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Postcolonialism and other cultural theories focus on demystifying the ways in which Euro-centric representational frames may be imperialistic (see Said on Conrad). One such Euro-centric construction involves the depiction of native peoples as signifiers of primitivism. These constructions continue to be played out in popular media, e.g., the Indiana Jones stories are replete with this imagery.

This Merrill Lynch commercial uses fourth world peoples as a signifier for development opportunities, as untapped markets waiting for investment capital.

Merrill Lynch04-99 Merrill Lynch04-99

At the edge of the 'jungle' stand a group of semi-naked primitives, spears in hand, posed as warriors/hunters, confirming longstanding anthropology stereotypes of indigenous peoples as savages/innocents. These signifiers are arranged so that these members of an Amazon tribe exude 'majestic primitivism.' The camera pans across their indigenous faces and bodies to the title frame, "Opening Eyes." Whose eyes are being opened remains to be seen -- those of Western investors or those of indigenous peoples?

A series of speakers introduce Merrill Lynch's philosophy of development. Each speaker is identified by position and country.

White male, administration -- France: "And the
thing I love most is opening people's eyes to new ideas."

Black male, client -- United States: "We've got to stay up to speed and cutting edge on what might be happening and taking place in these emerging countries."

White female, treasurer -- United States: "Investing in an emerging market brings capital and resources to that market."

White male, research -- Latin America: "It's exciting to watch the transformation of the region and realize that we've been a part of it and we've made a difference."

Merrill Lynch04-99 Merrill Lynch04-99

As if from a scene from the movie Fitzcarraldo, the first male dressed in suit and tie, travels on a boat up a South American river, surveying and inspecting the region. On the river a native spears a fish; two natives run along the river's shore. As the commercial unfolds, the scenes shift from primitivism to scenes of economic development as crates are unloaded from a freighter, an urban center in the distance. The boat docks and our contemporary Fitzcarraldo waves to two workers sitting on the back of a truck. In the final shot, sitting in an upper class restaurant the last speaker praises Merrill Lynch for transforming the region. The ad ends with the tagline "The difference is Merrill Lynch" imprinted over a global schematic.

Merrill Lynch04-99
Merrill Lynch04-99

As we might expect, having read the theories, Merrill Lynch turns the underside of the Enlightenment narrative, colonialism, into a legitimation discourse -- civilize the unenlightened natives, spur development and make a profit. In spite of this, this ad does little to conceal the dominant/subservient relationship, but promotes it as mutually beneficial. These new missionaries of development have a specific vision of social transformation in which the primitive is transformed into the grateful wage worker. The natives have no voice. Economic power and the right to speak are tied together. The native is acted upon and transformed just like the jungle. "Opening eyes" leaves no doubt who has knowledge and power. The commercial does not open the eyes of the native; it ideologically closes our eyes. It absents the barrio, the cheap labor, the loans and interest payments, the loss of indigenous cultures, the displacement of indigenous peoples, the destruction of nature, and the profit flowing back to Merrill Lynch as the region becomes economically dependent.


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey