Monday, August 24, 2009

represent "america" abroad

Via Lisa at Sociological Images, an ad for Miller beer that began running in Vietnam last week.

Note the lyrics: "It's American time, it's Miller time."

As I've noted before, Toni Morrison has summed up what's going on in terms of race here most succinctly: "American means white."

But then, these people aren't just white, are they?

Noting that "the whiteness of the ad is purposeful," Lisa continues, "Miller is selling a specific version of 'America' characterized by white people, urban life, sex-mixed socializing and, also, really bad music."

These are young, apparently professional, urbanized, heterosexual white people. Various other sorts of Americans are just as likely (and in some cases, even more likely?) to drink Miller beer, but they were excluded by this ad's makers from representing America to the Vietnamese.

Are you aware of other ad campaigns that sell something distinctly "American" in other countries? If so, do they also represent American-ness with exclusively white Americans?

Here's a link to a brief feature on the Miller ad at Adweek; it describes the ad, but fails to label the whiteness of these people, who instead get labeled "young urbanites."

Young urbanites . . . are young people of color who live in cities commonly described that way? Or is that term a sort of code or euphemism reserved for young white people who live and/or work in a city?

And finally, speaking of terminology, I put America in quotation marks in this post's title in recognition of the illusory, fantasized "America" that this Miller ad promotes, but also to acknowledge the problems that many have pointed out with referring to the United States as "America." I try to avoid using "American" that way, but I've yet to refer to a person with U.S. citizenship as a "United Statesian."

Back in 1986, Rachel F. Weller declared herself a United Statesian in the pages of the New York Times, because, she wrote, the word American "implies an unbecoming arrogance on the part of one segment of the vast Western Hemisphere." Obviously, her example hasn't caught on in the ensuing decades, but again, given the existence of other Americas, it makes sense that so-called Americans should be calling themselves something else instead.

[Here's one more stark example of common white United Statesian conceptions of white people as the best representatives for "America" in other countries ; it's a 22-second snippet from FOX News -- which I can't figure out how to embed here -- that took place during last summer's Olympics.]


  1. In another country I've lived in (which shall remain nameless), it is common practice to ask Americans of other races, where they are from. If you answer "the U.S." they ask, "I know, but where are you REALLY from?"

  2. I'll agree this is true in most cases, but I've seen several instances where, in Japanese media, Americans are depicted as black.

    I don't believe this is exceptional - in fact, it's almost invariably depicted as such, particularly when the American in question is a member of the military. And scenes from American cities in anime and manga are often placed in inner-city neighborhoods not unlike a stereotypical turn-of-the-1980s Bed-Stuy.

    I believe that this is to effectively exoticize Americans further, which advances the Japanese self-perception of whiteness vis-a-vis the occidental Other.

    My intention by bringing this up wasn't to derail your point, which I agree with entirely. But I think that in some cases, foreigners imagine Americans to be "primal" and "emotional" nonwhites, just as readily as white Americans market themselves to foreigners as somehow especially representative of the United States.

  3. Jillian wrote,

    In another country I've lived in (which shall remain nameless), it is common practice to ask Americans of other races, where they are from. If you answer "the U.S." they ask, "I know, but where are you REALLY from?"

    Makes sense -- twisted sense -- given the centrality of whiteness to "American" identity. Btw, it happens in the U.S. too, of course.

  4. Did the marketing people at Miller and at the ad agency come up with this all-white-people ad because they're racists who malevolently don't want to represent the reality of how diverse the US is to the vietnamese?

    Or is it because their experience in advertising to the vietnamese tells them that they will sell the most beer if they use this sort of imagery?

  5. I second what Jillian said. I'm black and was asked where I'm really from in England, something black Americans are rarely asked at home. Moreover, in the States, I've had Asian American and Latino friends refer to someone as American. Whenever they said, "American," they meant "white." I would then remind them that they are American, too.

  6. Vick, why set up a straw man like that? Who's claiming the makers of the ad are malevolent racists? (A: no one.)

    As the post suggests, the choice of all-white peeps for the ad is a function of what your second question suggests. It will probably help to sell more beer, probably because a lot of Vietnamese minds are already infected with the idea of white as right, as the favored status.

    But your questions are really off the mark. They're off the POINT. As other commenters here are already noting, the setting up of whites as the real Americans in ALL KINDS of exported American culture furthers the idea that whites are the real Americans. And that idea is not only false; it has all sorts of pernicious effects.

