By students, for students.

Star in Stripes: The US may lead, but not dictate

In Finance, Management, Marketing on October 14, 2012 at 11:42 am

America might lead the Fortune 500, but there is a lot more to its dominance than cultural imperialism.

Today, individuals, corporations and nation-states are able to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.

Traditional globalisation theory argues that those companies capable of doing the same business or selling the same product worldwide will be rewarded by economies of scale. The logical end of this process would be homogenised global consumption. Market connections and advanced communication technologies are creating a single marketplace, but, in 2012, we are finding that the most successful multinationals are adapting their offer to local tastes.

The modern advance of globalisation occurred after WWII. American policymakers – Stimson, Patterson, McCloy and Howard C. Peterson – agreed with Forrestal that the long-term prosperity of the United States required open markets, unhindered access to raw materials and the rehabilitation of much – if not all – of Eurasia along liberal capitalist lines.

By guaranteeing a minimum standard of living through the Marshall Plan and European Payment Union, policy-makers created an environment characterised by stability in domestic prices and exchange rates, increasing trade and confidence in the future both sides of the Atlantic. Washington’s reaction to the divisions of the Cold War foreshadowed the integration of the late twentieth century.

America’s leadership in the integrated world market can be explained, in part, by understanding the American origin of many of the key institutions controlling the global economy today. For instance, the capital markets and multinational corporations which make up Friedman’s ‘Golden Straitjacket’ were forged in American and the United Kingdom. The world’s financial centres are led by Wall Street.

Moreover, the information revolution, also of American invention, has provided the tools of cultural transmission – satellite television and the internet – which can easily surpass national boundaries and form an arena in which cultures vie for attention.

Through its economic reach, the USA has come to exert a powerful cultural pull. Here, America held two major advantages. Firstly, the prevalence of English as the principle language for science, business and diplomacy and mass culture gave America a distinct advantage over Germany, France, Russia and Japan. Secondly, America has mastered modern media technology before other countries.

From the 1920s, American culture was disseminated through movies, modern music such as jazz and rock, publications such as newspapers, mass-circulation magazines and comic strips. The diverse domestic market serviced by Hollywood created a movie industry well-practised in producing films with messages, images, and story lines that had broad multicultural appeal. Americans’ huge appetite for the movies provided Hollywood with financial resources and production facilities unmatched the world over. Consequently, by 1951, 61% of the movies playing on any given day in Western Europe were American.

Coca Cola’s uptake the world over is an example of the enviable ability of American companies to excel in the globalised economy. By the mid-1990s, only 21 per cent of Coca Cola’s sales were made in the United States. The product, inseparable from its American origin, was overwhelmingly glugged overseas.

The impressive international sales since the late twentieth century drive fears of Americanisation today.  Ishal Ismail, owner of all Malaysian KFC outlets understands the appeal of American products:

Anything Western, especially American, people here love. They want to eat it and be it. I’ve got people in small [rural] towns around Malaysia queuing up for Kentucky Fried Chicken – they come from all over to get it. They want it to be associated with America. People here like anything that is modern. It makes them feel modern when they eat it. 

However, the success of global franchises is as much about new foodstuff, international sanitation standards, quality controls and affordable prices as cultural statements.

America is a powerful exporter of culture, but these fears tend to be exaggerated in two ways. Firstly, critics take American culture to be the antithesis to Europeanism and the enemy of the continent’s common cultural heritage. Secondly, theories of Americanisation oversimplify the process of cultural influence.

James Cantalupo, President of MacDonald’s International undermines the concept of Americanisation as a zero-sum game:

You don’t have two thousand stores in Japan by being seen as an American company. Look, McDonald’s serves meat, bread and potatoes. They eat meat, bread and potatoes in most areas of the world. It’s how you package it and the experience you offer that counts.

James Cantalupo’s appreciation of the give and take necessary to make an American product successful abroad makes a strong argument for viewing globalisation as consisting of the interaction of cultures over Americanisation. MTV is one of the definitive exports of American popular culture of the late twentieth century. Yet, press reports in early 1996 suggested that, in a number of diverse television markets around the world, MTV was losing ground to local imitators who adapt its formulas but use local language and locally popular performers.

Though the aspirations of poorer countries to emulate America’s modern standards stokes fears of cultural imperialism, for the most part American businesses thrive today because they offer products and experiences palatable the world over and carefully moderated to appeal to local markets. We are caught in an international interchange of cultures, creating hybrid forms, trends and a new idea of what it means to live beyond borders.

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