In Namibia I toured a “traditional Himba village” with a group made up of mostly Europeans and a handful of Americans and Canadians. As our guide walked us from our campsite toward the village, we followed in near-complete silence—he offered little to shape our expectations for the experience. Along our walk, several Himba children—maybe nine-, ten-, eleven-years-old—approached us, grabbing our hands and alternating handshakes as they repeated words in their local language: moro; perivi; nawa. The word “moro” was accompanied by a grasp of the right hands, familiar to us Westerners as a handshake. With “perivi,” the grasp shifted so the thumbs entwined and one’s fingers curled around the back of the other hand. On “nawa,” the greeters returned to the original handshake. Down the line each child went, from tourist to tourist, repeating the handshakes and words: moro; perivi; nawa. Eventually our guide explained that the children were teaching us greetings in their local language: “moro” means “good day”; “perivi” is “how are you”; “nawa,” “I’m well.”
Eager to employ our new language skills, we tourists “explored” Himba culture—Himba community members approached us one by one, and in unison we parroted our new linguistic tools…moro; perivi; nawa; moro; perivi; nawa…
In unison, I say. At some point it occurred to me: none of us was actually engaging with these people in their local language. Rather, we aped back these phonemes—and participated in the equivalent of an interactive museum display. Push button, utter phrase, feel enriched by our newly acquired knowledge.
Thinking that I was more-thinking than my travel mates, I took initiative with one Himba resident as she approached me. Before she took the opportunity, I extended my hand saying, “Moro.” She shifted her grasp in rhythm, replying, “Perivi.” “Nawa,” I returned. My new acquaintance sized me up, nodded her head and gave me the slightest wink. I felt conceitedly triumphant—I got it, and I knew she knew I got it. I saw through the veneer of this “cultural experience” as a touristic construct—and was knowingly acknowledged by an insider.
Now I recognize that this Himba community had not only appropriated my American-capitalist culture, it had bested it. I come from Brand Culture, whose members are marked not by ethnic divisions, but by social-interaction-through-commodities. Whoever constructed this “traditional Himba village” recognized my Western-Consumption traditions of soundbite- and snapshot-driven social interaction. They also recognized how our practices produced tourists hungry for contact with the Authentic—in the process the members of this Himba community appropriated our parochial ideas of “African culture” and attempted to give us what we expected. Our fantasies were their most valuable resource.
So the Himba combined resources available to them—my Western/American post-colonialist imaginings of “traditional African culture” with my sound-bite information gathering habits and my hunger for some Authentic social interaction.
Though brilliant at first blush, the strategy failed this Himba community in a few ways. Several of us tourists (as a very small social network) reflected on our tour as pretentious, belying the promises of Authentic experience with something called Himba. We judged the Himba residents to be exploited cogs in the Himba revenue-generation machine, and several of us bristled at how we were invited to participate in that construct. In the process both Himba and Tourist were objectified: Himba as museum piece, Tourist as Culture Consumer. Despite our well-developed practices of objectifying commodities and relationships, I think we Westerners were the more offended at being objectified.
But we don’t seem to recognize this contradiction with our own marketing and media, and marketers seem slow to capitalize on true relationship building. In recent years several ad campaigns attempted to engage with audience members by offering a veil of Authenticity—Unilever’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” (for the Dove brand) springs to mind. Despite positive feedback from many online bloggers and YouTube posters, several railed against the campaign’s pretentious manipulation of people’s ideas of beauty. Even as the Dove ads appear to challenge beauty standards, many people pointed out how the Campaign is contradictory within itself. Even as they purport to challenge American cultural beauty standards, ads like Evolution and Onslaught were criticized by several on-line posters for further objectifying and manipulating people’s beliefs, and shaping on-line social discussions for the benefit of the Campaign’s bottom line (several smart parodies made me crack a little smile). Our current marketing-communications efforts don’t reach out to people with resources to purchase as much as appease Consumers, who are objectified by quantifiable statistics and generalized by behavioral models. Similarly, the Himba didn’t relate with “people” as much as they did Tourists—just as we tourists didn’t relate to “people” as much as we did our fantasies of “traditional African culture.”
Maybe I’m wrong and the Himba succeeded much like the Dove campaign did: many marketers believe generating any kind of buzz is more productive for a brand than ensuring positive experiences. But I believe today, as people gain ever-increasing technological access and understanding for how ads and Brand Relationships are constructed, people will continue to question Authenticity in Brand Culture. Most people are savvy if not cynical about their relationships to brands—they recognize ways they’re constantly solicited for money without regard for their humanity. Perhaps if we asserted social values in equal weight with profit margins—as opposed to advancing commodities wrapped in the veneer of value sets for the sake of revenue generation—perhaps then we’d learn that (A)uthenticity doesn’t have to be a fabrication feeding a Bottom Line.