mumbai or Sidney, or London does not all sound alike. Indian English is the result of a commingling of British English and the indigenous version of the language, which, in its spoken form, sounds like dialect with a sing-song inflection at the end of sentences.

Why is American pop culture catching on like wildfire overseas? Every nation has grown richer over the past two decades. The umbrella of prosperity has brought with it leisure time and disposable income, which the entertainment boom is counting upon. Add to it the inroads that the English language has made in countries such as Vietnam and El Salvador through hip-hop songs, and the yearning for new American exports is even more pronounced. Youngsters all over the globe, embrace American phrases like “cool”, “wassup,” and “chill,” even if they have never set foot in the U.S. (4)

In his videos, India’s most popular rapper, Baba Sehgal, uses English interjections on occasion, “Yo, this is funky,” and mimics the gestures of his U.S. counterparts. But Sehgal insists that his music is solely an instrument of entertainment, and that it does not make a social statement. (5)

America’s biggest export is no longer its manufactured goods, but movies, TV programs, music, books and software. “The Young and the Restless,” and Baywatch” are the programs of choice in New Delhi and Bangalore, “The Simpsons” are on tap in Seoul, and Oprah holds viewers in thrall in Kuala Lumpur. (6)

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, new markets have opened for the U.S. and total exports of intellectual property have increased by 94%, and this does not include the billions of dollars lost each year to illegal copying. (7)

The Selling of Dreams

Why are American-made movies selling abroad in a big way? Observers say that beyond the glitz, gloss, sex and violence, the movies reflect many of the appealing themes and myths of the U.S.: individuality, wealth, progress, tolerance and optimism.

“Titanic’s” ideology of the relationship between the rich and the poor and how people react to disaster has universal appeal. Nike, Revlon and Calvin Klein all sell because they are well-conceived. America has a genius for branding, according to French novelist, Philippe Labro. (8)

If foreign marketers use U.S. processes, these are derived and evolved in keeping with their market needs. Hollywood’s blockbusters are not cloned but translated into creations indigenous to the mores of international markets. Bollywood, that prolific movie machine that churns out countless movies a year, is incorporating song and dance that could vie with any produced by the entertainment business in the U.S.

Growing up American Overseas

Growing up attracted to things American is hardly a recent phenomenon. Baby boomers grew up listening to the bubbly, heart throbbing songs of Elvis, Rick Nelson, Pat Boone, and the Drifters, and wove their dreams around them. Never mind that the scenarios were totally imagined. They now serve as fodder for happy memories revisited.

This writer’s memories of growing up as a teenager in Bangalore includes Baldwin Girls’ High School, an American institution, where visiting speakers from the U.S. introduced us to musicals and movies just released. Imagination did the rest. You knew exactly how high the corn in the cornfields of Kansas grew in August from Mitzi Gaynor’s charming song, “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from the movie, South Pacific. (9)

Truly Homegrown

In a seventh-floor warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, Dov Charney, a Canadian-born entrepreneur makes clothing, an activity that has long since shipped offshore to places known for sweatshops and low wages. Growing up, Charney found that there was “something” about American-made products. They were “rugged.” (10)

So Charney started producing casual clothing, that quickly developed a big following among the urban hip population, from T shirts and skirts, to bathing suits and underwear, all made not in some foreign sweatshop, but by workers in America. He is probably doing something right. In three years, American Apparel stores have opened in 11 countries, from LA to Tokyo, with revenues of some $300 million as of 2005. (11)

There is still the odd entrepreneur who elects to stay within these borders, and mines the principles utilized by Levi Strauss, J.C. Penney and other tough early pioneers of industry.

Exporting Institutions of Higher Learning

Decades ago, U.S. universities were the epitome of haloed institutions offering an MBA, the degree of choice for upwardly mobile, elite young hotshots. Now American universities are electing to go overseas with the same curricula and tough standards that make their degrees desirable.

Leaders of universities are setting up full-blown brick-and-mortar establishments with their own support staff and full degrees. Thus the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has established a campus in Singapore, and Texas A & M University has set up a campus in Qatar. (12)

The MBA has been popular among young seekers of post-graduate degrees after completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a related field in India. Universities such as the Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and the Indian Institute if Technology (IIT) in Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai have been turning out graduates the equivalent of those from, say, Northwestern and MIT. But these are the prerogative of those who are able to afford the cost of these degrees. With the current affluence these days, more of such universities exported from the U.S. will enable a greater latitude of choice, perhaps lessen the intense competition of getting into these colleges.