    You need to think more deeply about things!

  7. Reminds me of a discussion I was having with a white friend a few days ago. I asked him to imagine the "all american" boy, or "all american" girl.

    Of course, the image he had was of white children. It was even vintage, like a Norman Rockwell painting. From the good ol' days when racial minorities kept their mouths shut.


    If "American" is coded language for "white" here, I guess I'm not surprised that it means the same thing when marketing products abroad.

  8. AE -

    Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like you're saying that the creators of the ad aren't racists. Okay. I agree with you - I bet they aren't too.

    But then you claim that a lot of vietnamese are victims of a "white is right infection" - whatever that is.

    Now suppose you're right - that a lot of vietnamese are infected with a "white is right infection" (still not sure what that is) - isn't it racist, or at least malevolent, of the ad's creators to take advantage of this infected state? *laughs*

    Anyway, I actually think you're on the right track with this idea of an "infection," I just think you're expressing it poorly. Further, I don't think you can understand this ad without addressing the INTENDED AUDIENCE, the vietnamese themselves... you know, those non-white people barely mentioned AT ALL in the original post.

  9. I use the term United Statesian.

  10. I've said "American" for lack of a better adjective, but also "from the U.S." or "from the States" because I know "America" is not just the U.S. I've then been surprised when the non-U.S. people also use "American." Admittedly my sample size is small.

  11. Katy -

    "I've then been surprised when the non-U.S. people also use "American."

    I'm in Brasil right now, and everyone here uses the term "americana" or "americano" to described someone from the US.

    I wouldn't be surprised if most of the world considers "American" to mean "from the USA" unless otherwise specified.

  12. United Statesian could be applied to Mexicans, too -- they are the United States of Mexico.

  13. I get the point of why people don't care for the term American - but a totally awkward term United Statesian isn't the answer to that problem. I'd prefer to work toward changing the common perception (privilege?) that American = white. Are there other terms out there to describe the whole lot of us?

    Of course an ad like this one doesn't help in that effort. It actually seems lazy to me as well. I wonder if they have real market research that shows them this type of approach works. Are the producers of the ad suggesting that Vietnamese beer drinkers are too stupid to understand that America is diverse?

  14. "I'll agree this is true in most cases, but I've seen several instances where, in Japanese media, Americans are depicted as black."
    Japan seems to only have 2 popular conceptions of Americans: blue-eyed and blond-haired (almost always female, usually with very large breasts) or a black man.

    I assume we use the term "American" because we're the only country (as far as I can recall offhand) that has "America" in its actual name...

  15. Nadra said...
    I second what Jillian said. I'm black and was asked where I'm really from in England, something black Americans are rarely asked at home."

    That's interesting, because I'm black American and I always have Americans (white and black) asking me where I'm from and then when I tell them I'm from the US, they ask "where are your parents from?"

  16. Um, as far as I know there is not a single place in the entire world where citizens of the USA are not called Americans. When everybody else, including Canadians, Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Brazilians - in other words, all the people who might have a reason to dispute the USA's appropriation of the term "American" - calls you American, it's pretty nonsensical to call yourself United Statesian.

    It's also completely meaningless. "United States" is not the identifying part of the country's name: "America" is. There is a United States of Mexico, and a United States of Micronesia. Universal habit (and the idea that language is most useful when it actually facilitates communication) dictates that people from these places are commonly known as Mexicans and Micronesians. We do not call British people United Kingdomians. We do not call South Africans Republicans. We do not call Europeans Unionians. I don't see that there is any sense in trying to change this.

    Seriously, there are about a million things more worth fighting for than this idea that the name "America" doesn't truly describe this country.

    Now, the main content of this post - the point that this ad agency is selling America as "white only" - really is deplorable. (This would be one of the million things more worth fighting for.) Yes, it's a slanted version of Americanness they're selling here. I think it ties into an issue that we can all agree on here - that America is racist. America, for a LOT of people around the world, is a racist country where white people exploit people of all other races. Unfortunately, this stereotype happens to be true. If we want the stereotype to change, we have to change the reality first. When we have changed American society to a degree where anti-racism discussions are no longer necessary, we will also have eliminated the global perception of America as a white country.

    (Um, yeah. Who here thinks that's going to happen real soon now?)

    I also have to ask, do Vietnamese people actually want to drink American beer? Everywhere I've ever been, the Miller/Budweiser/Coors-type American beer is reviled as tasteless, watery swill. I've always thought of it as one of those things like baseball, that we stubbornly keep trying to export in spite of the fact that hardly anyone anywhere else in the world is interested. Or is there really a Vietnamese market for Miller beer?

    ALSO also, I notice that a lot of the comments on the Adweek page for this ad are saying that the ad is primitive, behind the times, a total misinterpretation of the Vietnamese market, and a huge waste of Miller's money. None of them point out the white bias in it, but at least they're agreeing that it's a ludicrous fantasy.

  17. I live in Turkey and most of the commercials for American products on Turkish-language channels are done in Turkish with Turkish actors. Occasionally there will be a commercial that is dubbed, usually for home or baby care products, which are often show AA and white actors (rarely AsAM or HA). I'd say 60% of the time there will be one non-white actor. A few show only AA actors.

    On the American channels (VH1, MTV, CNN International) we get the ads targeted towards Europe. You are less likely to see non-white actors in American product commercials on these channels, but American products are also a tiny fraction of the advertisements.

    @ Jillian
    Folks here ask everyone this. What I think is interesting if you are AA and say "US" or "American" there are no more questions, but for all other groups the questions don't stop until you say where your family immigrated from.

  18. As a black American living abroad, I too can attest to what Jillian is saying. I live in London and often people ask me where I'm from (not so unusually given my strong American accent). Most of the time when I say I'm from the US, folks accept it and move on to another question. However, I've had more than a handful of English folks follow up that question with "But where are you from originally?" When I explain that I was born in the US, the inevitable followup question is "Yes, yes but where are your parents from originally?" When I proceed to explain that my parents were also born in the US, the questioner generally continues going down the family line asking "Where are your XXXX from originally?" until I finally stop them and explain that my family has been in the US for a very, very long time, so that we are in fact American...normally this ends the questions, but it's meet with a mixture of disbelief and surprise. One nice English lady I had this same conversation with suddenly stopped mid-question and started apologising profusely afraid that she had deeply offended me by her questions.

    I'm never offended when folks in the UK or when I travel ask me "where I'm from originally" after I tell them I'm American. After all, to a large degree the media image of Americans overseas is still very white. How can I expect someone who's never been to the US and is only relying on what they see in American exported media to know and understand the racial diversity of what it is to be American?

    Even while travelling in Africa and I spoke with folks who didn't believe I was American, despite my solidly American accent and very American dress style and despite my assertions that I, my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, my great great grandparents, etc were in fact born and raised in the US. The same thing happened while I was in Asia. On a recent trip to Italy, my (white) friend and I had a conversation with a very nice Italian nun who was shocked to realise that my friend and I met in primary school (not university, as she assumed) and that we were both American. I still suspect she thinks I'm African. In many parts of the world, "American" is so intertwined with "white" that when confronted with someone who is American, but not white a lot of folks can't process that.

    The Miller ad is not blatantly racist, but it does conform to the idea of "America/Americans=white". In that ad, it looks like the "young urbanites" are in New York...seriously, there are no young, hip, nonwhite urbanites in New York? Having lived there before I can definitely say that's not the case. Ads like this, along with TV shows like Friends (again, seriously no minorities in NYC? what alternate universe were they living in?), simply serve to further underpin the image of America overseas as white.

    Sorry for the long, rambling post, but as a pseudo-expat and frequent traveller, this is definitely something I've come across quite often so it's a topic of great interest to me.

  19. I get the point of why people don't care for the term American - but a totally awkward term United Statesian isn't the answer to that problem. I'd prefer to work toward changing the common perception (privilege?) that American = white. Are there other terms out there to describe the whole lot of us?

    Hmmm, my understanding of the reason why 'American' for US nationals is controversial isn't about America suggesting whiteness, it's that America is the continent, and therefore for US citizens to call themselves American speaks of a kind of cultural appropriation of the term - a Brazilian, Canadian, etc, is just as much American (from the Americas) as someone from Chicago.

    That is the reasoning why I've avoided using the term American to refer to US citizens: At The F-Word, which I edit, style is to say "US citizens", or "people in/from the US" rather than "Americans".

    It's quite a long-standing issue - I'm not sure where I first heard of this, I think it's something my father originally explained, but via Wikipedia I found this article from 1947 proposing some alternatives.

  20. Yes, it's a slanted version of Americanness they're selling here.


    LOL. Was this a joke, or a poor choice of words?

  21. @ ABC in L - I agree, it definitely hits the "urban-hip-white-rich-young" notes a la Friends. I wonder how diverse beer commercials are in the US? I've been out many years, but as far as I remember all the beer commercials were mostly white, mostly young, etc..

    I'd love it if someone who spent time in Vietnam could comment on what the rest of the advertising spectrum looks like.

  22. Jess

    Referring to Canadians as "Americans", even if you mean "of the Americas" rather than "of America" (and fuck, referring to "the Americas" as "America") is likely to be taken as very offensive. A lot of the Canadian (especially anglo-Canadian, probably especially white anglo-Canadian, especially Ontario & the West) identity is fraught with concern over what differentiates us from Americans.

  23. "
    But then, these people aren't just white, are they?"

    No, they're not "just" white. They are upper-middle class whites.

    As usual.

  24. I'm probably unique, but when I think of "All American", I don't think--"Rockwellian" blond blue eyed white people; I equate that with Whiteness, which to me doesn't epitomize America. I am a minority, but I am American from the USA. I can not stand when people ask where I am really from, my father who is also a minority, but with white skin never gets that question, but me, short and brown-- always-- where are you really from? Not cool.

  25. Yes, referring to Canadians as "Americans" is generally offensive to Canadians, including non-Anglo Canadians. It's because Americans often claim Canada as its "51st state" and have other ideas about the United States owning Canada, or Canada being an inferior version of the United States, etc.

  26. I'm curious about the 'where are you from originally' question.

    Firstly I'm really surprised Brits would ask black Americans that question, given that I'd have thought most people would be perfectly well aware of the history of how most black Americans came to be in that country (after all Britain was shamefully deeply involved in that history), and the fact they've been there since the very beginning of that nation. Its not as if black American culture hasn't had a huge impact across the English-speaking world.

    But if people have had that experience, I can't argue otherwise - clearly some of my compatriots aren't nearly as knowledgeable about the outside world or their own history as I thought. For other US POCs though I find it less surprising, as most aren't nearly as visible to the outside world as either black or white Americans.

    I'm not 100% convinced it wouldn't equally well happen the other way round though. If a European POC went to the US, would they not encounter the same question? American black people in America aren't going to be asked it, sure, but the real parallel would surely be a European POC visiting the US?

    This has happened to me, though I'm only 1/4 south asian, and to all intents and purposes am 'white'. I don't find it offensive (probably because I'm basically 'white'), and its only ever citizens of one particular country who seem to notice I'm not 100% European. I'm not mentioning the country because it seems unfair to generalise from about a dozen people (though its not the US), but I do wonder if they have a particularly strong stereotype there of what an English person should look like.

    Also, is there any significance in the fact this Miller ad features yuppy types, while the Budweiser ads I've seen in the UK all fetishise 'quirky' rural, working class Americans (all white, though I might not have seen all the ads), as if they are selling a certain kind of 'authenticity'?

    Is that a difference between Miller and Budwieser, a difference between what they think Brits and Vietnamese would find appealing about the US, or just a random decision of an ad company?

  27. High Life has about as much status as a quality beer as PBR does. Looks to me like they were just trying to show that it really is the "champagne of beers"

  28. To clarify, I would say the contention over the word American is a good reason not to use it to describe US citizens, I wouldn;t say it was a reason to apply it to anyone else who doesn't specifically identify with the term. One of the points of the critique is that the appropriation of the word American to describe USians is that it effectively stops others from using the term.

  29. the "America" comment isn't just reserved for non-US people. Have you all noticed that lately the rhetoric in the US has turned frighteningly subliminally raacist with the Health care and other debates where people are shouting they want "their America back." I mean really... what are they really saying. Sounds super racist and VERY WHITE to me!

  30. I tend to use "USAmerican" in writing, which I picked up from the work of Donald Carbaugh. Not perfect but a little shorter than writing citizen of the United States of America. And more specific than the general American that many of my students use in class.

