The Power of Pop Culture

NEW YORK — It’s a love-hate thing.<br><br>People of the world have a complex, conflicted view of America’s pop culture, from fashion and music to TV and movies. More people profess to enjoy it than don’t, even as many of them...

Mass market brands like Gap play a powerful part in shaping America’s image around the world.

Mass market brands like Gap play a powerful part in shaping America’s image around the world.

WWD Staff

NEW YORK — It’s a love-hate thing.

This story first appeared in the February 5, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

People of the world have a complex, conflicted view of America’s pop culture, from fashion and music to TV and movies. More people profess to enjoy it than don’t, even as many of them protest that it’s proliferating at the expense of their indigenous culture.

In the scheme of things, though, the world holds America’s pop culture in higher regard than most of its products — including fashion, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The only products respected globally are in technology and science, the Pew project found. The project, concluded in November, is based on comprehensive research that was obtained between July and October 2002, comprising interviews with 38,263 people in 44 countries.

Some of the results were given late last month during a luncheon conversation about America’s global image, sponsored by The Week magazine. Addressing the subject in front of a crowd dotted by creative types and socialites were designer Diane Von Furstenberg, Barneys creative director Simon Doonan, British p.r. Matthew Freud and author-journalist Harold Evans, who served as moderator.

In an exclusive interview with the panelists before the event, the Belgian-born Von Furstenberg, who arrived in the U.S. at age 22, posited: “That may be because the brand is perceived as farther out of reach,” then added that there are still at least two widely attainable American icons available worldwide: Coca-Cola and jeans. And Doonan chimed in that despite its apparent popularity, the country’s pop culture “creates a sense of envy, among the have-nots.”

Curiously, though, there is limited evidence to support the widely held view that poverty fuels discontent with the U.S. In fact, the Pew Study found there is only a clear correlation between low income, and a sense of deprivation and anti-American feelings in roughly one-in-three countries surveyed. The correlation is strongest in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Yet in Africa, Latin America and Asia, where poverty is widespread, the relationship between deprivation and anti-American sentiment is apparent in some countries, but not others. Paradoxically, in South America, it is most evident in the countries with the continent’s largest economies: Brazil and Argentina.

Doonan, who, like Von Furstenberg, arrived in the U.S. in his late 20s (via the U.K.), rejected the idea that America and its pop culture are truly arrogant. “The U.S. brand is optimistic, childlike,” Doonan asserted. “Americans are fundamentally empathetic and generous,” he maintained. “A lot of the shame you see now about being American, reflects a misplaced sense we must have done something wrong. It’s like a woman who’s raped and then blames herself, because she was wearing a short skirt.”

Probably due to its broader availability, the lower one goes down the food chain, said p.r. mogul Freud, the more impact pop culture packs in forming America’s image. “If Gap gets it wrong, it creates an impression the U.S. has gotten it wrong,” Freud stated. “Gap and McDonald’s are much more indicative of America’s image than any of the high-end brands.”

For proof of the powerful role America’s brands play in coloring the country’s image worldwide, one needs to look no further than to the protests that have raged, in recent years, over sweatshop sourcing by megabrands like Levi’s, Nike, Gap and Wal-Mart’s Kathie Lee apparel.

With U.S. pop culture so youth-driven, it’s not surprising its acceptance abroad was found by the Pew project to be “dramatically higher” among young adults and youths than their elders. In China, for example, where 36 percent of the inhabitants proclaim a distaste for U.S. entertainment, American music has become “very popular” among young people. And it’s caught on despite efforts by China’s government to promote the country’s own artists rather than Western performers, according to the Pew project.

More broadly, people in Western Europe and Canada have a strongly favorable view of U.S. pop culture. Even in France, where the government has tried to curb consumption of American culture, two-thirds of the citizens say they like it. It’s also well received in much of Latin America, Asia and Africa, although there are a handful of countries where sizable minorities take a negative view, such as China, Indonesia, South Korea, Kenya, Tanzania and, particularly, India. In India, where Bombay’s flourishing Bollywood aims to rival Hollywood, there was strong distaste registered for U.S. entertainment: Only 24 percent of its citizens said they like it.

Most extreme in its dislike of America’s pop culture is Pakistan, where eight in 10 citizens hold a negative view. Other nations where a substantial slice cited a distaste were concentrated in, but not limited to, the Middle East and Asia.

Oddly, while the global view of America’s pop culture, science and technology is, in large measure, positive, numerous people around the world told Pew they object to the wide diffusion of American ideas and customs — even those who are attracted to such aspects of U.S. society as democracy and a free-market economy. While majorities in 35 of 42 countries asked voiced a “somewhat favorable” view of America and its people, negative opinions of the U.S., including its ideas, customs and image, have risen in most nations where trend benchmarks were available.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the increasing tensions between the U.S., Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing controversy over Israel and Palestine, the region expressing the most discontent with an America’s cultural presence was the Middle East, where people in six nations polled registered an average disapproval rating of 75 percent.

Notably, people in every European country surveyed, except Bulgaria, said they’re resentful of America’s “cultural intrusion” into their country. Among that group, the British were the best disposed toward it, but even half of Great Britain saw it as a bad thing. The strongest opposition in Europe came from France, where 71 percent objected to the spread of American “ideas and culture” — their longstanding penchant for Jerry Lewis, Mickey Mouse, and the Big Mac notwithstanding.

“We’re good at branding the U.S. inside the U.S., but not worldwide,” Doonan offered, adding, without irony, that America ought to take a page from the Barneys bankruptcy book of the Nineties. “We got on with it and got out of it. We knew who we were. You don’t build a sense of identity by looking over your shoulder.”