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Local Cultural Identity

According to Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, American movies and music have done very well in some countries like Sweden and less well in other s like India. An Indian Muslim might listen to religious Qawali music to set himself apart from local Hindus, or a native of Calcutta might favor songs from Bengal cinema. The Indian music market is 96 percent domestic in origin, in part because India is such a large and multifaceted society. (13)

Music and movies are deeply held sources of identity in countries such as India and China. Cultural expressions of this sort in these countries have extended over almost a century. However, these nations also have a sizable segment of Gen Y population. 54 percent of India’s population is under 24 years of age, and 42.4 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under 15 years of age. Standing at an exciting threshold, this segment is quicker to grab American pop culture exports as well as new technologies, rather than cruise on cultural paraphernalia produced at home, much to the chagrin of their parents, who were brought up on it. (14)

Retaining Popularity

For centuries, the label, “Made in America” stood for supremacy in everything. Now with globalization on the rise, American businesses have to deal with protests, boycotts, and increasing costs of tightened security. According to Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, an ad agency network, companies should position their brands as local, acquire new brand attributes such as cultural sensitivity and a willingness to listen to your customers. The good news is that “while overseas consumers are cooling toward American brands, there is still no hard evidence showing direct impact on bottom lines.” (15)

Observers and critics of American exports of pop culture note a backlash on the part of countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Malayasian radio stations are pledging to play more local music to help cut the cost of imported discs. A “Buy Thai” program is ongoing in Thailand. Mexico has outlawed the dubbing of American movies in Mexico. Why dub when the country produces its own films? (16)

In his article, “The Perils of (And for) and Imperial America,” Charles William Maynes asserts, “One wonders whether American officials would cling so ardently to their position regarding international free trade in cultural goods if it turned out the market forces were in fact overwhelming the U.S. with, say, the culture of the Middle East or Latin America.” (17)

Despite the analogy and comparison, the brand is still the selling point; one of the basic principles of marketing is to develop a good brand. Does a good brand sell itself? Some experts think so, others feel it’s advertising that sells those brands. The projected future will see a merging of products and brands because of globalization. Until then brand America continues to cause global enchantment and curiosity.

AUTHOR’S NOTES

(1.) Trueheart, Charles, “With Popularity Come Pitfalls” Washington Post Foreign Sevice, Tuesday, October 27, 1998, p. A 19

(2.) McLymont, Rosalind, “Made in America–State of U.S. manufactured exports not as bleak as it seems,” Shipping Digest (Feb. 6, 2006)p.NA Infotrac

(3.) Murray: On The ‘Fast Track’ Out? By: Joe Murray, The Bulletin 02/28/2007.

(4.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, “American Pop Penetrates Worldwide,” Washington Post, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(5.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(6.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(7.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(8.) 7. Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(9.) South Pacific, Studio: 20th Century Fox, DVD Release Date: November 7, 2006, Run Time: 151 minutes

(10.) “American Apparel: A Made-In-U.S.A. A Success, CBSNews.com, Feb. 4, 2006

(11.) “American Apparel: A Made-In-U.S.A. A Success, CBSNews.com, Feb. 4, 2006

(12.) McClure, Ann, “Made in America: IHEs Strive to ensure academic quality as they expand globally,” University Business, Oct. 2006: pp.50-55

(13.) Cowen, Tyler, “Some Countries Remain Resistant to American Cultural Exports, Economic Scene, NYTimes.com, Feb. 22, 2007

(14.) O’Guinn, Allen & Semenik, Advertising & Integrated Brand Promotion 4e, Thomsonlearning, p. 19

(15.) Delaney, Laurel, “American Outcast” Global Village, Entrepreneur, Feb. 2006 p. 81

(16.) Trueheart, Charles, “With Popularity Come Pitfalls” Washington Post Foreign Sevice, Tuesday, October 27, 1998, p. A 19

(17.) Maynes, Charles William, “The Perils of (And for) an Imperial America” Foreign Policy, No. 111 (Summer, 1998), pp.36-38 Infotrac

Rekha Ambardar has published over eighty genre and literary short stories and articles in print and electronic magazines, in addition to two novels. Rekha also teaches courses in marketing, international marketing, advertising, and business communication at Finlandia University in Upper Michigan.

Ambardar, Rekha

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