Globalization as invention of desire
By Roshanak Keyghobadi
March 5, 2002
An ad for a Sony cellular phone appeared in a daily Iranian newspaper in
the summer of 2001. In the ad, six young men, in different poses, are looking straight
into the camera with smiles on their faces. There is also a picture of a cell phone
with the message on the display screen of the phone: "Lets Party".
copy in Persian reads:
"What makes them different is what they have in common. Join the J5 generation.
They are up to date. They are successful. They are from Internet and dot-com generation.
They are calm and relaxed. J5 is bringing them closer together.
Don't mistake their self-confidence for arrogance and don't be jealous of them. Join
them by purchasing a J5.
Sony CMD-J5, Excellent way for communication."
On the left corner of the ad, "Digital Dream Kids" is
printed in unobtrusive letters. There is also detailed information on the web site,
phone number and address for representative of Sony in Iran.
In the first encounter, the ad seems like a picture of a "new", calm
and relaxed generation which is too sophisticated to be uptight or, unlike the "old"
generation, to be worried about what actually is going on around it. It is the picture
of a cool generation that has its own world which surpasses the logic of the "old"
generation caught in the daily agitations and struggles.
The optics of the ad, while seemingly depicting a "new" generation of
Iranians, points to the invisible structure of assumptions that not only mark the
way the "new" is manufactured but, more importantly tell us a great deal
about Iranian society today.
In his book, Seeing Films Politically, Mas'ud
Zavarzadeh (1) theorizes a reading strategy that he calls "renarration".
He uses renarration as part of a larger project of "ideology critique"
but the technique can be deployed more broadly to unpack some of the basic rhetorical
and textual devices which are used in ads to manufacture reality and then represent
the manufactured as depiction "natural" reality.
For example, by renarrating a painting,one can reveal the ideological and cultural
meaning of it and demonstrate how the aesthetic in fact is itself a rhetorical means
for social and cultural logics. Renarration, in short, goes beyond "how"
an ad or any other cultural text works and focuses on "why" it does what
In renarration and re-viewing of this ad, I would like, therefore, not only to
explain WHAT is displayed and advertised by means of this image and HOW it actually
works to persuade the viewer, but WHY. What are the other possible meanings that
are imbedded in the ad? How are the advertisers using diverse cultural codes and
signs to construct meaning and create a "reality" for the readers?
To understand the ways in which the implied reader makes sense of the ad, one
must first sort out the semiotic and cultural codes involved and then, by relating
them to each other discover the underlying logic of the text. Having pointed up its
cultural logic, it will then become possible to show the cultural codes that work
in the underground of the text. Otherwise, each code would seem autonomous.
The ad shows a group of young men who are in their late Teens or early 20s. They
are represented with the familiar visual cultural codesˇdark hair, dark complexion
and typical features which qualify them as Iranian men (or Middle eastern men in
general). They are, by local standards, well dressed in colorful and clean shirts,
pants and brand new shoes which are all codes of their affluence and class status.
All six look casual and care free and also in the latest Western fashion which
is the code for being worldly and cool. The body language of men suggest an
ease with the physical which is one of the marks of their "cool" ness and
sharply separates them from the average Iranian youth is much more formal and "stiff"
in handing his body. Their smiles portray all six as having fun, a contrast to the
norm of cultural seriousness. They all look straight into the camera which emphasizes
their self confidence.
But perhaps the most obvious transgression of dominant codes of behavior and assertion
of the defiant upper class values represented in the ad is the seductive urging of
desire, "Lets Party".
The ad obtains its cultural authority and winning rhetoric by drawing on the present
social conditions in Iran which privileges male. But to do what the ad urges the
readers to do it is not enough to be male, one has to be also part of the affluent
The traditional Iranian culture regards self-effacement in social life a virtue.
It is thus quite different from the business culture of the West. The "Iranian
J5 Generation" breaks this traditional code. It depicts the young men in the
ad as self-asserting and almost aggressive. Self-assertion (e.g. looking directly
to the camera and casual handling of the body) implies that owning the phone sets
them apart from the shy, diffident and quiet naïve youth.
The phone, the ad implies, has turned them into TransIranian, cosmopolitan men
and made them different. Owning the phone, the ad implies,
puts them in mastery of the daily life because there are only few who can also own
the phone and thus compete with them. The phone makes sure that they have no serious
rivals. They are therefore calm and relaxed assured of their superiority.
These young men are clearly part of a different class separate from the majority
of young Iranian men who are working day and night and still are having difficulty
to make ends met. In contrast to the lonely, hard working young men, the six in the
ad are not only relaxed but are connected to their friends who also have cell phones.
The cell phone in other words creates a virtual community
that puts them above and beyond the lonely crowd and from which those who do not
have a cell phone are excluded. But the ad conceals the fact that owning a cell phone
in Iran is a class matter. It promises community and connectivity by having a phone
and makes having a phone a matter of personal choice rather than a limit put on young
people by their class status. Class is represented as a lifestyle and not as an economic
The reality of the ad is constructed not just by what it says, but also, and perhaps
more importantly by its "un-said". The "un-said," for example
of gender. There are no young women in this group. Is it because generally women
are financially dependent on men and most of them can not afford the phone? Or is
it because the image of a financially powerful, care free and relaxed woman will
completely destroy the image the ad is attempting to convey to a male-dominated society?
What makes a "woman" the counter-code that has to be muted and erased
in the ad? Women, just like underprivileged classes of Iranian society cannot be
depicted in the ad without completely changing its meaning and its implied audience.
Woman is the "other" is the discursive universe of the ad.
Reality in the "Iranian J5 Generation" text is constructed by the prevailing
semiotic codes that reveal other aspects of contemporary Iranian society that the
ad conceals. The image of success and wealth in the ad, points to other implied values.
According to these codes those who posses objects (cell phone, for example) are not
only well-off but more importantly, psychologically part of a different generationˇthey
are self-asserting and not shy to display and express their desires.
They are worldly, enjoy life and at the very center of everything. These are all
new values in Iranˇthey are values of a transnational business culture that in fact
acts to de-nativize the "J5 Generation" and make them ˇ by inventing new
desires for themˇ part of transnational consumer community . "J5 Generation"
is the first global generation in Iran that acquires its identity not by nationality
but by commodities that it owns.
Consequently in Iran today, more and more people are
after more "stuff" even the majority of Iranian people who can not afford
it and are under immense economic hardship. Most expensive houses, latest model cars,
designer cloths, sneakers, appliance Íall, buy people class, prestige and respect.
If you walk in a store with your cell phone in your hand, everyone makes you the
"center" of their attention and rushes to help you. The image is so seductive
that phone robbing (2) has become rather common. The thieves
are stealing not just a phone but the "image" and they put the image on
sale just like the ad executives at Sony.
A "Held Back Country" (3)
such as Iran with its growing young population and its thirst for modernity, offers
companies such as Sony their "dream" (4) market. Pages
of Tehran newspapers and magazines, city billboards and TV programs are saturated
by ads for products from LG, BRAUN, TEFAL, ROWENTA, NOKIA, PANASONIC, SAMSUNG.
They all manufacture a "new" reality and produce "new" desire.
In Iran and many other countries, globalization works as a set of strategies for
constructing desire and deploying of these desires to produce "new" subjects.
The shopping subject who finds its identity by denouncing the traditional habits
of parsimony and self-containment and by going to the mall.
The most visible marks of globalization in Iran is the emergence of the new shopping
subject that is contemptuous of the traditional culture of need and instead embraces
the culture of desire. Globalization is the local desire for global goods; it is
the regime of cool commodities.
The debates in Iran among intellectuals is not very different from what has dominated
the discourses of the West: does "shopping"ˇ by articulating desire ˇ have
a liberatory dimension? Is it in fact an active resistance? Or the very idea of shopping-as-resistance
itself is invented by corporate theorists to justify globalization?
On the other level, the debate is whether one should critique only the creators
of these messages or extend the critique to those who respond to these ads and messages?
Is the critique of native desire undemocratic or is it in fact assertion of democracy
against the discursive machinery of transnational business?
Roshanak Keyghobadi: is an Assistant Professor
at State University of New York - Farmingdale, where she teaches visual communications
and graphic design.
1. Masu'd Zavarzadeh, 1991. Seeing Film Politically.
Albany: State University of New York Press. To top
2. Similar to murders in the USA for a pair of NIKE sneakers. To
3. I prefer to address what Westerners call "Third World Countries" as
"Held Back Countries". To top
4. Is this why these young consumers are called "Digital Dream Kids"? To top