Introduction: Encountering culture in people, language and media

part 4 of 4
site map
previous page
next page

    1.4 Encountering culture in media

    "To read between the lines... "
    - Henry James, American author (1843–1916).

    By "media," I mean any form of public communication, such as newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, Internet
    materials, movies, books, magazines, and the like, and any genre contained therein, such as drama, news, advertisements,
    and so on. Media in this sense is technically "mass media," "mass communications," or "popular media," but for our purposes,
    I will call music and art work, popular or not, media. Furthermore, media is technically the plural form of medium, but is
    commonly used as a mass noun.

    Media is a substance connecting two parties, a conduit through which messages flow. Media entails the sender of a message,
    the receiver of the message, and the message itself. Therefore, questions to consider when analyzing media are: Who is
    speaking to whom? What cultural, social and historical background knowledge do the sender and receiver assume? What
    form does the message take? The answers to these questions are necessary to understand the intended meaning of the

    1.4.1. Who is speaking to whom, and what are they saying?

    To illustrate, let's examine the messages printed on a piece of litter I found in a park in Kaohsiung, Taiwan -- a McDonald's
    restaurant bag:

    On the left we read, "life is a balancing act... i'm lovin' it". On the right, "active play, part of every day... i'm lovin' it". Notice there are
    no capital letters used. Note also the large quotation marks. In both scenes, the words, "i'm lovin' it" are apparently translated
    into several languages.

    Who is speaking to whom? McDonald's is a world-wide restaurant chain, a fast food giant, and in that sense, they are speaking
    to the world as their bags are litter on every continent. But McDonald's has engaged advertising specialists to speak to
    customers, and especially its American customers, from whom most sales are derived. McDonald's has an almost universal
    clientele, but the bulk of their business goes to families with children. Given these facts, we have a clue to what motivates the
    statements made and graphics used.

    McDonald's advertising specialists are master communicators. They have crafted statements that are heavy with connotations
    presented in a seemingly carefree, unaffected way. In short, the statements they are making are: 1) McDonald's is a casual,
    informal, convenient place -- just right for parents with children, 2) McDonald's suits you as an active, unique individual, 3)
    McDonald's is global and "multicultural," and 4) McDonald's food is compatible with a healthy lifestyle.

    1) McDonald's is a casual, informal, convenient place
    You don't need to dress up to go to McDonald's; note the casual dress of the people in the graphics. The text in the advertising
    shows informality with its carefree disregard for capitalization and apostrophe (') in place of "g" in "lovin'." Casual, informal
    American speech is marked by dropping the final "g" in "-ing" words. As we'll see later in this book, droppin' the "g" has other
    connotations as well. The disregard for writing conventions is also an appeal to a youthful audience, as it echoes Internet chat
    and cell phone text message style.

    2) McDonald's suits you as an active, unique individual
    The huge quotation marks emphasize the point that the people in the pictures are expressing their individual opinions and
    personal philosophies. It is clear that the individuals are making their own choices, choosing their own activities (the quotes
    make it appear that it is not the McDonald's corporation making these statements). And McDonald's offers many good food

    "Balancing act" originally denoted a circus high-wire performance, but the expression has become idiomatic to describe a busy
    life in which one keeps many activities balanced (as when "multitasking," to use another current term). The woman in the
    picture is philosophizing about "life" while doing some kind of balancing exercise, which adds another layer of meaning to the
    expression. The other personal philosophy quotation is more straightforward: Be active every day.

    3) McDonald's is global and "multicultural"
    The many languages depicted indicate McDonalds' "connection" with the world, which is to say, McDonald's is embraced and
    enjoyed by all walks of life, even though it is a suburban, white American invention. The ethnicity of the people depicted also
    reflects this sentiment. Having personally seen hundreds of these McDonald's bags, I notice that non-whites are depicted at
    least as much as whites. The people in our example are presumably Asian-American and African-American, judging by their
    clothes, activities and language. The message: American minorities love McDonald's.

