Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Cheese is Dead

By Edith McClintock

Satirical cartoon from 1885 about the
selling of American symbols.
Growing up I never considered myself particularly American. I’d spent my early years on a commune in Tennessee and then moved to Miami, a city where the majority of residents are born outside the country. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I moved abroad, that I realized I was undeniably, culturally American. But then most of my life story (utopia, immigration) had actually been very much on point for the cultural archetype of the American Dream.

But what does this mean for advertising and marketing you might ask?

The Dream is the subconscious “cultural code” for America, similar to Joseph Campbell’s idea of universal archetypes within the world’s myths. This is according to a book called the Culture Code by a French man, Clotaire Rapaille. Rapaille researches and uses the unconscious meanings we apply to certain words, our emotional connection to things, to relationships, and uses them to sell us products, experiences, and even people. The idea of the American Dream might seem obvious, but then so too does the connection between marketing and emotions. And yet it works, even when we know.

The culture we are raised in absolutely affects how we act and react to the world. But more important for the transnational corporations that sell the world, it matters in terms of what we buy, why we buy, and where we buy. Even how we vote. If we vote.

According to Rapaille, most of our unconscious emotional connections are formed by the age of seven, which means there are probably many common American cultural codes to which I can’t relate. Food is one. He tells the story of the difference between cheese in France and America. In the U.S. cheese is dead. In France it’s alive. As these are the culture codes for cheese, according to him anyway, it means Americans want their cheese pasteurized and wrapped and kept cold while the French want their cheese unpasteurized and kept in a protective container in the open air.

So what happens if you’re raised vegan, like me? Do I have no emotional connection to cheese? Am I immune to cheesy advertisements? Nope. Marketers are experts at selling their goods or services to cultures with no emotional connection to a product. They simply create one, sometimes over generations.

Nestlé might have paved the
instant coffee way, but
Starbucks Via is coming for them.
Rapaille gives the example of Nestlé instant coffee in Japan. The Japanese prefer tea and in the 1970s did not have a culture of drinking coffee, much less instant coffee. So Nestlé created a connection in the culture by starting with kids, selling them coffee flavored candy without caffeine in the hope they would grow into their instant coffee. And not just in Japan. Instant coffee is now ubiquitous throughout the world—last year when I was in Georgia, Nestlé commercials aired non-stop, nearly convincing me instant coffee doesn’t taste like plastic.

What he doesn’t mention is that in the 1970s Nestlé was also promoting the use of infant formula to mothers across the world, including in many of the poorest countries. In that too they were successful, even in convincing poverty-stricken mothers to defy logic and pay to buy formula rather than use their healthier, free breast milk.

My parents, in their youthful wisdom, didn’t allow me to watch commercials on television when I was young, and I still don’t when I have a choice. I flip the channel or turn off the sound when a commercial comes on, but more because they annoy me than any hope of escaping advertisements. Marketers have moved beyond mere commercials and billboards or radio ads to using product placement in movies, on sports teams or arenas, through viral videos, Pinterest, Facebook tagging or liking of products, and always chasing the cool, the community influencers.

My three-year-old nephew, who has never seen a traditional commercial in his life, is already inundated in marketing because he has seen Disney and Pixar movies, even Sesame Street. And these are as much commercials as anything else. He recently told me he wanted to see the boy we were reading about in a book “up on the TV”, that he wanted the car shown in the picture book. Unfortunately for him, it was a rare book with no additional commercial tie-ins.

The aim is always to make us buy more, but the most successful marketers do it in a way that we think it is our own idea. Our own real desire.

It doesn’t stop with buying things. Marketing is also used to influence the way we vote, although that too is connected to what we buy. As just one example, in 2010, General Electric (G.E.), the world’s third largest public company, a company that made $5 billion from U.S. operations selling movies and television shows and light bulbs, etc, paid $0 in taxes according to The New York Times. That doesn’t happen by accident. It comes from lobbying, supporting politicians, and getting them to pass beneficial tax laws.

Politicians too have much to sell, starting with themselves. This works for President Obama as his life story is the American Dream. Or so his books, titled Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream seem to claim. His campaign taglines are Hope (2008) and Forward (2012). He’s saying Americans are optimistic, always looking to the future. Simple. Obvious. Right? It’s what we already believe. I bought it. I’ll do it again, too.

Mitt Romney’s book—as it seems all presidential aspirants in the U.S. must now have one—is titled: No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. What Romney leaves out is his own life story. Not his business background, but his religion, his family’s history as founders of the Mormon Church. In my view, it wouldn’t hurt him to talk about his religion as Mormons are nothing if not quintessentially, born and bred, utopian American Dreamers—and unlike those hippies, they’re clean-cut and polite.

Better yet, according to Rapaille, Americans are looking for a Moses symbol in their President—a rebellious leader who will lead them out of trouble. Well, we all know Obama was Moses in 2004, but did you know Moses visited and blessed Joseph Smith and all Mormons as leaders of America in 1863? I'm paraphrasing slightly, but I think Smith had a strong grasp of this concept of codes and unconscious emotional connections.

Romney’s campaign tagline is: “We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in.” It’s a nice idea, but is it good marketing? It doesn’t seem to translate culturally in a place like Miami, which is flat and warm, yet the car of choice is a gigantic Cadillac Escalade that sells for over $63,000. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince Miamians they need to save energy, buy more efficient cars, walk to work, but to my everlasting regret it rarely works. (What does? Higher gas prices.)

The truth is most likely Romney’s campaign messaging is right on code. He’s simply selling to a segment of America with a very different cultural code than my own, a very different idea of what the American Dream means.

If you think you aren’t persuadable, that you know why you buy things, why you vote for one candidate over another, why you like a particular musician or book, watch these two Frontline specials on PBS: The Persuaders and the The Merchants of Cool. They’re available online. You might just change your mind. 

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. Thanks for the links to the Frontline specials. I'll check them out!

  2. What a finely crafted article. I spend so much time reading garbage blogs on the internet. This one is so well throught-through and written that it's amazing. Congratulations to the author.