  31. @ p - I think the reason I received the "where are you from/where is your family from originally?" question is because a good chunk of the non-white community actually know where they're family immigrated from. From my understanding, immigration from a sizable non-white population to the UK is fairly recent, only dating back to the 1950's or 1960's when Commonwealth citizens (who included Africans, Asians and South Asians) started immigrating in larger numbers. Before that, the UK was a very white country (and to be honest, in my travels I've noticed that, outside of London and larger cities like Birmingham or Manchester, it still is). Since the families of a lot of non-whites who are here immigrated within the 60 or so years, non-white Brits who were born in this country still know where they're family originally came from. I think when I encounter folks who ask me where I'm from/my family is from originally assume that Black Americans also have access to that same knowledge, although most of us (ie the ones who got to America through "forced" immigration like my ancestors) have no clue where their ancestors originated from. This is why I normally don't take offense when I'm asked the "where are you from originally" question (as I noted it has happened on every continent I've travalled to, save North America) and instead take it as an opportunity to give a brief history lesson on how America/Black Americans.

    I was actually having a conversation with a fellow Black American here in London about that very topic. At least as far as the black community in the UK, folks seem to identify themselves with either their country of origin or their family's country of origin. For example, "I'm English, but my family's Jamaican." Whereas Black Americans in the UK will just say "I'm American" without any additional qualifiers.

    I hope that clears up my comment.

  32. Ha, ha! I second Jillian on that. That's happened to me too! I thought it was to figure out my racial background, which to some people is ambiguous. I kind of don't mind, though. I have fun with, 'yeah, really, my parents are Americans too. Yeah and my grandparents.' I don't mind not being associated with stupid people in a beer commercial either, thank you very much. But it is true, what is the image of All-American? What does the 'real American' look like in the minds of Sarah Palin fans and people in that silly birther movement? This is the image that has been projected abroad, although, I will tell you many people have told me that I look American because of my smile.

  33. @American Black Chick in London

    That explanation makes sense. I just find it slightly surprising that, given how the "African American story" is so present in popular culture (I remember seeing Roots the miniseries on the BBC as a small child, for example) and how widely US news is reported here (far, far more so than anything from continental Europe), and how often that news involves a race-related issue, that anyone could not have at least _some_ idea of how 12% of the US population came to be black.

    I'd have, naively, expected the problem to be entirely the other way round, with 'new' black Americans being wrongly assumed to have the same history as the earlier ones - to me its the newer immigrant groups to the US that seem to me to be far less visible from outside.

    You are right though that Britain outside the big cities (and a few medium-sized towns up North) is overwhelmingly white. I think more than half the actual black British (as opposed to South Asians) live in London.

    I guess if you don't live in those areas you just don't have any reason to think about the topic.

  34. I can't think of anything off the top of my head in foreign media, but I would like to point out the -American terms for minorities - you never hear anyone saying "European American" or "Caucasian American" because they're simply "American" but Americans of other skin colors, even if their family has lived on US soil for 5 or 6 generations, always get hyphenated. My father immigrated to the US from Germany and since he has no "foreign" accent, he is never referred to as "German-American," he is just an American. A black person whose ancestors came over in the bloody 1600's and who has no more personal connection to Africa than I do, is still an "African-American."

    In the same vein of your post, the "Outback Steakhouse" commercials shown in the US are always a bunch of white Australians. As someone who lived there for over a year and is moving back there permanently in about a week and a half, I can say that while it is true that indigenous Australians make up a very small part of the population, they are there. And more importantly, Australia has a large percentage of East Asian and Indian immigrants and first or second generation Australians of Asian descent.

    As far as the name "American" goes, I really do see where you're coming from that the most powerful nation in the hemisphere has co-opted the name of both the continents in that hemisphere, but at the same time "American" is correct - "United States" is no more the formal name of the USA than "People's Republic" is of China - the nation name is found in the clause. "People's Republic of" is a descriptive term, so is "United States of" (and for that matter, "Confederate States of" - it might commonly be referred to in US history books as "the Confederacy" but overseas it's called "The American Confederacy" because "confederacy" as well as "united states of" can describe any nation that is either confederate, or broken up into states that are united). "United States of" just means that we have a lot of states, and they are united into one Federal nation (in this case the Federal nation "of America"), and I personally can't think of any other countries that use the word "America" in them (but I'm totally willing to be proven wrong here).

  35. If you don't like racism, stop using hyphenated American terms as identifiers. Be American first and last, regardless of your personal historic origins. No matter how many flavors there are, ice cream is ice cream and jellybeans are jellybeans. Yum.


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