    4) McDonald's food is compatible with a healthy lifestyle
    According to the advertising, not only is McDonald's convenient, just right for the active person and enjoyed by people all over
    the world, it can also be part of a healthy diet. On this last point, many would disagree. One very visible McDonald's critic in
    recent years is Morgan Spurlock. In his documentary film, "Super Size Me," Spurlock eats only McDonald's food, three times a
    day for one month, and supposedly suffers serious health consequences. While the film is an exaggeration of the case (what
    normal person would go to such an extreme?), the accusation is made: McDonald's food can make people fat.

    Obesity has reached near-epidemic proportions in the US, and some attribute this to America's love affair with fast food, TV
    watching, and over-convenienced sedentary habits. Therefore, McDonald's, answering its critics, has launched an aggressive
    advertising campaign to associate itself with exercise and an active lifestyle. Thus we see active people in the pictures quoting
    their healthy, active philosophies.

    1.4.2. Cultural, social and historic background: Why do they say it this way?

    One way to discover the background knowledge assumed by senders and receivers of messages is to consider the
    statements in negative, to look for what they don't say. Quite often, senders formulate messages presupposing what receivers
    already think, in a kind of "pre-emptive strike." These presuppositions are windows to the cultural context in which the media
    originates. Following are negative versions of the statements discussed above.

    1) A visit to McDonald's does not require washing up or changing clothes.
    No matter how ubiquitous fast food has become in American culture, no matter how casual Americans appear to be, there
    remains the American notion that going to a restaurant means making a public (in contrast to private) appearance, and as such
    requires "making yourself presentable." This self-consciousness in American culture has roots in a competitive class-
    consciousness. A person's social group is marked by clothes, cars, and accoutrements of all kinds. The convenience and
    informality of fast food has been a much-advertised selling point -- speaking to America's traditional notion of making public
    appearances -- since the early days of McDonald's.

    2) McDonald's is not only for dull, lazy people addicted to convenience.
    As suggested by the "Super Size Me" film, currents of controversy over McDonald's have increased in recent years. The
    restaurant's gigantic success clearly indicates its popularity, but this does not mean everyone in America loves McDonald's.
    The 2001 book (and 2006 movie), "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" is essentially an anti-fast food
    manifesto. That this book and movie enjoy a large audience indicates that fast food critics are growing in number, or at least
    are becoming more vocal. In any case, as a college-educated American associating with others in my social class, I can
    assure you the mere mention of McDonald's draws conflicted responses. The general attitude here is: McDonald's is
    unhealthy, too homogenized (appealing only to the naïve, lower-class "masses") and too big (a monstrous corporation
    exploiting people and resources around the world). This is an ideological viewpoint, and is probably not the majority opinion.

    Against this background, the people in our advertising sample are depicted as sentient individuals making their own choices.
    They choose McDonald's; they are not unthinking zombies programmed by many years of McDonald's advertising propaganda
    and free toys.

    3) McDonald's is not an exploitative, westernizing intruder around the world.
    The above-mentioned critics are often also critical of so-called globalization, which they define as an unchecked global spread
    of capitalism and western-style democracy that threatens traditional native ways of life. McDonald's depiction of people of
    diverse ethnicities and languages is the corporation's answer to the charge that it spreads its unhealthy, homogenized western
    lifestyle all over the globe. Indeed, dozens of languages proclaim unanimously, "i'm lovin' it."

    Moreover, McDonald's is following the American trend to make a self-conscious effort to emphasize "equal representation" of
    "minority groups." According to the US Census Bureau (2004), United States population estimates break down by "race" in
    approximately the following proportions:
    White (including Hispanic origin)        81%
    Black                                                         13%
    American Indian/Alaskan Native         1.5%
    Asian                                                        4.5%
    Pacific Islander                      (less than 1%)
    (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates Program)
    Judging merely by physical features, we can quickly identify at least three "types" of people: whites, blacks and Asians
    (Hispanics are included in the census without reference to physical characteristics). If McDonald's intended to represent the
    actual population of the United States in its American advertisements, we would expect to see roughly 81 white, 13 black and
    six Asiatic types in 100 depictions. But my personal count of 100 depictions shows 46 Asians, 35 blacks and 19 whites. These
    proportions roughly approximate the world distribution of race.

