Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Portraits of third world poor

Bringing a smile to Africans is the subject of a one-minute Crest commercial. Crest takes this time to stress the importance of educating the poor in developing nations about the importance of dental hygiene. This ad, shot in Zimbabwe, aims to offer testimony to how well this humanitarian strategy is working. Rotting teeth have long been an easily identifiable signifier of poverty, and while a big bright smile might not erase poverty, it does seem to erase one of poverty's most painful and ugly markers.

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Inhabitants of the third and fourth worlds -- those places on the planet that have been systematically underdeveloped, thanks to the legacy of colonialism, capitalist imperialism, and now globalization -- do occasionally make an appearance in corporate ads. Their images rarely appear as the pivot of attention, as the subject of the advertising narrative. When they do occupy the center of attention, it is not only surprising, but perhaps instructive. We have already analyzed one commercial that focuses attention on rural poverty in the periphery of the Peruvian Andes by shooting the ad in the codes of video realism.

While narrative focus on poverty is rare, the inclusion of fleeting images of third world youth has become more common -- e.g., in ads for Cisco, SAP, GE, IBM. Most of these images suggest a hopefulness for their future. Though the poverty of these children may be alluded to in muted form in some of the signifiers, these are signifiers that are included to portend future remedies of education, training and western medicines.

The majority of images of third world people in television ads are children. This fits nicely with the allusions to future transcendence. But the imagery differs from the gaunt representations that one sees in ads for charities to stave off death and malnutrition among starving children. Whereas portraits of new global elites include children as subjects who motivate the new elite, portraits of the poor actually focus on the children and visually (as well as narratively) marginalize adults to support functions as teachers or nurses.

It is surprising how many realist portraits of children's faces are included in montage ads -- though they are of fleeting duration, more often than not, less than one second on screen, they are there. Children's faces -- or rather, pictures of children's faces -- command a special place in advertising's hierarchies of significance. Especially in that category of ads we have dubbed legitimation advertising, children's portraiture taps into the value systems of 'family.' Children here represent a nostalgia for a future that will be like an imagined past.

An ad for the Biotechnology industry aired in the Spring of 2001, sponsored by the Council for Biotechnology Information. Like most other ads of this genre, this piece sutures together a smooth montage of images of people around the world set against a soundtrack of serene, airy, optimistic music. These scenes alternate the poor with the affluent, westerners with non-westerners. Speaking in behalf of the world poor, a biotechnology researcher paints a sunnier future because "golden rice" containing beta-carotene "could prevent blindness in millions of the world's children." Testifying in behalf of the first world, a mother's voice tells of the miracle of a child's cancer in remission. Even though a strong nod has been given to the importance of representing diversity, there are some striking differences in the way that the privileged are represented. The anglo-american child who has survived cancer has a name -- she is nominated on screen as Maria Brunn -- while the African boys who are being examined in a clinic are accorded no corresponding individual identities.

For the moment, we want to dwell on the concluding image of the montage -- a Vietnamese woman holding her child. She stands posed for the camera in a field -- behind her are other peasants/field workers. She steps forward, while behind her we can see none of the other faces hidden under the broad-brimmed hats they wear. They are all gently stooped over at their labor.

But this remains abstract labor -- it is the pose of labor rather than the labor itself. This depiction plays on our longstanding stereotypes of Asian peasants bent over in rice fields. Stoop labor meets glamour photography. Indeed, the photographic codes seem to cancel out connotations of either coerced labor or the grinding poverty associated with this kind of field labor.

This must be the new ideal-typical representation of third world peasantry since precisely the same imagery appears in a scene from Boeing's 2001 ad campaign. Why the nearly identical pictures (same advertising agency?) in the montages assembled in behalf of Boeing and the Biotech Council? Did multiple ad agencies grab the same photos from the Image Bank? Is this the poster-girl of the world poor and their future transcendence within a world of capitalist technologies? No matter the answer to how it happened, why do capitalist entities that have pinned their futures to the growth of 'high technology' choose this image of field laborers to depict their corporate presence in the world?

Council for Biotechnolgy Information02-01As pictured, the woman appears to possess a quiet dignity, and may even be seen as exuding a confidence that the future belongs to herself and her child. Her position in the montage follows immediately after scenes of the young girl (middle class white American) who has survived cancer and is once again happily excelling at softball. In fact there is no more poverty visible in the Asian agricultural fields than there is in the middle class suburb. And neither seems unhealthy. The female voiceover frames the meaning of the suburban scene as an illustration of how biotechnology research has produced discoveries "that are improving lives today." As the camera transitions to the frame of the Asian mother and daughter portrait, the voiceover continues "and could improve our world, tomorrow." One wonders however if that brighter tomorrow will be a function of changing conditions of labor, or if science alone can abolish the consequences of poverty - disease and malnourishment?


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey