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Rediff.com  » Business » Toying with capitalism

Toying with capitalism

February 19, 2004 10:50 IST

Not many adults in India seem to have noted with any concern or sadness that Barbie and Ken have split after being together for 43 years. It is however a major source of anguish and an unending source of discussion among children, especially girls.

For the record, Barbie and Ken, one of the world's prettiest pairs announced the break-up of their relationship, quite ironically, on Valentine's Day earlier this week.

In a statement, the couple's business manager, Mr Russel Aron said that Barbie and Ken felt that "it is time to spend some quality time apart." Media reports that it is a matter of great satisfaction for millions of young fans of the couple all around the globe, that the duo will continue to remain friends.

There have been rumours that the relationship was under some strain because of an Australian boogie boarder, Blaine. The two, it seems, have been displayed together on more than one shelf. These rumours have been officially denied.

What has been confirmed, however, is that Barbie is now single. Also, in order to reflect her new single status she will be seen wearing board shorts, a bikini top and metal loop earrings.

All this would have been confined to one of the many glamour rag gossip magazines but for the fact that Mr Russel Aron is the vice -president of marketing at Mattel and Barbie is the world's most famous doll who has been accused by feminist groups, of being responsible for young girls developing an unattainable sense of beauty. Ken is her plastic boyfriend.

If one were to step out of the mythical world of Barbie into the market for dolls, it becomes obvious that the spilt between the two 'icons' was engineered to push up sales and rejuvenate the flagging interest in the doll.

It is no coincidence that the 'news of split' comes around the same time as the new avatar of Barbie, Cali Barbie, is scheduled to arrive in stores.

The threat to the numero uno position of Barbie has come from Bratz, a line of dolls that have big lips and reflect the hip-hop culture. Apart from 'restructuring' Barbie, Mattel has also introduced a range called Flavas dolls to compete with Bratz.

Even a small marketing initiative like this one can, in a highly connected and integrated global market, have wide cultural ramifications across the globe. With the toy come a host of concealed values and beliefs that can ravage or go against local customs and cultures.

There have been issues about Barbie furthering a racial and gender stereotype image. Not that Barbie is the only one doing so or that it is confined to this character alone.

Phantom, the white man has for decades been presented as a saviour of pygmy-sized black men; Or Lothar the black prince who is flunky of white magician Mandrake is all brawn, while white Mandrake is all brain.

There is nothing new in the fact that images and imaginary characters have for many years furthered the western, imperialist or racist agenda in a very subtle manner.

In an evolutionary sense, these characters take life in a specific cultural context, go on to replicate it and then reach a stage where they legitimise the behavioural traits of that particular society.

The next stage, of course, is that these characters outgrow the social context and go on to influence and, in many ways, redefine the value system of the society in which they have originated.

With globalisation and integration of global markets, the cultural moorings and specificity of a created character are increasingly getting lost.

These characters, which are embodied cultural artifacts, get used as hypodermic models of cultural transmission through an apparently normal commercial activity into a completely different social context.

This transplantation is bound to cause a certain dissonance in the warp and weft of the cultural fabric of society in which it is made to operate.

This is not a case for not celebrating Valentine's Day a la the Shiv Sainkis. Instead, it is a case for understanding how multinational corporations are defining, replicating, reproducing and transmitting cultural values. By and large the tendency is to see them as pure business entities.

True, cultural transmission may not be their agenda. It is a by-product of their actions. It may not be the intent but it is certainly a consequence, precisely in the same way in which the exploitation of labour is never the intent but the consequence of capitalism.

It is easy to see that in the first stage such multinationals are marketers of a product, then they become marketers of an idea, then the marketers of a value system and finally a culture.

It is not die hard Marxism that makes one believe that multinationals and marketers are playing an important role in the decision-making process and the outcomes are way beyond the confines of their firm. It is turning out to be a practical reality.

While diplomacy and military force will continue to play their roles, it is the battle for hearts and minds and ideas fought in the nurseries that is paving the way for their long-term success and profitability.

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