Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home The african imaginary

A region of the world that is under represented in ads is Africa. While Pacific rim countries and 'Asia' in general are often presented as investment opportunities, the continent of Africa (the "country of Africa" according to George Bush) exists outside investment radar. No commercials prompt investment in Africa's growing economy. Ravaged by poverty and AIDS, Central African nations are perceived as lacking, at the present time, the infrastructure necessary to play any role in the global economy.

When Africa appears in these ads, it appears as National Geographic Africa -- exotic, tribal, and natural. Images of camels, the Bedouin, the desert, and the pyramids oversignify Northern Africa (See camels). Here the romantic exoticism of the nomad helps connote the pervasive reach of a corporation. If a corporation can touch even the lone Bedouin traversing the Sahara, then surely the rest of the globe has already been gathered up under its corporate umbrella. The dominant visual signifiers of Central and Southern Africa are the village, the native in traditional dress, the Kenyan runner, or the African savannah swarming with wildlife.


Abstraction and Deterritorialization
Cultural Geography
The Architecture of Capital
Crest01-98 over IBM04-97 Visa04-98 over Crest01-98 Visa04-98 over GE02-98 Nissan01-96 over Visa04-98
Proctor & Gamble's Crest brings better dental care to a village composed of women and children.
IBM uses a village scene to suggest that its software and technology can enhance local music.
Photographs of natives in traditional dress create a sense that history stands still in Africa. Shots such as these could easily be found in a tourist brochure. The Kenyan runner was used in a Visa ad to symbolically put down American Express. He tells the joke. "How do you keep a rhino from charging? Give him an American Express card." GE uses a Kenyan runner to showcase its MRI technology. Shot at dusk the African landscape of solitary trees is a common aesthetic signifier of an untouched continent. It is represented as pristine as the moment of creation

Signifiers of Africa are found less often in financial or technology commercials than in SUV commercials where the landscape of the African savannah offers a background for demonstrating the how the vehicles can traverse the most rugged and dangerous terrain. If they get you safely past the lions and elephants of the Serengeti, they certainly can handle Interstate 80. To make that point in the early nineties, Nissan created a successful campaign in which its PathFinder traveled from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro through the Amazon rainforests full flora and fauna and natives, but no roads. In its late nineties campaign Nissan takes us on safari in Africa. We learn that Nissan corners better than a rhino that chases it; has a sunroof, which lets us get a better look at giraffes; and serves as a playground for monkeys. The narrator of the introductory ad explains that:

Africa, the world's last remaining untamed paradise,
a continent that refuses to be overtaken by asphalt and mini malls,
a place where animals still run wild as nature always intended.
Join us as the new Nissan Pathfinder begins an incredible safari through Africa.
Hopefully without gettin our heads bitten off

Such myth-making - "the world's last untamed paradise." While the capitalist goal is to spread asphalt and minimalls everywhere, it is semiotically convenient that Africa remains undeveloped. Nissan's safari campaign is prototypical. This use of the safari further reinforces representational colonialism. Undeveloped Africa is the playground for peoples of European descent.

Lexus01-99 Lexus01-99 Lexus01-99 Lexus01-99
In this sepia-toned Lexus commercial the safari is given an aristocratic flavor. The rich discuss their adventure as they squeeze lemon into their tea and sip drinks under canopies. Suddenly an African shouts 'wild elephants' in his native language. The group who have the Lexus escape, while those who came in the less expensive SUV find themselves being chased by an elephant.

Perhaps the most familiar African signifier is a musical one. The rhythmic harmonies of African music not only provide a global feel to a commercial but also connote a socially shared, non-contractual community -- Gemeinschaft in every sense of Tonnies usage of this word. We have argued that capital in the form of contractual exchange is absented from the narratives of these commercials. The African musical background further disguises contracturalism. Its upbeat celebratory quality associates feelings of good will and harmony to the corporate brand. Here there is no sense of exchange only shared community.

These signifiers construct Africa as a continent that stands outside the socio-economic changes that have taken hold in the rest of the world. It is represented as the Nissan ad states, "the world's last remaining untamed paradise, a continent that refuses to be overtaken by asphalt and mini malls." In these representations we do not see cities nor the shantytowns surrounding them. There is no industry, no corporate towers, and no infrastructure. Representational Africa exists outside the movement of history. Pictorially, Central Africa remains a European colony, a place where the rich can have adventures and where tourists can photograph wild animals and tribal peoples.

Singing Japanese < Previous

Next > Cultural transvestism

© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey