On Dorchester Ave in South Boston yesterday, we drove beneath a billboard for Bark Thins chocolate. Bark Thins is a brand owned by the Hershey Company of Pennsylvania; the billboard was owned by Clear Channel of San Antonio, Texas; and the advertisement team for this billboard was probably based in some New York or Los Angeles office. But the various proprietors and executives of these distant companies were at pains to let passersby know that Bark Thins are not just disgorged onto a world market and gobbled up by generic, placeless consumers everywhere; no, to the contrary, Bark Thins are a beloved standard of this regional community. “Bahk-Thins” is the correct pronunciation of this product in Boston, the big bold letters on the billboard informed us. Ah, yes. Just as one pahks one’s proverbial cah in the proverbial Hahvahd Yahd, so too does one purchase an ahmful of Bahk Thins at their local Stah Mahket, or whereva.
I find the “Hey, Bostonians, You Talk Funny, Please Buy Our Product” line to be one of the most grating examples of corporate pandering. It’s in the “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” category: cynical marketers pretending to be members of a regional community when in fact they care nothing more than to sell as many of the article at hand to as many people as will possibly buy it, with no interest whatsoever in the phonetics or the home addresses of the people handing over the cash. Corporations do not care whether you are spending dollars or dollahs or dawlers or dallaz, just so long as you are spending them often and in large quantities.
But however craven and obnoxious they may be, advertising teams are certainly not stupid, and there is a reason why they are persistently struggling to associate their products with some sentimental local quirk. And that reason is that people love to feel as they are distinctly attached to some place and its cultural idiosyncracies. In the swelling tide of global capitalism, people have grabbed on ever more tightly to the things that make them and their places special. When the Hershey Corporation and their advertising team winks at Bostonians’ R-lessness, they are trying to profit from this: isn’t it funny and cute that you have this special way of talking, and, by the way, why not buy some of what you people would delightfully call Bahk Thins?
We witness this not only on the lips of advertisers but also in the countless social-media offerings that promise the reader membership in some distinct regional culture. “Ten Things That Only People From The Upper Peninsula Will Understand.” “Fifteen Pictures Will Give That Every Worcester Kid The Feels.” “If You’re From Oregon, You’ll Say This One Word Differently From Everyone Else.” “Only True 802-ers Will Get What’s Going On In This Image.” And witness also the widespread popularity of T-shirts, stickers, posters, and so on that play on this yearning for regional specificity: outlines of one’s birth state enclosing the word “HOME,” city maps made up of disorted typography filling in each neighborhood name, and so on.
There is something both praiseworthy and pathetic about this impulse. On the one hand, of course we want to feel as though we belong to some unique place, some geography that, in its quirks and linguistic charms, is different from everywhere else, because we want to feel as though we do not live in a world flattened out with a valueless homogeneity. The globalization wrought by capitalism has been a globalization of a unbelievable sort—unbelievable not only for its shocking and directionless transformations, but also literally unbelievable because it has given us no lived sense of the world, no common feeling with our distant neighbors, and no institutions of social or economic solidarity, in which to believe. Against this, it makes perfect sense to invest ever more pride in our local sense of here-ness, in the characteristics of a regional culture which is tied to history and geography.
But what is pathetic about it is the way in which these regional yearnings are so utterly powerless to counterbalance the de-regionalizing forces against which they purportedly stand. In fact, they are not only powerless to stop these forces, but they end up totally co-opted by the placeless logic which drives our economic system. Thus the Pennsylvania company can sell its chocolate treats, probably manufactured in Mexico or elsewhere, with goods and labor culled from all around the world, on a billboard owned by a Texas company, by making a joke about Boston’s regional dialect.
The consequence is doubly dangerous. On the one hand, it tricks people into a kind of quietistic localism. If our economic system has tied together goods, people, and places into an interconnected mass, then we ought to begin imagining social and political institutions which match the mass which has been created. Labor organization, activisim, and cultural belonging should struggle to match the economic bigness which makes something like Bark Thins (or just about any commodity which is sold in today’s world) possible in the first place. But because we have been led to embrace a shriveled version of local and regional consciousness, we shy away from accepting and confronting the consequences of global-scale integration. Meanwhile, we do not even get any meaningful power from the localism or the regionalism with which we were distracted, no effective bulwark against the homogenization of economic life. What we get instead are distant corporations peddling their commodities under the guise of local pride. And regionalism itself gets defined ever downward until it has no content other than a marketing device: consider the Chesapeake regionalism that centers around Natty Boh, a consumer brand owned by Pabst, formerly of Milwaukee, now of Los Angeles, which in turn is owned by a San Francisco private-equity firm.
In many ways, I would prefer the marketing language of the big corporations of the mid-century—the Pan-Ams and IBMs and the like—insofar as they admitted to and embraced the ideals of bigness, uniformity, standardized placelessness, and technical efficiency. At least they were honest about the realities of mass commodification and corporate industrialism. When we revolted against the HAL-like tendencies of that era, all we got was a cheap and vacuous pandering to our local habits: a HAL which speaks in different accents depending on where it is.