Many years ago I lived and worked in Punjab, India, the robust and fertile northern state on the Pakistan border that is homeland to the Sikhs. Although India was exceedingly poor—far poorer than it is today (and despite their impressive economic gains, let’s not forget that there are still 400 million illiterate Indians and a large segment of the population without electrical power)—it was a magnificent, wonderfully vibrant country.
When I returned home I was surprised and disappointed by people’s attitudes toward India. While everyone knew the country was poor, they made the mistake of assuming India was “backward,” which it wasn’t. Moreover, all those fantastic tales of elephants, snake charmers, and monkey worshippers made them think the Indians were “primitive,” which they weren’t.
In fact, upon returning to California, I was instantly struck by two specific ways in which the Indians were not only not backward or primitive, but were demonstrably more “sophisticated” than we Americans were.
The first was the way Indians went about their merchandising. No Indian would be so gullible as to believe that an item marked $19.99 meant that it was selling for less than $20.00. The attempt simply wouldn’t work. Not only would they not be fooled by the pathetic arithmetic, they would be openly contemptuous of any merchant who resorted to such an insulting gimmick.
But we Americans fall for that weak-minded psychology. We are lured by the advertisement that boldly claims to sell something for “Less than twenty dollars!” even when we know that, after sales tax has been added, we’re going to be handing the clerk $22.00 and getting back a few cents in change. While we all know it’s a come-on, we respond to it like Pavlov’s dogs.
I can tell you that, based on what I observed while I was there, no self-respecting Indian—peasant or city dweller—could look at a $19.99 price tag without laughing not only at the naked transparency of the ruse, but at the audacity behind it. In New Delhi, customers were too sophisticated and shrewd to be influenced by so infantile a device. Shirts were marked Rs=20 (twenty rupees), and books sold for Rs=7. No tricks, no gimmicks, just straightforward business.
The second thing was their relationship to name brands. You could get city Indians to pay a couple of rupees for a nice, decorative ceramic mug with, say, a flower design on it, or a rainbow, but no way in hell could you get them to pay for a mug with a company’s label on it. Why in the name of Lord Krishna would they pay for a coffee mug with “Starbucks” plastered on it?
The same with T-shirts. If Heineken were giving away T-shirts with their name on it, most Indians would gladly accept them. In an ideal world Heineken would be paying these people—paying them to walk around like human billboards, advertising Heineken beer. But because India is a poor country, and free apparel is free apparel, no one’s going to quibble about wearing a little free advertising.
And that’s where Indians draw the line. Unlike Americans, who proudly pay for the right to walk around sporting brand names, no Indian is going to pay a company to advertise its product. That would be nonsensical. It’s one thing for Starbucks to ask them to accept a free coffee mug—in order to take it to work and show it around—but expecting them to buy the damn thing with their own money would be ridiculous.
Yet, America’s retailers have convinced us to do exactly that, and to do it willingly, gleefully. They’ve gotten us consumers to pay for the privilege of advertising their products. Say what you will, but that kind of mindless subservience seems a bit “backward”—even compared to monkey worship.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org