    4) McDonald's does not make you fat.
    The strongest negative in public opinion that McDonald's advertising specialists face is: Fast food is notoriously fattening.
    Therefore, the overriding message expressed in our samples is: You can eat McDonald's food as long as you get plenty of
    exercise. McDonald's in recent years has made great efforts to appear as a champion of active living and healthy eating. As of
    2004, "supersized" French fry and drink portions have been phased out. Salads, yogurt and fruit and vegetable options have
    been added to McDonald's menu. The most recent slogan I have seen, printed on French fry cartons, sums up: "it's what i eat
    and what i do" (notice again the lack of capitalization).

    As a foreigner encountering this McDonald's advertising, how would you know all of this background? As stated previously, if
    you were immersed long enough in American culture, eventually you would begin to see consistent patterns emerge, you
    would see particular values, attitudes and beliefs referenced over and over again. And having this experience, the presupposed
    information would be clear. Short of such an immersion, we can draw upon the experience of others who have analyzed
    American culture from an outside point of view. Anthropologist Francis L.K. Hsu (1909-1999) is one such person.

    Professor Hsu was one of very few Chinese anthropologists in the golden age of the field (1920's - 1950's), when scientific
    methods of describing and comparing cultures were in first bloom. While most anthropologists were studying exotic non-
    western cultures from a western point of view, Hsu studied American culture from a Chinese point of view, and produced
    perhaps the best-known and most authoritative work on Chinese/American cultural comparison. In this work, Dr. Hsu distills
    American values, attitudes and beliefs, which may be summarized as follows (items not presented in order of relative
    - Concern first for the individual; group concerns are secondary
    - All human beings are equal; men and women are equal
    - Privacy is every individual's right; intrusion is permitted only by invitation
    - Progress is good; change is inevitable; institutions should modernize
    - America is the highest symbol of progress; being American is being progressive
    - Patriotism is good; governments exist for people, and not vice-versa; authorities are suspect
    - Success in life depends on acceptance among one's peers
    - Religion is good; an individual should believe in God

    Notice the similarities between the values on Hsu's list and the themes expressed in our McDonald's text -- especially
    individuality and equality. I daresay you will find issues relating to individuality and equality underlying most American media.
    We will have a detailed discussion of cultural values later in this book.

    1.4.5. Language and communication: The form of the message

    McDonald's advertisers are well aware that the personal pronoun I should be capitalized, and they know that dropping a "g" has
    certain connotations. The text is not merely intended to look cute, but to clearly communicate informality, individuality and
    youthfulness to the intended audience, as already noted. Thus, even the mechanics of the text -- capitalization and punctuation
    -- have a communicative function. To change the form would be to change the message. Moreover, why is the present
    continuous tense used in "i'm lovin' it"? Why not simply say, "I love it"? Perhaps the continuous tense sounds more active, as if
    to say, "I am loving it right now." The grammatical form of the message makes loving McDonald's an immediate and continual

    Native speakers express themselves by carefully manipulating myriad meaningful features of their language. Difficulties in
    translation occur because certain features in one language may take very different forms, or may not even exist, in another
    language. How would you, as a native speaker of Chinese, translate "i'm lovin' it," trying to express the meanings I have
    suggested above? Chinese doesn't use letters or inflection, so the information expressed by non-capitalization, contraction,
    apostrophe and verb tense must be handled in a different way in Chinese -- or perhaps just ignored. Hence we have the
    expression, "lost in translation."

    In summary, media messages are only properly understood in the context of the culture of the people sending and receiving
    them. The process of media is like a conversation taking place between native speakers: The speakers assume, but don't
    necessarily mention, a whole constellation of background information. It is this background, the cultural context of American
    English, that we will discover in this book.
Please offer your comments, critiques, and suggestions.
Your name and e-mail address are optional.