As one toy-company executive put it in the early '90s, "The color of money is green, and you get it from whatever skin tone has got it." Accordingly, with the annual buying power of minority customers exceeding $1 trillion, U.S. companies now spend $2 billion each year on advertising specifically designed to attract and engage these "New American" consumers. Who are they? More importantly, who do they think they are? And how are they expressing that self-identification through what they buy? In Shopping for Identity
, Marilyn Halter explores these and other questions with an academic's critical eye and illustrates her research with an engaging variety of statistics, examples, and anecdotes.
Until well into the second half of the 20th century, America was seen as a cultural melting pot. Immigrants were expected to assimilate into the mainstream culture, and cultural pluralism wasn't officially recognized, let alone encouraged. That changed significantly with the passing of the Ethnic Heritage Act of 1974, which contributed to the growth of "ethnic celebrations, a zeal for genealogy, increased travel to ancestral homelands, and great interest in ethnic artifacts, cuisine, music, literature, and, of course, language." At the same time, corporate America began moving away from mass marketing and toward segmented marketing techniques, and these newly demonstrative ethnic constituencies quickly became one of the most targeted and profitable marketing segments. Multicultural marketing experts have proliferated and act as their companies' in-house ethnographers, learning and responding to the cultural nuances of their audiences. At the same time, ethnicity in itself is becoming increasingly optional and malleable, as individuals choose to take on certain identifying aspects of their cultural group while rejecting others. Halter's book poses some interesting questions: How does commercialism both enhance and make a commodity of ethnic identification? And what is authentic ethnic identification? Consider the non-Jewish. fourth-generation Irish leader of the organization for fostering Yiddish culture and education, who has immersed himself in living and promoting a Yiddish identity; or the way that certain ethnic peculiarities have become so ingrained in the culture that they've lost their obvious differences. Demonstrating the extent of cultural hybridism in the U.S., Halter quotes a Newsweek article as stating that "As the United States' Muslim community grows, so does the availability of halal products and pro-Islam tchotchkes." The Yiddish term for knickknacks hardly seems appropriate for pro-Islamic merchandise, and yet today's cultural hybridism often blinds us to such ironies.
Halter's extensive research calls attention to these everyday marketing techniques, which no longer seem strange in our pick-and-choose cultural milieu. In its examination of how Americans express their ethnicity in and through a commodity-driven, consumer culture, Shopping for Identity is a revealing study of how far we have come from the days when Margaret Mead could pronounce that "Being American is a matter of abstention from foreign ways, foreign food, foreign ideas, foreign accents." As Halter shows us, money does indeed talk in many different languages; her examination of both sides of the ethnic dollar is informative, provocative, and surprisingly entertaining. --S. Ketchum
From Publishers Weekly
Black Barbies, a Northwest Orient advertisement urging Irish-Americans to fly to Dublin to "find their roots" and a Tetley Tea campaign suggesting that American Jews "think Yiddish" but "drink British" are only recent examples of advertisers' attempts over the last century to target consumers by appealing to their sense of ethnic and racial identity. In this highly engaging study, Halter (an associate professor of history at Boston University) traces the complicated history of ethnicity and consumption in the U.S. While the "melting pot" paradigm has been accepted with very little critique, Halter argues that such wholesale assimilation has never really occurred. She posits instead that individuals and groups have always tried to become Americans without losing the specificity of their ethnicityAa reality that is reflected in the marketing of consumer goods. While she focuses on how Alex Haley's Roots (1973) and the 1974 congressional Ethnic Heritage Act (which funded "initiatives that promote... distinctive cultures and histories") spurred the embrace of ethnic identity, Halter also documents that embrace in such fascinating occurrences as an 1895 article, "The Negro in Advertising," which ran in the advertising journal Printer's Ink, and a 1913 Proctor and Gamble campaign for kosher Crisco shortening that began: "The Hebrew Race Has Been Waiting 4,000 Years." Halter deftly conveys the sweep of her findings without ever glossing over her intriguing examples. Her refreshingly radical examination of U.S. history is an important addition to both cultural and ethnic studies. (Sept.)
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